Semicolons are cool use one now and then

December 05, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- ''Why can't the English,'' demands Henry Higgins of Colonel Pickering, ''learn to speak?'' Speak properly, he means -- not like the h-dropping Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, or the unlettered primitives over in America.

There's no good answer to Professor Higgins' question, which is still being asked on both sides of the water. There's as much despair over the state of the written and spoken language in our day as there was in his, which of course was before it came under intense assault by radio and television, as well as by newspaper writers. Our perceived written and spoken failings continue to haunt us.

New books on English grammar and style are hot sellers among the insecure and the pedantic alike. The authors try endlessly to balance what's proper and traditional with what's modern; stylebook consumers generally want to get their use of the language right, yet not so right as to sound stuffy and out-of-date.

To end the confusion, although it will probably have quite the opposite effect, the Oxford University Press has just issued a revised and updated edition of Henry Watson Fowler's classic ''Modern English Usage.'' The controversy over this publishing event is likely to match that which used to attend revisions of the King James Bible, at least until the ''improvements'' offered by the newest editions became so loony that no reasonable person paid attention any more.

Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at Random House, manages to make some sense of what's involved here in a review of the new Fowler for the Atlantic Monthly.

Those people who care about English usage, he observes, tend to be either ''prescriptive'' or ''descriptive.''

The ''prescriptives'' are the conservatives, who believe that there are firm rules of usage, and that one should stick closely to them or risk vulgarity. The ''descriptives,'' who tend to be lexicographers or others with a scholarly interest in language, are the liberals. They hold that whatever's common today is probably what's correct, whether or not it follows the accepted usage of an earlier time.

Ordinary people tend to prefer the ''prescriptives,'' on the not unreasonable belief that if you go to the trouble of learning the rules, you don't want to have them constantly revised by a bunch of uppity academics. Fowler, a sometime schoolteacher and journalist who published ''The King's English'' in 1906 and ''Modern English Usage'' 20 years later, was a ''prescriptive,'' but a relaxed and cheerful one.

Introducing an essay on the split infinitive, for example, he observed that English speakers include ''1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; 2) those who do not know, but care very much; 3) those who know and condemn; 4) those who know and approve; and 5) those who know and distinguish.'' But those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, he added, and are probably much the happier for it.

(That other cheerful stylist, E.B. White, says in ''The Elements of Style'' that ''Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. 'I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.' The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. A matter of ear.'' Fowler would agree.)

Reference to pleasure

I don't own a copy of ''Modern English Usage,'' either the original or the 1965 revision by Sir Ernest Gowers or the controversial new edition by Robert Burchfield, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. But I do have ''The King's English,'' and refer to it often, for pleasure as much as for reference.

Sometimes I file things in it. When I got it down the other day a wonderful essay on the semicolon by Barbara Mallonee of Loyola College, published on this page a few years ago, fell out. It made me want to sprinkle a few semicolons of my own around; they're useful little critters, and Ms. Mallonee holds out hope that they'll survive many more changes in stylistic fashion.

One of Fowler's better essays is on what he calls ''elegant variation,'' meaning the substitution of one word or phrase for another for the sake of variety, and often with the unintended result of awkwardness or absurdity. Variation is sometimes necessary, he concedes, but when it's overdone it gives the writing ''the air of cheap ornament.''

A rural newspaper on which I once worked took elegant variation to dizzying levels. A story about a cow would be likely, by the second paragraph, to refer to ''the bovine.'' What the cow produced was ''milk'' in the first reference, ''the white liquid'' in the second. And so on. The sports pages, more gracefully, do this too; Navy defeated Purdue which edged Vassar which crushed Yale which overwhelmed Frostburg State . . .

As Professor Higgins almost said, there are places in the world where English completely disappears; in much of the media, they haven't used it for years. (Note the semicolon. Isn't that cool?)

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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