Cuff Links, Tie Clips, and Semicolons

Ian Frazier’s “Hungry Minds” concerns three themes: a writer’s workshop, the participants guests of a soup kitchen; the soup kitchen, the largest in the US, intertwined with the history of The Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, where the article takes place; and three types of hunger: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The punctuation format for the previous sentence looks like this:

: , ; , , , , ; : , , .

Frazier’s article contains 36 semicolons. One of his paragraphs contains 8 semicolons; another, the one following the 8, contains 14 semicolons. Thus, there’s a fourth theme that might be said to emerge in Frazier’s essay: punctuation.

The two paragraphs containing the 22 semicolons are lists, essentially, and punctuated as items in a series, the semicolon used to separate items that contain commas. Without the semicolons, the items would run together, and reading would be more difficult, clarity lost. Of course, Frazier could have separated the items as sentences, using periods, but in context that solution would have proved monotonous, unnecessarily repeating full subjects and predicates. The remaining 14 semicolons are used for a variety of other purposes throughout Frazier’s essay.

It’s silly to say one does not like semicolons, or any other punctuation mark. It’s like saying one doesn’t like cuff links or tie clips. True, hardly anyone wears cuff links anymore, and business casual attire has rendered ties almost useless, and without a tie, there’s not much need for a tie clip. But if one still wears buttonless cuffs and floppy ties, then cuff links and tie clips are useful. If you don’t like them, fine, don’t wear them; but your not liking them hardly qualifies as a proof that there’s something wrong with their use. This is not to say that Frazier wears either; I don’t know. But his punctuation style invites comment, and “Hungry Minds,” in particular, proves an effective piece for the explication of punctuation and especially of the semicolon.

So, who doesn’t like semicolons? Kurt Vonnegut has been quoted yet again. It’s true that in “A Man Without a Country” (Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 23), Vonnegut offers a first rule of creative writing: “Do not use semicolons,” followed by a creative description of where semicolons prove a writer to be from. It’s been quoted all over the place, like “Kilroy Was Here,” but what about Vonnegut’s paragraph following? “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding” (p. 23).

So, was he kidding about his advice against the use of semicolons? The half-quote cast adrift from its context seems to have originated with the GuardianDid Vonnegut abhor the semicolon? It seems unlikely, given the use of the semicolon in his own writing; indeed, it’s one curious aspect of the Vonnegut quote supposedly calling out semicolons as a kind of badge of the degreed that he did use semicolons. And if his attitude toward semicolons was, at worst, apathy, then why did he create this straw man position? He must have known he was feeding the pool of farm raised trout. A cursory glance at some Vonnegut books on my shelf spotted semicolons as follows:

“Player Piano,” para. 2;

“Mother Night,” penultimate para., Chapter 1;

“The Sirens of Titan,” para. 19, Chapter 1;

“Breakfast of Champions,” Chapter 1, 7th arrow in;

I didn’t reread all of these books pulled from my shelf, just glanced through the openings, and Vonnegut appears to use colons copiously and dashes – lots of dashes, too – in addition to the few semicolons sprouting like nettles.

Hi ho; so it goes.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. If I think about semi colons I become like the caterpillar who tries to take charge of its legs and can’t move an inch.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Classic comment!

      “In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.

      One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT? thought Alice to herself.

      Of the mushroom, said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.”

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  2. dan hennessy says:

    Semi colons rock ; don’t you agree ?

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Semicolons go waltzing across Arcadia with you.

      ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;; ;;;

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      1. dan hennessy says:

        I took an English class , once , when I was teaching . I was told by the teacher that I used too many commas . What about commas ? Venial sin ? Semi-colons mortal sin ? Is it a moral decision when to use these things ?

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        1. Joe Linker says:

          Using too many commas will make hair grow on the palms of your hands; is that what he told you? My own feeling is that comma abuse warrants being cast into Dante’s third circle of hell, where gluttons go, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog (see what happens when you eat too many commas?), the “great worm,” the misshapen, maladroit, and deformed comma. I’m giving up commas come next Lenten season.

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  3. Geannie Newell says:

    Hungry Minds was one of my favorite papers in your class.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, I think it has become a classic.

      Like

  4. J. Willows says:

    I remember reading “Hungry Minds” and writing an essay about it last fall. I used my highlighters well on my print-out of the article, but I seem to remember having trouble finding a topic to write on. Nevertheless, it was a good read.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Try writing with no topic, like the sound of one hand clapping.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kōan

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      1. J. Willows says:

        Is that a challenge, or a friendly suggestion? Because there are those who believe that writing without a topic is as impossible as producing a sound by clapping with only one hand. I must disagree with them though, for there is a marked difference in the words “impossible” and “difficult.” Furthermore, there is a sound when you clap with one hand; it may not be loud and resounding, but it’s there if you listen hard enough. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off a tangent there.

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        1. Joe Linker says:

          Simply a response to “having trouble finding a topic….” The need for a topic is the curse of the western (as in western civ.) mind, or a virus in the western brain. It’s what John Cage may have had in mind when he said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry” (Silence, 1961), his antidote. I sometimes wish I had never heard of a thesis statement. I got your book, by the way, which I read about on your blog, from Amazon, but I’ve not read it yet, but it’s in the stack of summer reading.

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          1. J. Willows says:

            Ah, I see. Perhaps to write an essay without a topic would truly to be to essay, or wander.
            I hope you enjoy the book, but there are a lot of typos that we missed. I feel them keenly, and hope my readers can see past them.

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            1. Joe Linker says:

              I was thinking Montaigne had something to say about getting lost – the reader, that is – but I have just looked and unable to find it quickly am leaving this at that. As for typos, the world is full to the brim with them.

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              1. J. Willows says:

                The world may indeed be full of typos, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s been nice talking to you. Thanks for the conversation.

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