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Rosie Right

Our language and how it works.


Punctuation Battles

When you look at what is happening around the world, you might think that a retreat into the world of writing and editing would be a shelter, a harbor of calm. But, alas, humans are a combative species.

Look, for example, at the world of punctuation; look, indeed, at the semicolon. There are rules for its use:

1. A semicolon separates two independent clauses with no connecting words.

2. A semicolon can be used to connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb such as moreover.

3. A semicolon should be used to separate items on a list of three or more items that themselves require commas.

Easy? Not at all. There are many essays that tell us that the semicolon is a sign of pretension, and we should always avoid it. On the Web site www.salmon.com I found this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing." And on BBC's site h2g2, the semicolon is described as "a horrendously complicated punctuation mark that would best be abandoned because its usage's complexity rivals that of disarming a nuclear bomb or getting the Babelfish."

Such ugly descriptions might be ignored, but punctuation has now made its way into the courts, where we seem to have "legislative judges" — of punctuation. In 2004 a San Francisco Superior Court judge decided a case against a nonprofit organization because the petitioners used a semicolon where the word or was needed. He announced, "I am not trying to be petty here, but it is a big deal. … That semicolon is a big deal."

Another big deal is the case described on NPR Oct. 25. A contract dispute in Canada was decided on the basis of a misplaced comma. The decision cost a Canadian company 2 million Canadian dollars. To read the story of that case, use your computer and go to www.NPR.org and search in the Oct. 25 stories.

For fun, take a look at the Web site Language Log: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/.

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com); or by telephone (358-0825).

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