Monday, March 3, 2008

The Meaning of 'Is' is?

I am one of those people easily peeved by the misuse of the semicolon. It is the probably the most misunderstood item in our punctuation toolbox. I constantly suffer its misuse at the hands of both my superiors and coworkers at school, as well as by my students in their various papers and writing assignments. I take solace in the fact that I never see professional writers misuse it. Until now. Read this statement by James Fallows, a writer at the Atlantic whose blog I enjoy:

"One of my rules of life is; there are a whole lot of terrible books out there, but many, many books deserve a better shake and wider audience than they receive."

I don't think he did this on purpose; I'm sure he meant to use a colon instead. But since he has no comments feature on his blog, I guess I will never know.

Please don't take me for one of those annoying prescriptive grammarians. I believe that, descriptively, any usage that is spoken by a significant sample of native speakers is "correct", since language is used and created and changed all the time by its users. However, I do not believe that we can change such grammatical rules as the one that states that the verb to be, or "is", must be followed by some type of object. And last time I checked, the semicolon separates two independent clauses, that is, two clauses that could be complete sentences if separated by a period. Fallow's first clause, above, fails this test.

Again, I hope James Fallows did this accidentally. If not, it might mean that:

a. I don't know as much as I think I do
b.the world is more f-ed up than I thought

I will not easily concede either of them :)


James Fallows said...

A friend sent me a link to your very nice blog plus this item. Ooops! That was a pure typo, which I have since corrected. I agree with you. The semicolon should be treated with care; it's too important a tool to use sloppily. J. Fallows

redman said...

wow, thanks James!

readers, take note: a famous person has, of his own free will, entered the hallowed ground of the wine wall. Let this be a turning point in this adventure.

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