The article titled The Birth of the Semicolon published in The Paris Review (August 1, 2019) by Cecilia Watson is not to be missed. Here is just the beginning to whet your appetite for arcane knowledge offering clues to the development of formal language.
The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing, and they called for the study and retranscription of Greek and Roman classical texts as a way to effect a “cultural rebirth” after the gloomy Middle Ages. In the service of these two goals, humanists published new writing and revised, repunctuated, and reprinted classical texts.
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“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” This appears to be a left-handed way of saying, “It’s all fiction.”
Don DeLillo continues with a more specific and even more demanding observation: “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture…”
When I studied rhetoric at the university we had several exercises designed to develop various skills in writing. One I remember well was to write detailed instructions so that anyone could read them and flawlessly perform the task described. My essay was called “Scratching the Grasshopper” and it dealt with the very Southern California effort of paddling a surfboard out beyond the shore break.
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The other day my cable services died and it took beaucoup de hours to get everything back online (unplug, wait, re-plug, cry). The first service to be restored (ironically since I could care less) was the television. Since it was now Tuesday I suppose I was happy that I wouldn’t miss my Sunday night show. While testing the television service I flipped through many channels with satisfactory results (see disclaimer above) and uncharacteristically left the television on, in case the fix was only temporary. I went into my office to work on my Internet connection and could hear that Sesame Street was playing on the television. I thought I had left the room with HBO playing so I went back into the living room to be surprised that Sesame Street was now on HBO (it left PBS?).
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