I wouldn’t say that it’s come to fisticuffs, my love of punctuation, but I did once leave a job over the semicolon.
The mighty yet humble semicolon!
I fell in love with punctuation while in school for court reporting. My instructor, Miss Sedentary (not her real name), was from another era. Her fingers were stained yellow from the Viceroys that were never far from her side. She pushed her "uppers" around with her tongue when she was nervous. She uttered the phrase “if that makes any sense” – as in “You’ll need to differentiate the attorneys early in the goings, if that makes any sense” - at least a dozen times a day.
She taught us punctuation, however; and for that, I am grateful.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know everything about punctuation. For example, I do not use the “en” dash or the “em” dash. I’m not even sure what they’re for. They sound fast, though; and I like that.
But the semicolon? Cross the fingers on your right hand and take a look. You see that? That’s me and the semicolon.
After I finished school, I worked in Central Wisconsin for a court reporting firm: depositions, per diem work in the courts. The firm I worked for was owned, in part, by a man who believed that “eh”, as in “Nice day, eh?” was spelled “aye”. He also left me a memo regarding a “passed do note”.
He was also vehemently anti-semicolon. We had butted heads over it in the passed, ha ha. He felt they were unnecessary and had no value.
No value?! How could he say that?
And so it came to pass that I had pages and pages of deposition of a man who spoke almost exclusively in sentences in which the semicolon figured prominently.
- “Yes, sir; and then I swung the frying pan at her head.”
- “The truth of the matter is that I mixed it into my pop; sprinkled it over pizza; and, on one occasion, added it to a bottle of scented oil.”
- “I left the room; and when I got back, she was waiting for me behind the door with a cricket bat. I have no idea where she got that bat.”
“What the hell are you doing?!” my boss bellowed. “Who can read this?! You take it home, you take those @#$!@ing semicolons out of there!”
“But it’s how it was taught to me! It’s right!”
He pushed a blunt index finger in my face. “You'll do it the way I say! You’ll do it right, right now – tonight! – or you’ll resign right now. You hear me?!”
I fixed it. And then I quit.
It was a ridiculous stand to take, I realize this now. The semi-colon in semi-question was not the only factor that drove me out of Central Wisconsin; but it seemed, somehow, incredibly important, at the time, that I follow the rules, if only in punctuation, to the letter.
This sort of thing happens to me quite a bit, this need to stand pat when convinced I’m right. I may not be able to point myself North without the aid of a compass or reliably replace your spark plug wires, but I damn-sure know the things I know.
If that makes any sense.