Someone asked me recently why I wasn’t on Twitter. I almost said, “because I’m already on bourbon.” But then I thought that would be a little too snarky, even if it was true. The real reason is more basic. Based on the admittedly limited number of tweets I’ve seen, it’s obvious no one using that medium bothers with grammar, or spelling, or punctuation. Reading tweets is like attending a convention of e e cummings wannabes.
The thing to remember about the late Mr. Cummings (1894-1962), is that he learned the rules, and used them for years, before he opted to ignore them. He wrote reams and reams of stuff (mostly poetry, but also plays and novels) arranged and punctuated in accordance with the syntax of traditional English. He wasn’t screwing around with the language; that’s a more recent phenomenon.
Twitter, along with its grammatically evil counterpart–the dreaded txt msg–have taken our language into a bad place, one devoid of anything save expediency. And one of the worst of its sins is the substitution of dots for virtually any punctuation mark. I’m not even talking about ellipsis, the three dots that indicate either missing words or a bit of dialog which trails off. I’m talking about a random sprinkling of dots–two, five, forty-one–however many the twit (twiterer?) or text jockey chooses to use.
Do I fear for the future? Indeed. [sigh]
I used to be content ranting about the misuse of semicolons. The poor things have been wedged into more manuscripts than clowns into cars at the circus. And with about as much usefulness. Listen up: Semi-colons are not commas on steroids; they aren’t typographically aroused, and they certainly don’t provide a magical answer to any and all grammatical conundrums. What they do is connect two sets of words that could otherwise stand alone quite nicely as complete sentences.
Why do that? Well, mostly to show a cause and effect relationship. F’rinstance: “Bob’s stomach grumbled; he went to find food.” There are only two other ways to do this: break ’em into separate sentences, or connect them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction: and, or, but, so, etc. (“Bob’s stomach grumbled, and he went to find food.”)
One can also use the noble semi-colon to separate complete clauses in a list: “Wanda had high cheekbones; she had the legs of a dancer; she had the manners of a hyena in heat.” (Actually, I know Wanda, and she’s really a sweet gal. A little crazy at times, but hey, aren’t we all?)
The editor of one of the premier speculative fiction magazines once told me she loved to see the proper use of a semi-colon in the opening of a story because it demonstrated the writer’s knowledge of that much grammar at least. If the same, crummy little punctuation mark was misused, it told her to be wary of the writer’s work. Would you trust a builder who didn’t know how to use his tools?
The point is, like so many elements of the craft, you should learn the rules before breaking them so that when you do break ’em, you’ll be doing it for a good reason and not because you’re some kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte.
Please, don’t let anyone think you’re a troglodyte. Even Wanda.