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The stylish semicolon

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  March 31, 2007 06:21 PM

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As its authors have been explaining to everyone who would lend them a microphone, "The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything" is not a basketball book. It's a brackets miscellany, in which experts apply the March Madness method of winnowing to 101 cultural categories as varied as Economic Indicators, Paul Simon Songs, and Women's Undies.

And, of all things, punctuation. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, staged the punctuation playoffs, arraying parentheses and tildes, capital letters and commas in competing pairs. Semicolon and space faced off in the final, and Sheidlower's final pick for punctuation champ was the space.

That's an obvious enough call; none of us want to return to the days when monks economized on parchment by running words together. But how did the semicolon get so far?

By beating the dollar sign and the pilcrow (the old-fashioned paragraph sign) and then, less understandably, the uppercase and the period. The semicolon more powerful than the period? Sounds like the decision of a semicolon sentimentalist.

And Sheidlower's commentary doesn't dispel that suspicion:

A tough battle indeed. While the period is objectively more important, in the end it has no soul. You master the period when you learn to write. The semicolon actually says something. What Nicholson Baker has called "that supremely self-possessed valet of phraseology" is a relatively modern mark, yet skilled use of it is what separates the pedestrian from the elegant.

I'd think a showdown between the period and space would have been even tougher. But that's the point, say "Bracketologist" authors Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir: It's not about who wins, it's about the pleasure of squaring off over square brackets, apostrophizing ampersands, and debating em dashes with your fellow punctuation nuts.

And when you've had enough of that, you can move on to the Latin grammar shootout. (The smart money's on the ablative absolute.)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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