By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Give Me That Old-Time Grammar

Front doors of Jesuit High School.Image via Wikipedia
On a summer lark, I picked up and read over two days the short best-seller on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.

Frankly, I was not as impressed by the book as I thought I should have been given that it was a "runaway bestseller [sic]." I am amazed at what she ignored--a primary and seminal use of the semicolon, namely:

Use a semicolon rather than a comma before and, or, nor, but, and for in a compound sentence if--

A Either clause is long--say, three or four lines.

B Either clause contains a comma, colon, dash, or parentheses.

Michael P. Kammer, S.J., and Charles W. Mulligan, S.J., Writing Handbook (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1953) (my old 8th grade grammar book used at the Jesuit high school which I attended and which is shown above).

This rule is not trivial. You will find occasion to use it very frequently. I have made the correction innumerable times as a teacher grading papers. Here is an example of an application of the above rule from the same handbook:

You may take the six-o'clock train, slow-traveling but comfortable; or you may take the express, less convenient, perhaps, but faster.


The commas in either independent clause make the semicolon necessary so that the break between the two independent clauses is emphatically noted in contrast to the mere pauses noted by the commas in each clause. One comma in one of the clauses would have been sufficient to justify the semicolon. The 1996 second edition of the Writing Handbook (pictured above) retains the same rule except that it apparently deletes the use of parentheses as sufficient to invoke the rule.

Based on my reading and that of a friend, Ms. Truss does not address this non-trivial use of the semicolon.

Yes, give me that old-time Catholic grammar.

P.S. My only other argument with the book is the tedious bemoaning of the effect of the internet on writing. I think all of this moaning and groaning is so much rubbish. People who do not know grammar wrote badly long before the internet, as documented in the Truss book. People who do not know grammar write badly on the internet--nothing new under the sun. Those of us fortunate enough to have a solid foundation in grammar are delighted with the new technology and its removal of barriers to entry into the world of publication. As the Christophers say, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

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