Reconsidering the Semicolon

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Did you happen to catch the striking view of the Moon and Venus aligned like a semicolon in the western sky earlier this month? Astronomers call it a conjunction when it happens. It isn’t rare, but it is somewhat ironic considering grammar rules dictate a semicolon is never used with a conjunction.

Naturally, I decided it must be a sign that I reconsider my relationship with the semicolon. I don’t dislike the semicolon; I never think much about it.

Most people don’t understand the semicolon, despite the fact that it is deceivingly simple to use. A semicolon connects two sentences that are related but grammatically independent. It adds nuance and subtlety. It also links lists of items. I would venture to say the semicolon is more popularly used today as a sly wink emoticon rather than as a mark of punctuation.

Many writers, you might be surprised to know, have purposefully turned their back on the semicolon. Gertrude Stein felt it nothing more than a pretentious comma. George Orwell claimed it was an unnecessary pause. The late Kurt Vonnegut went so far as to label the semicolon a transvestite hermaphrodite that stands for absolutely nothing. All a semicolon does, he said, was show you’ve been to college. It’s been called “sissified,” “arbitrary,” and “inconvenient” by a slew of writer, editors, and pundits. That’s a lot of hate.

It wasn’t always that way. The semicolon was an innovative device back in the day when a Venetian by the name of Aldus Manutius added it to a font set he developed in 1494. Venice at that time was the “Silicon Valley” of the printing world, full of new ideas and commercial competition, mainly because the city recognized and encouraged freedom of the press. Punctuation was needed to guide oratorical pauses while reading books. The comma meant pause and count one. A semicolon meant pause and count two. The colon meant pause and count three. A period meant pause and count four.

The semicolon even became chic for a couple hundred years when English writers took it up in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Grammar historians note that writers of the time just couldn’t get enough of the semicolon, or any other punctuation for that matter. Take a look at all the commas and semicolons in Shakespeare’s writing and you’ll see what they mean.

The purpose of the semicolon begun to evolve to reflect the joining together of contrary thoughts in the mid-1800s just as it fell out of favor. The Romantic writers and poets of the period were experimenting with new types of prose and fresh ways of expressing themselves. Experimentation was their motto and experiment they did with punctuation. The Romantics used a lot of dashes, for example, to add pizazz and create a way for their thoughts and words to jump off the page. At the same time, technology in the form of the telegraph encouraged people to change how they used punctuation quite simply because each mark cost the same as a full word. Brevity was less expensive.

By the early 20th Century, American schoolbooks had begun to encourage boys and girls to use a period between two independent clauses rather than joining them with a semicolon. The semicolon had become downright dowdy.

With today’s decreased attention to detail and the rise of new communication devices and platforms, I’m not surprised to find so many observers mourning the death of the poor old semicolon by irrelevance. If you think about it, all punctuation has been relegated to second screen status on our mobile devices. We’re moving so fast we don’t even bother to hit the shift button once or twice to access the punctuation keys.

Does this mean punctuation in general is doomed to the same fate as the semicolon? I’m not quite ready to jump on that bandwagon because I see so much of our communication moving towards writing, albeit in smaller electronic bites. Look around at everyone hunched over mobile devices and feverishly typing away. Does anyone talk on the phone anymore?

Let’s face it, we’re living in an era of fast communication where everyone texts, tweets, and emails in real time. Immediate response is expected—no, make that demanded. The irony is that in such a written world digital punctuation becomes increasingly important, conveying more about the tone and intent of the person sending a message than the actual words themselves.

Yet all the rules and principles of rhetoric established over centuries are suddenly being tossed out the window. Can anyone explain to me the meaning of a row of question marks interspersed with exclamation marks?!?!?!? And don’t get me started on emoji….

In closing, I can’t help but wonder that if a particularly bright star could alert the world to the birth of a new religion then who knows what a semicolon in the sky might awaken in us if we just take time to pause every now and then.


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Memorial Day Weekend


Hark, a Shark

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I thought my days of being followed by big girls were long over. Then Mary Lee showed up. Maybe you’ve heard about her? She’s the 3,500 pound, 16-foot Great White shark who’s spent the past few weeks cruising up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast, hitting all her favorite eating spots and tweeting about it. Yes, I said tweeting. Mary Lee is a darling of the Twitterverse. More than 65,000 people are following her every move, including yours truly. I wasn’t surprised when she followed me back. Big girls have always found me tasty.

Mary Lee is one of hundreds of Great White sharks being tracked by Ocearch, an organization working to protect these sharks. She was named after the lead researcher’s mother. Ocearch tags the sharks with GPS trackers to their dorsal fins. When the fin breaks the surface of the water, the device sends a ping to a satellite which pinpoints the geographic location of the shark. The pings show up on the Ocearch Global Tracker Map, giving scientists a unique look at the lives of these sharks.

Mary Lee was tagged off Cape Cod in 2012 and a look at her travel dossier shows she’s basically an East Coast preppie, moving between Cape Cod and northern Florida. She spends a lot of time off the South Carolina coast and has taken a trip to Bermuda.

All the Mary Lee hoopla is sort of ironic, I think, given this summer is the 40th anniversary of the movie Jaws, a powerful film when it premiered back in 1975. I remember people screaming and running out of the ocean whenever a school of dolphins swam by. Everyone was talking about the film, so much so that Saturday Night Live even spoofed it with the popular “Land Shark” skit. More than 128 million people bought tickets to see the movie.

Jaws is often credited for changing American perceptions about sharks, but that’s not entirely true. Popular fear of sharks actually began after a series of attacks along the Jersey Shore over two weeks during the summer of 1916. Until then, a documented shark attack had never been recorded in the United States. When the first man was killed, newspapers speculated the culprit might be a giant sea turtle or even a big mackerel. A shark was never considered. Eyewitnesses to subsequent attacks identified the killer as a shark. People fled the beaches.

This incident was followed by the gruesome story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Pacific Ocean during WWII. Nine hundred sailors made it off the ship alive, mostly floating in the water in lifejackets, not rafts. The sharks showed up pretty quickly, feasting first on the dead and then on the live sailors bobbing up and down in the ocean. Clouds of blood turned the water red, which just attracted even more sharks. Only about 300 sailors survived the four-day ordeal of drownings, salt water poisoning, and shark attacks. It was one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history.

What Jaws did, however, was vilify the shark in a huge public way, making it okay – a celebration even — to hunt and kill the large “man-eating” predators for sport. When combined with the Asian demand for shark fin soup and other shark products, shark populations dramatically dropped and sharks moved onto the endangered species list. All this has been compounded by the fact that sharks have a long lifespan and don’t breed until they’re at least twelve years old. About 100 million sharks are killed each year.

It’s not all bad news for the shark. Another impact from Jaws was that it led to more shark research and an increasing awareness of the importance of the big predators to ocean health. Efforts have been launched to slow down the killing and scientists are saying they’re starting to pay off.

So what kind of sharks do we have off the Delaware coast, you might be wondering?

The most common species are Hammerheads, Sandbars, Mako, Smooth Dogfish and the Spiny Dogfish. Delaware Bay is a stopping off point for Sandbar sharks making the trip between their southern wintering and northern summering grounds. Bull sharks are less common, but the most likely to attack people. They are the only species that can tolerate freshwater and are known to venture into bays, harbors, and rivers. Bull sharks were reported in Lake Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina. Great Whites like Mary Lee are out there too, but they tend to stay further off shore.

If all this shark talk freaks you out, don’t worry too much. There have only been four reported shark encounters in Delaware, none of which were fatal and two of which occurred when sharks were caught while fishing. National Geographic reports that most shark encounters occur in Florida and that you have 1 in 63 chances of dying from the flu as compared to 1 in 11 million by a shark. It also says more people are injured each year by room fresheners than by sharks. I have no idea how one is hurt by a Glade plug in, but I’m going to keep that particular factoid in mind when I’m going for a dip this summer.