Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Pretentious Punctuation

There’s a chapter in Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves called “Airs and Graces”. As Truss confesses an embarrassing personal anecdote, she writes, “The main reason I recall this shameful teenage epiphany, however, is that … I pulled out (literally) all the stops: I used a semicolon.”

I made the unfortunate mistake of using a semicolon recently. I had to backtrack and claimed it as an accident. “I’m not even sure if it belongs there,” I wrote in explanation.

Why is the semicolon considered so pretentious? The answer is unclear, but despite being nominally twice a semicolon, the colon surprisingly sees much wider usage. One might rush to conclude that pretentiousness is inversely proportional to colon counts; however, a document riddled with semicolons would probably appear a lot more pompous than one riddled with half as many colons. If not, the former may have been written in PASCAL or C, in which case it would just appear nerdy.

The semicolon is not the only mark to create a stir. Keeping Up Appearances‘s Hyacinth Bucket criticizes the Barker-Finch couple for having a “pseudo-hyphenated name” since it came about through marriage: he was a Barker and she was a Finch. “I can’t stand that kind of snobbery,” she says.

Not only can punctuation in names can raise an eyebrow, but so can the names of certain punctuation marks. Some marks adopt nicknames to gain acceptance. If more people knew that dot dot dot was actually an ellipsis, would they feel as comfortable riddling their e-mails or AIM conversations with it? Automated telephone services may have taught people what the pound sign is, but Gob still needs to confirm it on an episode of Arrested Development: “Pound is tic-tac-toe, right?”

Sometimes the name of a punctuation mark can be contested. When there are disagreements with the British, the American term often sounds less pretentious. For instance, full stop sounds like an order Picard would give, but period lacks that air of authority.

Two authorities on writing weigh in on pretentious punctuation in their book. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style confronts the use of quotation marks around slang terms. It states:

To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.

That puts Dr. Evil’s “laser” out of business.

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3 responses

  1. Lav

    I use semicolons all the time; they are not pretentious in my mind. I think they are especially useful for lists in which the items are phrases. I am not a big fan of dashes, which led to an interesting debate while writing this. Have you ever had punctuation debates with a professional collaborator and pulled out Strunk and White? An interesting experience indeed.

    October 19, 2007 at 2:34 am

  2. Krish

    I’d like to live in a world in which the semicolon didn’t face such widespread discrimination, too. Unfortunately, I rarely see them used in e-mails or informal types of communication.

    Most of the punctuation debates I get into involve whether there are too many or too few commas. Personally, I am biased towards more commas.

    October 19, 2007 at 5:57 am

  3. Rich

    I must have missed this post way back when; otherwise I’m sure I would comment on my tendency to use semicolons as well. I had a discussion/banter with some of the folks in the Canucks@MS group on this exact subject several months prior to this post.

    March 1, 2008 at 2:30 am

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