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From the Editors' Association of Canada

Kill 'em all

By Jim Taylor

Dare I recommend euthanasia in these pages? Not for people, but for certain punctuation marks?

I received a letter from the normally punctilious National Geographic Society, informing me that I may have overpaid my account with them.

"Please use this form to respond," they wrote. "Return this completed form to: National Geographic Books…. Or, you may call our customer service representatives at: 1-888…"

Notice the colons in those two sentences.

I understand a colon to function something like a weak period. That is, like a period, it must follow a complete sentence, but without completely shutting the sentence down, because a list follows.

But these two examples from National Geographic have neither a complete sentence preceding the colon, nor a list following it. The colon serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Yet this kind of abuse occurs constantly.

Semi-colons are not quite as badly abused, if one excludes legislation from language use generally. (I read one piece of legislation whose interminable clauses and subclauses, all sort of terminated by semi-colons, generated a fog index of 124! By way of comparison, the Reader's Digest currently aims for 8-10.) Yet semi-colons are equally misunderstood.

Theoretically, semi-colons have two uses: as "big commas," to introduce a second level of punctuation in a list that already requires commas; and as "small periods," connecting two short, complete, but often contrasting sentences.

Some understand these principles; most don't.

But semi-colons are now rarely necessary. The trend toward lists has made "big comma" semi-colons redundant. Unpunctuated bullet lists use visual space rather than punctuation to separate items. And the trend toward shorter sentences means that readers can cope equally well-perhaps better-with two separate sentences than with two ideas linked by an obscure dot and a squiggle.

I suggest it's time to subject both the colon and the semi-colon to a mercy killing. Put them out of their misery. Refuse to use them. Period.

It is not good enough merely to insist on correct usage. The public, I'm afraid, is too stupid to distinguish correct usage from incorrect. Ignorant people only see these two marks being used for mystical purposes and yearn to tap into their supernatural power by inserting the magic mantras at whatever seems like an appropriate place, rather like superstitious peasants imitating and mutilating priestly invocations into colloquial expressions and curses in the Dark Ages.

The only solution, I submit, is to excise the colon and semi-colon completely for at least a generation. Perhaps then, after those who have learned to use them wrongly have died out or retired, they can be resurrected as valuable tools for clarity in expression.

Jim Taylor is an honorary life member who has developed and still teaches EAC/ACR's popular Eight-Step Editing seminar, among others.

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