Re: Semicolon Survey

Subject: Re: Semicolon Survey
From: "Robert Plamondon" <robert -at- plamondon -dot- com>
To: <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 22 Aug 2003 14:35:04 -0700

Keith writes:

>Though not a fan of the romance genre, I think it is a mistake to assume
>that *anybody* who reads for recreation can be categorized as having a
>none-too-high reading level. [...]

On the contrary. I've seen plenty of schoolkids read for pleasure when
their reading level was at about their own grade level (say, second, third,
and fourth grades). There are entire genres that are intentionally pitched
at low reading levels, specifically to appeal to an audience that has
trouble with more difficult reading material. This includes quite a few
well-known genres aimed at grown-ups.

>Instead, there are many people who find reading a very unpleasant and
>difficult method of ingesting information. For such people, the idea of
>reading for *enjoyment* is completely foreign.

So I'm told. Yet the fact remains that there's plenty of material out there
aimed at entertaining an audience consisting primarily of non-stellar
readers. Probably millions of copies a month are moved through the
lower-end romance lines alone.

So I figured, "If semicolons are certain death for comprehension or
stick-to-it-iveness among readers, then I shouldn't find any semicolons at
all in, say, lower-end romance novels, since it would kill sales and put the
publisher out of business."

I found no semicolons at the one Harlequin line I sampled. I suspect that
their editorial staff replaces every instance of a colon or semicolon with
an em dash. Avon, on the other hand, did nothing to restrain what I
considered to be an excessive use of semicolons on the part of some of their

This is not enough data to draw meaningful conclusions from, which is why I
didn't draw any conclusions. A total absence of semicolons would no doubt
have supported the anti-semicolon point of view, while wild abandon in every
book would imply that they are perhaps less ferocious than advertised. The
industry seems to be represented by neither extreme.

>Those are the people for whom semicolons provide no additional clarity,
>and chances are some of your users are among their ranks.

Sure. But I learned a long time ago that you can't dumb stuff down to the
least common denominator without dropping a lot of content on the floor.
Once, when doing a user's guide for a floating-point chip, I discovered that
the software guys didn't look at the diagrams unless the text didn't make
sense, and the hardware guys didn't look at the text unless the diagrams
didn't make sense. So I made sure that each group could extract all the
information they needed from their preferred medium. In essence, I
interleaved two books into one. Had I cut it down to the stuff that both
groups used, I would have had a blank book.

>Outside of academic settings, we can assume most novels are read
>voluntarily, most likely by people who *like* to read. I don't think we
>can make the same assumptions about our documentation.

Sure we can. Here's my justification: It's hard to force a worker to read
the documentation, and many of them never bother. Probably most of the
workers who actually read the documentation are relatively willing readers
in general. God knows plenty of documentation doesn't reward the effort
involved in reading it, so a thoughtless habit of reading everything put in
front of him might be the only thing that ever kept a reader going.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon
President, High-Tech Technical Writing
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com
(541) 453-5841


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