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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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 semicolon in semi-question was not the only factor that drove me out of Central Wisconsin; but it seemed incredibly important at the time that I follow the rules, if only in punctuation, if only this once.

That and no one pushes a finger in my face.

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 in the proper order, but I damn-sure know the things I know.

If that makes any sense.


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Simply Suthern said...

I'm not real good with punctuation. I thought a semicolon was a wink in an email.

Yes sir, Wink, or I left the room, Wink. Makes ense to me.

Either that or it was when you had a colostomy bag.

Oh well, learn something every day.

Draea Lael (Rose) said...

I am also a fan of good grammar. As a teacher, I occasionally have to assign writing work. (Horrid thought, I know.) My students constantly whine because I refused to grade their papers on content until I can get through the first paragraph without my head exploding.
It is for that reason, primarily, why I chose not to teach English. There are just too many papers required!

Rene/ Not The Rockefellers said...

Pearl, you are fighting the good fight.
And "A Semicolon Kinda Life" would make a good book title.

And as Mrs Johnson would remind me; whenever I was struggling with punctuation, semicolons are stronger than a comma, weaker than a period.

If that makes any sense :)

Peace ~ Rene

MJenks said...

Is per diem one of those phrases that should be in italics? No, this is not a punctuation question, it's more of a grammar question.

I get lost when I swing wildly back and forth between scientific reading and non-scientific reading. I just usually go by a rule-of-thumb that phrases in other languages should be italicized.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I need to RSVP for an event.

Louisiana Belle said...

Elaine Benes (Seinfeld) once ended a relationship over an exclamation point. Who knew this was something that could actually happen in real life?

Jodie Kash said...

What do have against the simple, pure comma? It do.

Unfinished Rambler said...

I also like complete sentences and not fragments, unlike your first commenter today. ;)

Pearl said...

I do enjoy the comma; but having learned about the semicolon, I can't help but use it.


And yes. That's my smart-ass response of the day.

lisleman said...

I dashed a semicolon just to watch it die.
Your going to Folsom Prison for this. But you make a dash for the cash but watch out for the ring of fire.

Bossy Betty said...

Pearl--I love a woman who gets all overwrought about semicolon. I, myself, love me a good colon every once in awhile. I always tell my students not to overuse their colons.

IndigoWrath said...

Hey Pearl! I am fairly well versed in the mysteries of the semi-colon, but don't use them very often. The M-dash is a less versatile alternative, but it always looks ugly, being too wide, and having no spaces either side of it. The N-dash is just a hyphen, but I tend to misuse it as a semi-colon (padded with spaces) because it always looks like a typo to me - I see a semi-colon whenever I miss the apostrophe key (which happens a lot). Hey, I have sausages for fingers. And huzzah for telling him to stick his job. Hope you told him where he could poke his finger =) Indigo

K A B L O O E Y said...

Hmm... well, I would have used commas in last 2 sentences, but I'm not a pro. But I am on the side of Elaine Benes' dumped boyfriend in that I really don't like exclamation points. (I am, however, a big fan of the parentheses.)

Fragrant Liar said...

I, too, am a fan of the @#$!@ing semicolon; though I try to use it judiciously because people see it and go, "wha?" If that makes any sense.

Plus, the ubiquitous semicolon has been reduced to a wink on the page these days, and I don't want people thinking I'm winking during a serious narrative on water skiing. Erotica, then yes; it's only right.

Anonymous said...

I don't do semicolons. They intimidate me.

Haveing said that - at the age of 12 I had an awful argument with a boy in my elementary school class about the difference between a preposition and a proposition. For some reason he thought they were the same. I thought our teacher was going to die laughing before the yelling was over.
Makes no sense to me.


sage said...

"Passed do..." Sounds like an problem for the bathroom

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

You don't need to apolgize for anything. It's fine people like you with your love of proper punctuation that keep our civilization from falling into the abyss. I am sloppy with mine but when the final battle comes (oh and it IS coming against those twittering twits) I am right there beside you girl.

a Broad said...

I write whatever dribbles out of my head and I am lucky to remember any of my Punctuation marks so I often have enormously long sentences that may or may not be filled with (dots) ....... which make me happy.
dot dash dot dot - dash dash dash - dot dot dot dash - dot.

Dez said...

I'm not the punctuation perfectionist that you are (I still use parenthesis and lots of commas) but after reading this I thought of a great comic that you should read:


Titled: How to use a semicolon

Pearl said...

Oh,Dez, that was excellent. :-)

Anonymous said...

Is it bad that a correctly used semicolon kinda turns me on? Probably why I have not married.

Also, this reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine broke up with a guy over an exclamation point. He left a note that her friend had had the baby (he had taken the message on the phone), and he had not used an exclamation point in the note. She asked why. He couldn't say why and proceeded to argue that one was not necessary in such a situation. What??! I'm with her. And you. Many relationships break up over punctuation; and that's not a bad thing at all.

Gigi said...

And just what is your stance on the space/spaces after the period? I was taught that it should be two spaces between the period and the next sentence. These hooligans today are only doing one space. I, for one, am outraged!

Gigi said...

Look at that (pointing to my previous comment). I diligently put two spaces after every period and Blogger took it upon itself to make it one space. When will this tomfoolery end?

Jeanne said...

What can I say? When you're right, you're right.

Cheeseboy said...

I hate the semicolon. HATE IT! I think I have even posted an anti-semicolon post at least twice. I believe it is because no one ever taught me to correctly use it and I am still not sure.

You should give an internet course on the subject. I'd take it. (But I probably wouldn't pay.)

injaynesworld said...

I have to admit I'm not well-trained in the use of the semi-colon, preferring a full colon or none at all. Since I do depo summaries in my "real" job, I do toss one out now then and it seems to look okay. Not that the attorneys would know. Some of them are borderline illiterate.

And I'm proud of you for standing your ground. Next time someone pokes a finger in your face, bite if off.

Pearl said...

That's TWO spaces after a period, people! TWO!

And hating the semicolon? What kind of world do we live in where people are free to hate, willy-nilly, our punctuation?!

Fred Miller said...

Gigi, as far as the two spaces after the period, I learned it that way, too. Then when went back and taught at my old high school, my old typing teacher was still there. I asked him about the single strike after a period. He said, "It just changed. That's all."

That page at oatmeal.com has every rule about the semicolon exactly right, at least the way I have always taught it.

Courtney said...

You know what Kurt Vonnegut says about the semicolon ... "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Sarah said...

I have no idea when to use a semicolon; however, I admire you for taking a stand! He was a jerk.

Tempo said...

I know very little about punctuation...I only know that my writing really, really pisses people off if they have a punctuation addiction....Pearl!

MJenks said...

It's two spaces after the period only in certain journals. The APA standards demand one space after the period (and colon).