Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I've never been to New York, so all I know about its citizens is what I've seen on television, in movies, and in print. But judging by this New York Times story, I think New Yorkers are a bunch of dumb hicks:

Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location

It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train.

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.
The rest of the article goes on and on about the novelty of the semicolon. Normally, I would chalk this up to a slow news day. But then I saw that this story is the most e-mailed article on in the past 24 hours.
While grammarians wet themselves at the sight of such an article, I refuse to believe there are enough grammarians forwarding this article around the 'net to push it to number one. That's why New Yorkers must be a bunch of dumb hicks: "Hey, I saw this article that explains what that comma with the funny dot on top is..." And all this time, I thought that sign was winking at me.

This is not a criticism of the semicolon, of course; I happen to love semicolons. That's why I hate to see one celebrated as a rarity. Alas, as the article notes, my own profession is partly to blame. As a copywriter, I tend to use spaced em dashes (-- or —) too often instead.


Jennifer said...

And here I thought we were still suffering from an epidemic of semicolons. Must be one of those quaint midwestern things.

Jen said...

Oh, please. The semicolon is fine; people use it all the time. Not always correctly, but what can you do?

Well, get paid bupkes to be an editor, for one.

David Johnsen said...

This entry has finally brought together the two editing Jennifers who read my blog!

Jen, meet Jennifer, a copyeditor of scientific journals in Chicago.

Jennifer, meet Jen, a freelance editor in Seattle.

As Dave Barry might say, the Editing Jennifers would be a great name for a rock band. Okay, maybe not.

Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

OK, so I'm going to get nit-picky -- isn't the double hyphen (--) a spaced en dash, not an em?

David Johnsen said...

As you probably know, in typesetting, an en dash is the width of an n and an em dash is the width of an M. Since I'm writing in HTML, I should be using "—" to make "—", but I'm too lazy. Compare:

—    (—)
–    (–)

Because the first three above are about the same width and the last two are narrower, I'd say "--" is an em dash. According to Wikipedia, an em dash can be "--" or "---", but I don't think I've ever seen "---" used online.

David Johnsen said...

Aw crap, it looks right in the comments window but not in the font of my regular blog pages. Oh well, most people use " -- " online where a style book would call for an em dash, so that's what I'll call it. Besides, as noted above, "---" is rarely seen online, even if it is the same width as an em dash in a common font like Arial.