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Connections: Grammar as Respite

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 12:32

Like many of you, I have been glued to television-news debates about mass shootings and what can, or should be, done to stop them. Gun control is a frequent topic as the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination face the cameras. But my attention is drawn to my desk, where the focus is narrow and a book called “Semicolon” by Cecelia Watson sits alongside one I have mentioned before, Mary Morris’s amusing and astute “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.”

Other people take to obsessive house-cleaning or physical exercise when times are stressful; I sink down into the minutiae of words.

It turns out that punctuation does have to be taken seriously by those young people who take standardized tests like the ACT and SAT for college admissions. My daughter-in-law, a tutor, tells me that students are indeed expected to know how to properly use a semicolon.

How old-fashioned is that?

I had always thought that all the semi-colon was supposed to do —aside from creating a divider between items or thoughts on a coherent list — was to connect two independent clauses in a sentence. So I was surprised to read of the release of a complete, 185-page book on the subject, and ordered a copy.

Ms. Watson (who, word nerds will note, uses the term “semicolon” without a hyphen) brings her knowledge of literature to bear, citing uses of semicolons from masters like Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. She argues that a semicolon is a way to conduct traffic, so to speak, and slow down in our ever-speedier communications: Technology, she writes, thrusts us “along feeling helpless on a frantic current of light and noise, always on the move. . . .”

A semicolon stops “without stopping completely,” Ms. Watson says. “Who wants the full stop right now with its silence and finality like a red button pressed, or a clock striking midnight?”

I wish I had Ms. Watson’s breadth and stick-to-it-iveness so that I could offer a bit of similarly articulate advice on another bit of grammar that I am stuck on: the comma. In my opinion, if young people were taught about appositives, written language would be greatly improved.

At the risk of boring wiser grammarians, let me explain. An appositive is a noun or phrase that renames or describes the noun it sits next to. Offset by commas, brackets, or dashes, an appositive is a parallel construction. And therein arises an egregious and now widespread grammatical error, which is due to the failure to recognize appositives. The following sentence is just plain wrong.

“Famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman, will perform.”

No, no, no.

The commas in this sentence make “Itzhak Perlman” an appositive. Since an appositive is a way of repeating something said previously, the sentence should make sense if Mr. Perlman’s name weren’t there. But, whoops; it doesn’t. Dropping out Mr. Perlman’s name renders the sentence meaningless. It would be correct to leave out his name if the word “the” was used, as in “The famous violinist will perform.” In this instance, “the” is essential to the meaning and is required (as is his name, unless his name already appeared in a previous sentence).

Next time, readers — and you can count on there being a next time, if the gun violence of white racists continues apace and I need to turn my thoughts away from the news — we will discuss the use and abuse of the plural possessive apostrophe.

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