Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Evolution of Punctuation

I am not a fan of the evolution of language. The idea that misuse of words ultimately develops into "new meaning" makes my brain explode, and I was dismayed about a year ago to come upon a line in St. Augustine's Confessions that seemed to suggest that this kind of distortion had been going on as early as the third century.

For the past few years, though, an ugly suspicion has been growing in my mind: a suspicion that the language and grammatical structure that I know and love and think should be frozen in time forever is itself the product of evolution. It all started when I noticed that C.S. Lewis used semi-colons in a manner inconsistent with proper usage. Or, I should say, CURRENT proper usage. It seemed unlikely to me that Lewis failed to grasp the appropriate use of a semi-colon, but after a bit of research failed to turn up anything conclusive, I decided to comfort myself with the assumption that the English used semi-colons somewhat differently than we Americans used them. I'd already learned from Lynne Truss that there were minor variations between British and American punctuation.

Sheldon Vanauken was American, and he'd used them in the same way, but he was a disciple of Lewis, and had studied at Oxford as well. It seemed reasonable that he might have adopted the British style; it seemed equally reasonable that he might have adopted Lewis's.

And I was untroubled, later, to discover the same format--the use of the conjunction "and" in combination with a semi-colon--in Jane Austen's work. British. Very British.

But Austen did something else that troubled me deeply: she used apostrophes in her possessive pronouns. "Her's" was disconcerting enough, but just a few pages later to be confronted with "their's"! I nearly swooned, and most certainly should have required attendance had there not been comfortable seating and clean air at ready access.

And, I am afraid, none of my excuses about British custom or emulation could explain the curious use of the semi-colon in the SECOND SENTENCE of the very first of The Federalist Papers . After a period of steadfast resistance in the face of all evidence to the contrary, I find myself forced to consider the possibility that semi-colons have not always been limited to the artful attachment of two otherwise independent sentences, and that they have instead been applied in a variety of circumstances in which their only function seems to have been to keep a sentence from going on too long without division.

I find myself unequal to the circumstances.

6 comments:

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

If you have 2 independent clauses, one of which contains a comma, it is recommended that the clauses be separated by a semi-colon. For example,

"It seemed unlikely to me that Lewis failed to grasp the appropriate use of a semi-colon; but after a bit of research failed to turn up anything conclusive, I decided to comfort myself...."

I love semi-colons.

RockStories said...

Semi-colons are my favorite punctuation mark; however, they are meant to be used WITHOUT conjunctions. At least, in the modern-day U.S.

"It seemed unlikely to me that Lewis failed to grasp the appropriate use of a semi-colon, but after a bit of research..."

OR "It seemed unlikely to me that Lewis failed to grasp the appropriate use of a semi-colon; after a bit of research, I decided..."

(Bear this in mind, everyone, if you are ever swept back to high school and forced to sit for the ACT; it's a commonly tested issue.)

Austen's usage follows the pattern you suggest here: "Mr. Elton was still talking, still engaged in some interesting detail; and Emma experienced some disappointment..."

Alexander Hamilton, however, just muffs it. Or at least, that's how it looks to me. I would love to find someone with an explanation for this one: "The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world."

MS said...

Your initial sentence irritates me. Surprised? Language---like life---is always changing. Why would punctuation be exempt?

RockStories said...

I'll have to think about whether I want language to be exempt or I'd be okay without ALL the change. Perhaps if the changes were improvements that made communication clearer and writing more artful, I'd agree with you--I can't know, because I've never seen such a thing. Instead, I've seen the "evolution" that has college juniors writing "ur" and "2b" in academic essays and acting surprised that it isn't acceptable...and perhaps well they should be, since in many circles it is and undoubtedly the continued "evolution" will make it so everywhere.

I think perhaps "devolve" would be a more appropriate designation.

MS said...

When I argue change is natural, I am not saying that it will necessarily represent either progress or regress. Change is messy, as you point out.

And accepting change as inevitable doesn't mean we can't fight changes we don't think make sense.

Angela WD said...

I haven't specifically noticed heinous use of semicolons, but I am horrified at the ways people punctuate these days.

As a matter of fact, there is an email in my inbox right now with the subject "Birthday's" and I really want to include an English lesson in my reply.