Monday, February 25, 2008

Semicolon on the move

Here at p3, we're fans of the semicolon, at least in its place.

Who knew that "in its place" included the New York City Transit system?

Consider this instance of NYC Transit rule posting (or possibly a bit of free verse):

Doesn't matter what paper you read
Its language or viewpoint
Please put it in a trash can
That's good news for everyone

(Note: The NYTimes photo somehow manages to leave the placard in question out of focus and cropped on one corner, but that's what it appears to say at full magnification in my viewer. Nor is it clear from the photo if the other lines end in a punctuation mark. And lines 2 and 3 appear to be indented, although your browser may not display the indents, above.)

That's where the story begins:

It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train.

"Please put it in a trash can," riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency's marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, "that's good news for everyone."

But this bit of public transportation editing exposed the free-floating anti-grammarian prejudice--a prejudice, like so many, born of ignorance-- existing even cosmopolitan locations like New York City:

Semicolons are supposed to be introduced into the curriculum of the New York City public schools in the third grade. That is where Mr. Neches, the 55-year-old New York City Transit marketing manager, learned them, before graduating from Tilden High School and Brooklyn College, where he majored in English and later received a master's degree in creative writing.

But, whatever one's personal feelings about semicolons, some people don't use them because they never learned how.

In fact, when Mr. Neches was informed by a supervisor that a reporter was inquiring about who was responsible for the semicolon, he was concerned.

"I thought at first somebody was complaining," he said.

It's not clear from the photo if any of the other lines end with a punctuation mark. If the message on the placard was intended to be free verse (rather than one paragraph or four short paragraphs)--and the indentation of lines 2 and 3 at least suggests that--advocates of poetic license might argue that Neches crossed the line by adding the semicolon. But, unedited, the placard message does seem to recommend the use of a trash can only if that trash can is, itself, good news for everyone.

I say: Extremism in defense of the good old semicolon is no vice.

(Hat tip to Doctor Beyond.)

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