Re: Semicolons

Subject: Re: Semicolons
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- plamondon -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 17 Aug 2003 18:21:58 -0700

Robert Plamondon wrote:

You don't understand my meaning. When I talk about "people being capable of
reading," I mean that they can be trusted to grasp the point that the writer
was trying to convey.
Actually, I understood you correctly and was disagreeing with you.

In my experience as a teacher, many people who do not understand how to read a semi-colon do not grasp the point when one is use. They do not see and cannot pick up from context that there's a list within a list, or a close connection between the two clauses joined by the semi-colon. Naturally, there are exceptions, but the meaning that you or I might grasp simply isn't picked up by many.

The use of punctuation is by no means outside this
process. Nothing "meta" about it: if you screw up the punctuation,
communication suffers.

Perhaps I should explain the technical term I was using.

The relation between words and the objects, actions and thoughts they refer to has been argued endlessly in philosophy, but, for the most part, people would agree that words convey information about these things.

Punctuation, by contrast, has no external reference in the way that a noun or a verb or any other part of speech does. A punctuation mark conveys information only about the words it punctuates: which ones make a whole thought, which thought is subordinate to another, and so on. It's communication about communication, in the same way that a computer file's size or creation date is. This sort of second-hand communication is commonly called meta-communication in several schools of psychology and linguistics.

We're used to taking punctuation for granted, but, the fact is, writing predates punctuation by centuries. Many ancient Greek inscriptions have no punctuation whatsoever. Similarly, Roman official inscriptions often used what we would call a bullet point to divide words and nothing else, while many private Latin writings used no punctuation at all. Medieval writing was often no better, and it's not until well into the Renaissance that our modern array of punctuation mark fully emerges. This is another sign that punctuation is meta-communication: it enhances communication, no question, but is not necessary to it.

I doubt very much that the average reader is unaffected by the fancier

You're judging people by your own abilities, like a developer who assumes that everyone knows all about coding. Most people may have seen the full array of punctuation, but they're just a blank space in many minds. If you don't believe me, ask a group of non-writer to explain what the marks mean. You'll probably be as dismayed as I was.

And, no, they're not necessarily incapable - just ignorant of something you or I would take for granted. I've seen very bright first year university students for whom a semi-colon contained no meaning beyond some sort of gap. They didn't know, for example, how that gap differed from a period's or a comma's, or why they might want to use it.

Assuming that university students are more literate than the average population (possibly a rash assumption), then I can only conclude that if they don't know what a semi-colon conveys, then I can't assume that the average person does, either.

My point is that child-sized sentences are okay for child-sized concepts.
Many concepts need to be explained with grown-up sentences, using grown-up

Thanks for the explanation. However, I suspect that we'll have to part company here.

I can agree that conveying complex information in simple sentences without over-simplifying is difficult. However, I not only feel that it can be done, but that I have done it, and that doing so is my main function when I work as a technical writer.

In fact, as I suggested a few posts ago, I'd go even further and state my belief that achieving this goal takes more skill than explaining complex information in complex sentences. I don't think that people like Stephen Jay Gould or Isaac Asimov were oversimplifying in their popular articles one bit. Rather, they were not only doing something useful, but showing themselves to be expert writers as they were doing it.

Bruce Byfield bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com 604.421.7177

"Comes a heat wave, you can go down to the shore,
Comes a summon, you can hide behind the door,
Comes love, nothing can be done."
-Lew Brown, Sammy Stept, and Charles Tobias

RE: Semicolons: From: Robert Plamondon

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