Put some words in your wassail and some punctuation in your punch this holiday season with one of these new books about language.
Speaking of punctuation, the poor semicolon, long derided as a squishy, halfway compromise between the comma and the period, finally gets its due in Cecelia Watson's "Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark" (Ecco Press, $19.99). Citing authors ranging from Herman Melville to Raymond Chandler, Watson shows how the versatile semicolon can sometimes launch a sentence forward "like a stone skipping across water." Eloquent and slyly irreverent, Watson makes a case for the graceful and creative use of all forms of punctuation.
On the internet, a semicolon denotes a wink (;), and that's the realm Gretchen McCulloch explores in "Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language" (Riverhead Books, $26). The "because noun" construction of the title is a trendy internet trope and a tipoff to the book's savvy, incisive style. Internet-ese can seem chaotic, so McCulloch helpfully points out some of its conventions and devices: a keysmash (asdfjkl) signals exasperation; using ALL CAPS indicates shouting; a tilde conveys sarcasm ("isn't she ~adorable"); and "expressive lengthening" boosts intensity ("yesssss," "sweeeeet").
For those of us still trying to choose between "affect" and "effect," Sean Williams serves up a handy helper: "English Grammar: 100 Tragically Common Grammar Mistakes* (*And How To Correct Them)" (Zephyros Press, $10.99). Her nifty advice deftly dispatches many of our perennial demons: "who/whom" (If you can replace the word with "he" or "she," use "who"); "farther/further" (Use "farther" for physical distance). I especially enjoyed her suggested substitutions for long-winded phrases, e.g., "in view of the fact that" ("because"), "make a determination" ("decide").
Banishing gobbledygook is also on the mind of Trish Hall in "Writing To Persuade: How To Bring People Over to Your Side" (Liveright, $26.95). Hall, a former editor of The New York Times op-ed page, shows that clear, crisp writing can win over even the crustiest skeptic. Her advice: Abandon jargon. Prune ruthlessly. Be specific. As an editor, she once had to ask Mark Zuckerberg and the rock singer Bono to trim down and revise an op-ed piece about Africa they'd co-written. Even these celebrities, she notes, had to meet her strict standards of concision and clarity.
And that goes for U2!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.