George Will and the ideology of punctuation


Washington Post columnist George F. Will, in his November 20 Post column, pointed to proper punctuation as a way of distinguishing "liberal" and "conservative" sensibilities. Will lauded author Lynne Truss, whose book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham, 2004) brought her international recognition. Truss, a self-described "punctuation vigilante," wrote in Eats, Shoots & Leaves that her book "gives you permission to love punctuation." According to Will, Truss's book "established her as -- depending on your sensibility -- a comma and apostrophe fascist (the liberal sensibility) or a plucky constable combating anarchy (the conservative sensibility)." Will offered no explanation for how he concluded that liberals oppose proper punctuation or that punctuation breaks down along ideological lines. Media Matters for America, however, was able to identify at least two writers -- one conservative and one liberal -- who do not fit into Will's punctuation paradigm, as evidenced by their views on the semicolon.

On page 109 of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss explained that she harbors little appreciation for those who "denounce" semicolons:

But how much notice should we take of those pompous sillies who denounce the semicolon? I say, none at all. I say they are just show-offs. And I say it's wonderful that when Umberto Eco was congratulated by an academic reader for using no semicolons in The Name of the Rose (1983) he cheerfully explained (so the apocryphal story goes) that the machine he typed The Name of the Rose on simply didn't have a semicolon, so it was slightly unwise of this earnest chap to make too much of it.

Will also appears to harbor some fondness for semicolons (or, at least, his copy editors do): A Nexis search revealed that he used 33 semicolons in his last 50 Post columns (six were contained within quotations). Will used seven in one sentence in his August 18 column. Given his clear approval of Truss's book, as well as his clear preference for the "conservative" view of punctuation, one can only conclude that under his formulation, it's conservatives who embrace the semicolon. So how does he explain the semicolon contempt displayed by Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes -- no one's embodiment of a liberal? According to a September 17 Financial Times Weekend Magazine article:

"They should be turned into periods," explained Fred Barnes one day, after I [author Trevor Butterworth] had appeared on his radio show to discuss media coverage of the war in Afghanistan. He explained that this made for shorter sentences and that brevity was the soul of clarity. It seemed to make sense that Barnes, who as the editor of The Weekly Standard is one of America's most influential conservative writers, should value muscular, declarative prose; politics may require the art of compromise, but political writing should be adamantine in conviction. No orotund stateliness, no "on the one hand but on the other" vacillation, no -- as President George W. Bush infamously decried -- nuance. And sure enough, Barnes' prose has the pummelling ferocity of a Maxim gun.

Indeed, a Nexis search revealed that Barnes used exactly five semicolons in his last 50 Weekly Standard and online Daily Standard columns (all five were split between just two columns). Moreover, the Financial Times went on to explain that Barnes's disdain for semicolons was born of bipartisanship:

But it was rather surprising to discover that he [Barnes] had joined the coalition of the unwilling to use the semicolon under the tutelage of one of America's most influential liberal journalists. "That was Michael Kinsley's rule when I worked at The New Republic," said Barnes, "and you know Michael's very smart and has thought very deeply about these things."

The Financial Times article also quoted a liberal, American Prospect executive editor Michael Tomasky, espousing his love for semicolons, as well as an apparent tolerance for "mandatory" (!) punctuation:

"If I were linguistic emperor," says Michael Tomasky, who recently took over as editor of the unabashedly liberal The American Prospect, "not only would semicolons be mandatory, but we'd all be writing like [18th-century Scottish historian Thomas] Carlyle: massive 130-word sentences that were mad concatenations of em dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheticals, asides; reading one of those Carlyle sentences can sweep me along in its mighty wake and make me feel as if I'm on some sort of drug. What writing today does that? Some, maybe even a lot, in the realm of literature; but not much in non-fiction, alas."

Tomasky used 10 semicolons in his October 25 American Prospect column alone.

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