Sunday, June 17, 2012

Once thought to be extinct, semicolons now being re-integrated into natural text habitats…

After 30-years on the endangered punctuation list, the semicolon is now at the center of the International Written Language Fund's resettlement program. "The semicolon was near extinction in the late 1970s," says IWLF science director Barry Tomlin. "It is, for the most part, a superfluous vestige of ancient writing habits. It certainly would have died out if English textbooks had simply shut up about it." Student ambitions of intellectualism, based on grammar readers, saved it, however.

The IWLF had all but given up on the semicolon. There had been no confirmed sightings in any published genre of writing since 1995. "The semicolon was deep in the red zone," Tomlin says. "We kept it on the list, but nobody thought it was really still in use. We'd written it off and were more concerned about keeping some semblance of order in existing apostrophe populations. You know, keeping them out of plural habitats, managing overpopulation in slogans and ads." Then a 2010 study that integrated the databank into the English text corpus turned all previous assumptions upside down. "You've heard about when they started pulling up an occasional coelacanth from the Indian Ocean a while back and everyone was excited that the fish was still around. All the experts said the fish had been dead for thousands of years. Well, in 2010, it was like suddenly pulling up hundreds, thousands of coelacanth all at once."

It turns out that students, who don't read published genres, were still using the semicolon. "Its presence in those grammar books made students think this is how you're supposed to write for school. So for decades, in unpublished term papers and five-paragraph essays, completely under the IWLF radar, the semicolon had survived. Not only was the semicolon alive and well, it was becoming a pest. "It was displacing the colon, the period and even the exclamation point in some environments," Tomlin reported. He said researchers were most alarmed by the semicolon's previously unknown predatory habits. "It was actually endangering the comma, driving it near extinction. We realized we had to intervene." The plan he and his team came up with was counter intuitive, but promises to both save the comma and improve student writing at the same time. It will also give the semicolon, which turns out to be neither dead nor superfluous, a new role in the global English biosphere.

In a new paper to be published in the July 2012 issue of Journal of Normative Punctuation, Tomlin and his colleagues are recommending that the semicolon be reintroduced into published genre habitats on a limited scale. At the same time, teachers need to more actively discourage the use of the semicolon in school assignments. "We're hoping," Tomlin says, "that the semicolon will lose its pseudo-intellectual aura among the 14 to 21-aged writing crowd and allow the comma, period and colon populations to recover in student writing. The semicolon will feel less fenced in, become less intrusive and return to its traditional niches." There is no guarantee the plan will work. "We know students don't read anything. That is why they used so many semicolons in the first place. So the aura might stick. Using the semicolon in novels, non-fiction and journalism won't necessarily pay off." The plan is more sophisticated, however. "We've got a global team of volunteers lined up to use more semicolons in YouTube comments and American Idol chatrooms." He predicts that within 15 years, the semicolon will only rarely be used to introduce lists, set off subordinate clauses and connect sentence fragments. "In student writing, those habitats will be repopulated by indigenous colon and comma varieties. Meanwhile, out in the real world, a lucky reader might actually spot an occasional semicolon in a magazine or short story; at least that is our hope."

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