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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

More on Semicolons

To Howard's post below on semicolons, we can add a law school connection by noting a recent short article by Diana Simon, a professor at  the University of Arizona who, inter alia, teaches legal writing. Simon not only "detest[s] semicolons"; she believes they "should be given a proper burial," especially in legal writing. She offers three reasons, excerpted below:

1) "[T]eaching legal writing is challenging enough from a substantive standpoint, and there is no reason to inject the proper use of semicolons into an already steep learning curve. Semicolons require effort and thought."

2) "[W]e need to face facts: our students are not well-versed in punctuation and grammar in general, much less in the complex labyrinth of the semicolon. . . . "[L]egal writing instructors can teach the fundamentals of effective legal writing, such as accuracy, brevity, and clarity--without stepping into the quicksand of semicolons." 

3) Eliminating the semicolon will address "the elitist issue," that issue apparently being that semicolons have a "reputation for being overly formal and elitist," a reputation Simon appears to believe is well-deserved. 

De gustibus non est disputandum, as we overly formal elitists are wont to say. I am sympathetic, not to Simon's disdain for the semicolon, but to the difficulty and even unfairness of having to teach "punctuation and grammar in general" where prior educators, busy teaching students to "find[ ] their voice," have failed to do so. My sympathy is genuine, but that is where it ends. Engineering professors should not have to teach engineering students basic math, and we should grieve if they are faced with a situation where they have to. But students who are studying engineering must either master basic math or be dismissed from the study of engineering. That is so even if basic math requires effort and thought and even if these students have been poorly served by their math teachers. What is cause for despair is not cause for resignation. As for elitism, among other things it seems to me that leveling up and giving more people the gift of a full and rich written language is, like Jeremy Waldron's conception of dignity, more a matter of universalizing high social rank and that abandoning the effort will, if anything, help entrench the status and advantages of semicolon-loving elites. Moreover, although I was not bowled over by Oyler's case for semicolons, she is surely right in one respect: "That semicolons aren’t popular on social media . . . is perhaps the only argument some readers will need to be convinced of their value."  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 10, 2021 at 11:28 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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