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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I Shot Myself in Reno, Just to Watch Me Die

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”.

Passed do?

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.

For example:

  • “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.

31 comments:

Kavi said...

The semi-colon and such other Punctuation marks were legendary puncture techniques !

That people practiced too. My teachers were from another era too. I remember we had to write an essay on the subject, 'Road Repair' and i wrote the same lines.

'Go Slow. Work in Progress"
'Go. Slow Work in progress"

And left it at that. Ofcourse, i was given 'punishment' for one full term. Period !

Sigh !

The Jules said...

You had principles, that was the main thing. Poor, destitute, no-longer-paid principles.

I had a similar episode in an old job which required me to write articles for a trade mag. My boss (a retentive, academic idiot) hated split infinitives, and would try and change mine even though I actually like them.I used to correct them back for publication. He was most put out when they became acceptable in writing, probably thanks to Star Trek's 'to boldly go'.

I once left him a note saying I liked to infinitively split things.

ellen abbott said...

I understand the whole standing firm when you think you are right, even if you are wrong. I do that a lot. However, punctuation is a relatively new development in the written word. It wasn't so long ago that no punctuation was used at all.

IB said...

I have tried to write 4 comments to this post but I am frozen by a new fear of punctuating incorrectly.

ugh.

SPEAKING FROM THE CRIB said...

i wish someone had taught me better punctuation or that i remembered it from 2nd grade

CatLadyLarew said...

Punctuation and I are strangers. I was put into an "accelerated class" the year they usually taught sentence diagramming. Which means I missed that more seemingly mundane information. Guess they thought we "accelerated" students would just get it through osmosis as we read the classics. As a result, I'm terrible with punctuation. Especially commas, colons & semi-colons. (And I hate to think about how many mistakes I just made in this comment.) Please don't take me to court over my errors!

Oh My Goddess said...

It's important to stand firm in our beliefs; that we uphold the laws of grammar.

Miss Viceroy would have been proud; would have put down her smoke to applaud your gumption.

Ms Sparrow said...

This reminds me of a quote from the columnist, Jimmy Breslin. He once commented that the "Son of Sam" serial killer was "the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use the semicolon".

(Just sayin')

Douglas said...

I have no idea exactly how to use the semi-colon. In fact, I used to think "semi-colon" was a polite way of referring to that truck driver who nearly ran you off the road. I still can't get it... even after reading your eloquent post. It may be that I felt awkward reading it; that a semi-colon, or two, seemed oddly placed.

I learned to pause briefly at a comma and wait a couple of beats at a semi-colon. I was stumbling all over the place at your examples.

Not that I am trying to correct you...

Kr√ęg said...

"I helped my oldest uncle, Jack, off the horse."

Punctuation is important. Unless you want to go to jail for horse buggery.

jenny said...

Like CatLadyLarew, I was put in an advanced class and must have missed the explanations and definitions of punctuation and grammar. To this day, if you were to ask me for the definition of 'verb' or 'noun', I would not be able to tell you. It's all over my head, I'm afraid.

A classmate once asked me to correct her paper. I did and her paper was left covered with red marks when I was done. When she asked why, all I could say was: "I don't know why, I just know they're wrong." She turned in her original paper and received an 'F'. So there.

Lynn said...

Passed do!
Now that's funny.

I don't often cringe at punctuation. I cringe over their, there, they're;
You're your;
and passed past!!!

I once found a greeting card that said, "Your not old,..."
I used it as a teaching too for my 3rd graders.

Pearl said...

Oh, you guys are too funny.

And just as an side, I do know semicolons, but I do not know grammar. I, too, was put in an "accelerated class". I have no idea what a "predicate" is...

Kreg -- that was hilarious. :-)

darsden said...

Pearl I am known for my punctuation too. You can set a clock by me... I am never late! ;-)

mrwriteon said...

The old semi-colon debate is ever thriving; some writers and writing instructors think they are abominations; others feel they fulfill a significant function; I use them warily; sort of like having sex without a condom; wonderful in its place but one is taking a chance.

justsomethoughts... said...

great post. as usual. i like the dash, but i'm not sure the rules on the semicolon and i'm not about to read eats shoots and leaves.
if that makes any sense...

Green-Eyed Momster said...

I had no idea that the semi-colon was so important to you!
Hey, when you're right; your're right! Dont' ever back down!

Let me know if I screwed up this comment, okay?

Hugs!!

Green-Eyed Momster said...

s/b don't! Ooops!

Hugs!!

unfinishedrambler said...

That was very nicely done; I couldn't have done it better myself. :)

mapstew said...

I'm like darsden me, VERY punctuate! Never miss a bus me!,`#:; :¬)

xxx

jackba said...

Gotta luv dem semi colons....ooo wait a minute....that's not a rectal problem is it?

Passion said...

Don't visit my blog then..you'll have a fit at my mistakes;

Not The Rockefellers said...

Pearl, If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything.

Peace - Rene

Wonderful World of Weiners said...

We jokingly call John a semicolon cuz he had half of his 5 foot colon removed.

THought you needed to know that!!

Hallie :)

Ann's Rants said...

Ah, yes..the now winking punctuation.

I thought semi-wisconsin in that last paragraph. You didn't even have to write it.

The Retired One said...

I am proud to know you, Pearl. Anyone that stands up to their principles about semicolons is a friend of mine. Seriously. I love your convictions and guts.

Jeanne said...

I hate being bullied -- it's kind of like Michael J. Fox's character in Back to the Future when someone calls him "chicken."

Sounds you've got a dash of that yourself....

SweetPeaSurry said...

Hah ... I do something like Ms Seated-on-her-butt too, I always ask (when I'm at work and I'm training the moron who's just taken over my desk) ... Does that make sense?

HAH, I'm sure it never does, but they say yes anyway.

Blessings!

SweetPeaSurry said...

Oh ... and I wouldn't kick you out of Wisconsin for eating crackers, or using semicolons!!!

Suzanne said...

We really DO know the things we know! Because we know there are so many things we DON't know... that's what makes it so important.

Your blog makes me laugh. Fantastic!

Eskimo Bob said...

After 30 comments not once was the episode of Elaine Benis breaking up a relationship due to punctuation alluded to. I would think that it would have - well I've done it now; the world may continue spinning.