One Wednesday evening recently, as we put the finishing touches on another print edition of The Times, we chatted about semi-colons. At your dinner table, semi-colons may have been the furthest thing from your list of table talk topics. But, in newsrooms large and small, metropolitan and rural, the wretched folk that ply this tortured trade are notorious chatterboxes, all agenda items welcome, and they’re multi-taskers. They can button up the front page, write headlines, proofread copy, and conduct a feverish discussion of any topic at all. It doesn’t have to be a big issue, for instance whether the newspaper they work for has been sold out from under them or whether the newspaper that is their competitor has. It doesn’t have to be the latest Tweet or Facebook post about A-Rod or the latest viral YouTube video of an Abyssinian cat playing the Goldberg variations or the story of political corruption that readers will wake to on publication morning. Sometimes, it’s semi-colons, or exclamation points, or even commas.
When one invites Letters to the Editor or online Comments, as The Times does, one confronts the prose composition eccentricities of the masses. Over the years these have included not only language, grammar, punctuation, vulgarities, and topic anomalies, but even excursions that aren’t prose at all. It seems there is an unquenchable desire among some in the newspaper’s readership to write letters in verse. It’s a delightful notion, and poetry has its place of course, but it isn’t the easiest sort of communication to commit in cold blood. It requires sensitivity, empathetic understanding, and a feeling for symbolism — skills that the run-of-the-mill newspaper reader doesn’t expect to be called upon to exercise while he chews his beef jerky. It doesn’t find its natural home among the letters. Plus, I’ve learned that if you publish one poem as if it were a letter, the inbox surges with poetry of all denominations. So, we’ve given the poets a church of their own now, at the Poetry Corner in the Community section of the newspaper every week.
Among the weirdest of our correspondents are those who are committed to the most self-effacing kind of expression. They do not use capitalization to signal the beginning of a new sentence, or to distinguish proper nouns. They are grammatically modest, to a confusing degree. For these, I is i, and God (or god) forbid a reader might conclude that the writer’s opinion of himself is exalted. Strangely, the use of that un-capped i in sentence after sentence may infiltrate some ambiguity into the reader’s assessment of the writer’s apparent humility, but each of us is free to make up her own mind about that.
For reasons that I think are wholly unrelated to the no I in i impulse, other writers omit periods at the ends of sentences, preferring the mark for ellipses instead. Thus, john visited judy this evening… they watched some tv then ate some ice cream…then…
The three dots don’t indicate the end of a sentence, as some letter writers imagine that they do. The period, acting alone, does that. The three dots can indicate an elision or omission, something left out, and not by accident. It may also suggest that the writer merely lost his thread and instead of searching for it said an unspoken what the hell and went on. In addition, such omissions leave questions. We wonder, Then, what? Others, attempting to communicate with their neighbors through the Letters column leave out periods altogether. The letter is one long utterly unpunctuated sentence. Their view, I think, is that the editor should straighten all this out, and maybe he can make sense out of what I was trying to say. The combination of these compositional quirks makes it a chore to render into publishable prose.
Occasionally, the writer will get the urge to add some pop to his message. He brings out the all-caps big guns figuring he’ll give whatever he had in mind a sound beating, and thump the readers too. JOHN VISITED JUDY THIS EVENING… THEY WATCHED SOME TV THEN ATE SOME ICE CREAM THEN… Apparently, the information didn’t matter so much as the emphasis. For all these people, semi-colons, capitalization, and even commas are the least of their worries, and don’t get me started on spelling.
I am not a fan of semi-colons, by the way, although I know they have a job to do in more formal written expression. But, for newspaper writing, I mostly gather them up and send the whole herd to the knackerman. Commas are different, and I like them, largely because they don’t just lay there on the printed page being merely grammatical or even puzzlingly so. Their job in informal writing of the sort letter writers and Comment posters – or editorial writers or columnists for that matter – attempt and often butcher is to say, Pause a beat, take a breath, now go on. They are particularly useful to clarify a complicated thought for the reader, especially if it began for the writer as a treasured thought but was on its way to being a jumble.
Anyway, the point of all this was to get to my feelings about exclamation points. And that is, I hate them. The problems are duplication and excess. When someone writes Wow, the word is an exclamation. Adding !!! adds nothing, except a disturbing sense that the writer is feigning an enthusiasm unwarranted and maybe oppressive. After all, no one is really three exclamation points eager, and if someone is, do we want to have written communication with such a person?
If you write Thanks, or even Thanks a lot, will the addition of one ! or even three !!! enlarge your gratitude or make it more heartfelt. If it was not heartfelt when it was represented by the word alone, how can it be more so with the added punctuation?
My theory — and you may conclude that it derives from my view that everything was better years ago, although that is not exactly my view — is that when we moved from typewriters to computer keyboards, writers embraced the license to clutter one’s prose with exclamation points. In the days of the Underwood, you could bang on the keys all you wanted, but you couldn’t find one labeled exclamation point. There were commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, even semi-colons, but no exclamation points. Writers kept their enthusiasms in check. They committed more modest prose. If you wanted to inflate your emotion, you had to type the period, then backspace, then type the shift-apostrophe. It was a nuisance, so writers restrained themselves. They used their words.
Today, the urge to go big or go away has encouraged writers to litter, and they do it with the exclamation point. There ought to be a law.