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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Recently someone asked me what my favorite punctuation mark was. I did not even hesitate. The semicolon. Duh. To me, the semicolon has a certain elegance, like a vodka martini; I don’t whip it out every day, but on occasion, and with great relish. So it was with shock that I read a recent Boston Globe article suggesting that my favorite punctuation mark is … girlie? An excerpt:
The credit probably belongs to Trevor Butterworth, who in 2005 — citing Truss as partial inspiration — wrote a 2,700-word essay on the semicolon in the Financial Times. Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme’s sense that the mark was “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.
Ben McIntyre, writing in the Times of London a couple of months later, added to the collection of semicolon snubbers: Kurt Vonnegut called the marks “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, “wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons.”
And Kilpatrick, in a 2006 column, restated those sentiments at a higher pitch, calling the semicolon “girly,” “odious,” and “the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented.”
Well. I asked our Broadsheet writers — and our eminent book critics Laura Miller and Louis Bayard — to chime in with their opinions. — Sarah Hepola
Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.
Catherine Price: I’d never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.
Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?
Judy Berman: The em dash actually has feminine connotations for me. It could have something to do with Emily Dickinson, or my former boss (a woman), whose em-dash habit I eventually picked up. Either way, semicolons do tend to result in longer sentences, and I think those have long been seen as the “feminine” answer to short, abrupt “masculine” sentences. Generally, though, the attempt to declare any type of punctuation masculine or feminine seems pretty reductive to me.
Kate Harding: Seems to me they’re arguing that complex thoughts and nuanced self-expression are chick things, and I’m not touching that one.
Katharine Mieszkowski: Confidential to the Boston Globe: The semicolon is so not “girly.” It’s obviously transgender. It’s neither a colon nor a period, with its own unique significance. Have these people never heard of <a href="http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2008/08/14/antm/index.html?source=rss&aim=/mwt/broadsheet “>”America’s Next Top Model”?
Laura Miller: I love semicolons. They represent a certain development of thought, however, and a degree of emotional nuance that I would not associate with the writers [in the above block quote], especially with the superficially stoic but actually sentimental Hemingway (and, to a lesser degree, Chandler). To the degree that a writer is crude and relatively simplistic in the representation of psychological states and emotions, I can see why he would eschew the semicolon. None of these guys are especially precise in that department.
Nicholson Baker, on the other hand, wrote a whole essay on the colon-dash and semicolon-dash, two now obsolete forms of punctuation that he thought should be revived.
Louis Bayard: Not only do I use semicolons, but when I see someone else use them (correctly) I elevate that person to a private pantheon. As Laura says, it’s a very nuanced thing — a test of ear and eye — but delightful when done right. I haven’t read it in 20 years, but in “The World According to Garp,” I believe Garp warms to another character when she uses a semicolon in her letters.
Lynn Harris: Wait. And the period is manly?
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)