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· Twain's Helpful Middle Marks: Colons and Semicolons ·

Yesterday I chanced to read Donald Barthelme's essay "Not-Knowing" (1985). Barthelme interestingly writes there that

[i]t's appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. . . . This is not to say that I don't know anything . . . but what I do know comes into being at the instant it's inscribed. Donald Barthelme, 'Not Knowing,' The Art of the Essay, ed. Lydia Fakundiny, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991, 485; below 495.

As I hold to such a view, I was taken by Barthelme's nicely-turned variation on an old writer's query, "How do I know what I'm going to say until I say it?" But I was also puzzled, for, in a later paragraph beginning "Style is not much a matter of choice," he paused then to ask: "Why do I avoid, as much as possible, using the semicolon? Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly. I pinch them out of my prose."

As I've lately written here, "I'm in academic Nirvana; I have died and gone to heaven!" I was fascinated. Being committeeless, as I explained, I was quite free to weigh the matter of choice and determinism with respect to what I sometimes call style's helpful "middle marks," colons and semicolons.

They are, of course, often tricky. In his fine book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, John Trimble suggests that they're in fact advanced: "The average college student isn't ready for semicolons," he claims, and by implication, only semi-ready for colons. His main example (one I've employed ever since Writing with Style first appeared in 1975) is from Adlai Stevenson:

A beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you. John Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000, 107; above 105.

Although we smile at the linkage, our pleasure comes mostly from Stevenson's semicolon. Try, in paradigmatic substitution, these other alternative linkages:

A beauty. A charmer. (Nicely periodic but clunky.)
A beauty, and a charmer. (Now coordinate but thoughtless.)
A beauty, but a charmer. (Still coordinate but obvious.)
A beauty, a charmer. (Happily comedic but splicy.)
A beauty, while a charmer. (Maybe explanatory but stuffy.)
A beauty a charmer. (Run-together but obviously illiterate.)

So why is Barthelme so determined, I asked myself, to pinch all semicolons out of his prose? Maybe because his dog, I answered, hasn't yet been trained to "mark" their utility.

Which raises novelist Mark Twain's famous use of the colon and semicolon together.

Training is everything: the peach was once a bitter almond; caulliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education. John Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000, 108.

Your students, employees, friends, or colleagues might now value "Twain's Helpful Middle Marks." Taken together they mean, of course, "Smooth Sailing: Two Fathoms Deep."


Barthelme has no sense of history. Consumed with his own self-importance, amused by his own little jokes, he flits along unaware that not only his too-freely proferred opinions but even his own so-called "style" is a short-lived product of post-civil-rights American English history, most easily demonstrated by the simplification of punctuation in the '70s and early '80s.

How do some people get so far with so little? Thanks for bringing us all back to Twain.

Posted by Loretta Markle on November 20, 2003 06:02 PM
Posted by Styles on December 1, 2003 04:38 PM

I was just taking a much needed break from my final essay and thought I'd seek out a little divine intervention, or at least a clue on how to proceed, when I stumbled across Barthelme's quote. It doesn't help me one bit as far as what I'm going to write, but, man, does it ease my battered mind to know I'm not the only one who doesn't know what is going to splatter across the page until it is there in black and white. This is apropos of nothing at all; just thought you might enjoy a small chuckle at your mistreated student's expense. And, now, back to the grindstone!

Posted by Richard Roberts on December 9, 2003 01:18 PM

Sorry to be such a grind. The state happily pays me — Tomás de (Styles) Torquemada — for my sadly abrasive, unusual service here.

Posted by Styles on December 9, 2003 02:00 PM

Some strange feeling seized me when I read your comment, Styles.

Does Styles's post look strange here?

No. So Styles, what is the point in your comment?

There always has to be some point.

Nothing personal tho.


Posted by Anderson, J. on February 2, 2004 12:03 PM

Yes, a "strange" anomaly, but explainable.

As featured recently in Washington State Litter-Law ads, the Inquisitor seemed a clever mask meant to keep my student's nose to the proverbial grindstone.

Of course, my heartfelt thanks now for your kind inquiry.

Posted by Styles on February 2, 2004 09:25 PM

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