Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Exclamation Point! Semi-Colon!

I was just reading over a chapter of Open Minded Torah, getting it ready for publication. There was something really annoying about the chapter - which I realized, after a while, was the presence of so many exclamation marks! Elmore Leanord in giving advice for writers advises that 'you are allowed only two or three exclamation marks for every 100,000 words of prose.' My piece was only 1500 words, and I had already used seven! I was way over the limit!

So what's wrong with exclamation marks?

They are the punctuation equivalent of the kinds of actions to which we might respond, quoting Hamlet, 'the Lady doth protest too much.' Someone writing with exclamation points in the earnestness of his strivings (and his desire to convince others) is hiding something, probably his own lack of convictions. Too many question marks can be mopey and cynical; too many exclamation points strident and overbearing. Exclamation points may be the enthusiastic cover story for beliefs that are insufficiently convincing - most of all to the one setting them forth.

So, yes, I revised the chapter.

What is your favorite form of punctuation? The mystic will like the ellipsis... The philosopher - the hyphen. My preference is for the semi-colon; and no, to the nay-sayers, it is not merely an exalted comma! Oops, am I being defensive about my punctuation preferences?

The Torah has no punctuation, but if it did, I'm sure that God would also have a preference for the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation for what Erich Auerbach called the style of 'parataxis' - the placing together of clauses without subordinating them. The juxtaposition of sentences and ideas, without subordination 'acknowledges the multiplicity of meaning and the demand for interpretation.' There is the space in between - the space guarded over by the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation that says 'darshaini' - interpret me. The semi-colon is the opening to midrash and creativity.

It's the most inviting and fertile form of punctuation; at least, that is what I think.

16 comments:

naomi said...

I think this best sums it up:

http://youtu.be/tq-z2dvX0uY

Ariella said...

the athnachta in pesukim functions rather like a semi-colon. There are particular rules for using semi-colons and commas; they are not interchangeable.

wdk said...

I hated that movie! And as for the literary criticism of the film - do you know it was Mike Nicols?; he made the graduate! - I don't agree. Semi-colons are not periods; they are not full stops.

And that was an impressive display Ariella: I think what J.L Austin would call a performative sentence, enacting what it says.

Lindsey Shapiro said...

Fascinating idea.That would explain why Levinas's writings abound with semi-colons; they really do seem to signify how alterity "overflows" the inevitable limits of language.

wdk said...

Lindsey - alterity - that's what I'm talking about!

Batya said...

I think there is another reason to avoid too many exclamation points. It's the equivalent of putting in no exclamation points at all. Speakers and writers who alternate between quiet and passionate emphasis are the most appreciated. It shows there are differences between things you're saying. It says "Here, pay special close attention now! Everything is not all the same.

洪淑桓洪淑桓 said...
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homeshuling said...

I teach kindergarten, and have discovered that early childhood educators are the very worst offenders when it comes to overuse of exclamation points. Drives me crazy.

wdk said...

I also like the modulation that variety of punctuation affords.

I can understand the child educator's thing; the exclamation mark shows enthusiasm. But too much waters it down, and is irritating.

I have been editing out all of the exclamation marks in OMT, the book. But I did, today, choose to keep in just one. The whole book is about fifty-five thousand words - there goes my quota.

張怡 said...
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魏江伶魏江伶 said...

人們不缺少力量,他們缺少意志。..................................................

蔡舜娟蔡舜娟 said...

你不能決定生命的長度,但你可以控制它的寬度..................................................................

佳瑩佳瑩 said...
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DaniloM_W志竹olff0615 said...

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat..................................................................

怡謝伶 said...

We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull, Some have weird names , and all are different colors, but they all have to live in the same box .............................................................

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I saw a comedic sketch the other day on t.v. where the comedian said the colon and especially the semi colon have never had so much attention since the internet. He went on to say how his wife saw an email from an old girlfriend ended with a semi colon and how the semi colon nearly ruined his marriage ;)