Monthly Archives: September 2012

Semicolons are useful little chaps!

I trust that you all plan on celebrating National Punctuation Day on Monday (as Lewis Carroll once said, in a slightly different context, “O frabjous day!  Callooh! Callay!”).

Today—in honor of that frabjous day—we discuss semicolons, of which Abraham Lincoln once said, “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling.  But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”

There are many uses for semicolons, one of which is illustrated by the quote from Abraham Lincoln.  Semicolons separate—yet link—closely related ideas when a comma would be too weak and a period would be too strong.  Usually, the ideas are expressed in two independent clauses (grammatically complete sentences that could stand on their own), e.g.,

  • I never vote for anyone; I always vote against.  (W. C. Fields)
  • Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people.  Forget yourself.  (Henry Miller)
  • I love the semicolon; it’s unnecessary, but graceful and sophisticated.  (Brian P. Cleary)

As you can see, the ideas expressed on either side of the semicolon (after inserting the implied subject omitted from the second sentences) constitute their own complete sentences, and could be separated by a “full stop”—i.e., a period.  They could also be separated by a “soft stop”—i.e., a comma.  But stylistically, a period seems too strong and a comma seems too weak.  The answer, it seems, is the semicolon.  By using it instead of a comma or period, you show that the ideas expressed in the two sentences have a closer relationship to each other than to the sentences around them.

So Lincoln was right; the semicolon is a useful little chap!

That is all for now …

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Please, avoid over-explanation of names!

Today we discuss a particular form of tedious detail that should be avoided:  the over-explanation of names.  In his judicial style sheet, Judge Thomas Gibbs Gee admonishes, “No overparticularization, which can throw your reader off by causing him to try to keep track of things that do not matter.”  A Few of Wisdom’s Idiosyncrasies and a Few of Ignorance’s, 1 Scribe’s Legal Writing 55, 57 (1990).  Over-explanation of names has two problems:  it injects unnecessary facts, and it defines the obvious.

So if a shorthand name isn’t necessary to understanding the issues and if there is no danger that the reader will be confused without it, then don’t put it in a parenthetical, e.g.:

Correct:

In this lawsuit, plaintiff Philip Marlowe asserts an unfair competition claim against his former partner, defendant Sam Spade.  Spade’s summary judgment motion should be granted for three reasons.  First, because Spade did not . . .

Incorrect:

In this lawsuit, plaintiff Philip Marlowe (“Marlowe”) asserts an unfair competition claim against his former partner, defendant Sam Spade (“Spade”).  Spade’s summary judgment motion should be granted for three reasons.  First, because Spade did not . . .

That is all for now …

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