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Posts Tagged ‘language’

11 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Theodor Adorno on the Art of Punctuation


A manifesto for the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.”

Mary Oliver once joked — perhaps semi-seriously, as is the poet’s prerogative — that each writer has a finite lifetime quota of punctuation, which should be used judiciously to shepherd language into as much elegant submission as the writer is capable of. But half a century earlier, in 1956, the legendary German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and media critic Theodor Adorno (September 11, 1903–August 6, 1969) penned an essay titled “Punctuation Marks,” in which he made it abundantly clear that punctuation was no joke — used well, he argued, it bespeaks the writer’s mastery of language; deployed thoughtlessly or haphazardly, it is at best a giveaway of a novice writer’s nervousness and at worst a shameful assault on the written word. A translation of it by Shierry Weber Nicholsen was first published in the Summer 1990 issue of the poetry journal The Antioch Review and later included in Jennifer DeVere Brody’s altogether excellent Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play (public library), the essay explores the “definitive physiognomic status” of each punctuation mark, its uses and abuses in the hands of writers, and how punctuation helps shed light on the relationship between language and music which, as we know, worked in tandem to help humanity evolve.

Adorno begins with a wink, remarking on the resemblance a punctuation mark’s form has to its symbolic function:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning;a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping mustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (« ») lick their lips.

But more than mere visual diversion, Adorno notes, punctuation marks are the stitches that hold the quilt of language together and are thus impossible to ignore:

Instead of diligently serving the interplay between language and the reader,they serve, hieroglyphically, an interplay that takes place in the interior of language, along its own pathways. Hence it is superfluous to omit them as being superfluous: then they simply hide. Every text, even the most densely woven, cites them of its own accord — friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.

Adorno considers the evolution of punctuation marks, as much a stylistic pawn in the hands of fads and fashions as any element of culture:

History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history,far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation.


The historical character of punctuation marks can be seen in the fact that what becomes outdated in them is precisely what was once modern in them. Exclamation points, gestures of authority with which the writer tries to impose an emphasis external to the matter itself, have become intolerable,while the sforzato, the musical counterpart of the exclamation point, is as indispensable today as it was in Beethoven’s time, when it marked the incursion of the subjective will into the musical fabric.

Indeed, he reserves special lamentation for the discouraging fate of the exclamation point, demoted from a medium of art to a greedy grubbing for attention where language alone fails to induce it:

Exclamation points, however, have degenerated into usurpers of authority, assertions of importance. It was exclamation points, incidentally, that gave German Expressionism its graphic form. Their proliferation was both a protest against convention and a symptom of the inability to alter the structure of language from within; language was attacked from the outside instead. Exclamation points survive as tokens of the disjunction between idea and realization in that period, and their impotent evocation redeems them in memory: a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.

He moves on to the dash — not “the serious dash” of the nineteenth century that Adorno admires as “wrinkles on the brow of [the] text” (and not — though, oddly enough, he makes no effort to note the notable exception — Emily Dickinson’s spectacular and graceful use of the mark that “both reaches out and holds at bay”), but the application of the dash as an ill-fated effort to assuage the writer’s anxiety:

Literary dilettantes … hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras. But the dash provides instruction in them. In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. It is no accident that in the era of the progressive degeneration of language, this mark of punctuation is neglected precisely insofar as it fulfills its function: when it separates things that feign a connection. All the dash claims to do now is to prepare us in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.

Adorno eviscerates with equal zeal the corruption of the ellipsis in the hands of “hacks”:

The ellipsis, a favorite way of leaving sentences meaningfully open during the period when Impressionism became a commercialized mood, suggests an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something the hack journalist does not have; he must depend on typography to simulate them. But to reduce the three dots borrowed from the repeating decimal fractions of arithmetic to two … is to imagine that one can continue with impunity to lay claim to that fictive infinitude by costuming as exact something whose inherent intention is to be inexact. The punctuation of the brazen hack is no better than that of the modest hack.

He offers a prescription for the proper use of quotation marks, cautioning particularly against the use of ironic quotes — which makes one picture Adorno at a cocktail party, splashing an indignant cold beverage in the face of any conversation partner who dares to gesticulate “air quotes.” Adorno writes:

Quotation mark should be used only when something is quoted and if need be when the text wants to distance itself from a word it is referring to. They are to be rejected as an ironic device. For they exempt the writer from the spirit whose claim is inherent in irony, and they violate the very concept of irony by separating it from the matter at hand and presenting a predetermined judgment on the subject.

(I have always cringed similarly at writers’ use of italics for artificial emphasis — if the writing itself is strong enough, it should imply the urgent significance of that word or phrase rather than stylize it. There are, of course — as with anything in life — some very limited exceptions.)

Adorno has a special soft spot for the semicolon — those peculiar in-between marks bridging period and comma, of which Kurt Vonnegut memorably scoffed: “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Adorno, however, laments the death of the semicolon as a real loss for the artistry of language and points to our impatience with long-form reading — more than half a century before our present era of short-form-everything — as the culprit:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace — by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures.

But Adorno’s highest litmus test for elegance in writing is reserved for the thoughtful deployment of parentheses:

The test of a writer’s sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets, for brackets take the parenthesis completely out of the sentence, creating enclaves, as it were, whereas nothing in good prose should be unnecessary to the overall structure. By admitting such superfluousness, brackets implicitly renounce the claim to the integrity of the linguistic form and capitulate to pedantic philistinism. Dashes, in contrast, which block off the parenthetical material from the flow of the sentence without shutting it up in a prison, capture both connection and detachment. But just as blind trust in their power to do so would be illusory, in that it would expect of a mere device something that only language and subject matter can accomplish, so the choice between dashes and brackets helps us to see how inadequate abstract norms of punctuation are. Proust, whom no one can lightly call a philistine and whose pedantry is but one aspect of his wonderful micrological power, did not hesitate to use brackets, presumably because in the extended periods of his sentences the parenthetical material became so long that its sheer length would have nullified the dashes. The parentheses need more solid dams if they are not to flood the whole period and promote the chaos from which each of these periods was wrested, breathlessly… Proust’s bracketed parentheses, which interrupt both the graphic image and the narrative, are memorials to the moments when the author, weary of aesthetic illusion and distrustful of the self-contained quality of events which he is after all only making up, openly takes the reins.

Indeed, the paradoxical allure of parentheses appears emblematic of the entire problem of punctuation, at once deletable and despairing. Echoing Steinbeck’s admonition against writing rules, Adorno concludes:

The writer is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks; if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether. For the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible: in punctuation marks the check the writer draws on language is refused payment. The writer cannot trust in the rules, which are often rigid and crude; nor can he ignore them without indulging in a kind of eccentricity and doing harm to their nature by calling attention to what inconspicuous — and inconspicuousness is what punctuation lives by. . . . The conflict must be endured each time, and one needs either a lot of strength or a lot of stupidity not to lose heart. At best one can advise that punctuation marks be handled the way musicians handle forbidden chord progressions and incorrect voice-leading. In every act of punctuation, as in every such musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness. To put it more subtly, one can sense the difference between a subjective will that brutally demolishes the rules and a tactful sensitivity that allows the rules to echo in the background even where it suspends them.

For more on the uses and abuses of typographic marks in writing, dive into Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, then revisit the curious story of the failed crusade for an irony mark and this growing archive of famous writers’ advice on writing.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Mary Oliver on the Magic of Punctuation and a Reading of Her Soul-Stretching Poem “Seven White Butterflies”


“All eternity is in the moment.”

It’s hard to be human and be unmoved by the grace with which Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) captures the subtleties and mysteries of being alive, from her exquisite poems to her soul-stretching ideas about poetry itself. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Oliver’s lyrical mastery renders her the Whitman of our day and her sublime attunement to the transcendent in nature place her alongside Thoreau.

In this recording from an event held by the Lannan Foundation in 2001, Oliver shares an entertaining thought about punctuation as a control mechanism and reads her intentionally punctuationless prose poem “Seven White Butterflies,” found in the altogether enchanting volume West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (public library).

One of our great assistances is, of course, punctuation. But it occurred to me that, perhaps, each of us writers has only perhaps a finite amount of it for our use, and we should use it judiciously — lest we hear a voice, suddenly, when we need, saying, “No more semicolons!” “You’re finished with your dashes!” — and, also, that passive-aggressive comma, with which we so carefully set off what is nice, so it won’t be missed — don’t we?

So I thought of, for fun — and I’ve done that a few times — I would write a poem that uses no punctuation (and this particular one has a question mark, which is quite apparent, at the end) and see what I could do simply with the line break and the cadence of the line and so forth. And it is a little breathless to read, and perhaps to listen to, but here goes: it’s called “Seven White Butterflies.”

Seven white butterflies
delicate in a hurry look
how they bang the pages
of their wings as they fly
to the fields of mustard yellow
and orange and plain
gold all eternity
is in the moment this is what
Blake said Whitman said such
wisdom in the agitated
motions of the mind seven
dancers floating
even as worms toward
paradise see how they banter
and riot and rise
to the trees flutter
lob their white bodies into
the invisible wind weightless
lacy willing
to deliver themselves unto
the universe now each settles
down on a yellow thumb on a
grassy stem now
all seven are rapidly sipping
from the golden towers who
would have thought it could be so easy?

That cost me one question mark.

Complement with a beautiful reading from Oliver’s Dog Songs and the beloved poet on the mystery of the human psyche.

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04 AUGUST, 2014

The Best-Kept Secret of Clichés: How to Upgrade Our Uses and Abolish Our Abuses of Language


A manifesto against mindless language, or how to get off autopilot in the art of communication.

“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980, lamenting the commodification of wisdom. But there is a yet greater abuse of language that bespeaks such impatience that bleeds into cognitive laziness — the aphorism’s cousin, the cliché, arguably the most successful meme of language. In It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (public library), lexicographer and linguistics researcher Orin Hargraves embarks on a quest to empower you to “proceed with the confidence that you have made peace with clichés through greater understanding and that you have established a relationship with them that will serve your interests when you write and speak.”

That understanding begins with the word itself: Hargraves points out that it comes from French, where it originally denoted “a convenience of printing, specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies” — hence its present semantic representation of a reusable template-expression. Hargraves outlines his mission in unambiguous terms:

I have persisted in my attempt to stop some clichés in their flight, capture and anesthetize them, splay their dull wings, pin them to the specimen board, and make them visible for all to see, so that they may be revealed in their true lack of color. My intention is to make speakers and writers more aware of the occasions when they are using clichés or when they think that they need to — for it must surely be the case that clichés are largely used mindlessly, given their viral proliferation. An increased awareness of clichés and the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication should serve as a motive for language users to consider alternatives to them.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

Indeed, this viral nature of clichés is both the reason for their success and their greatest failure of imagination. Hargraves explains:

A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared… Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.

And yet defining what makes a cliché remains a tricky endeavor — while most language scholars agree that its core characteristics are “overuse and ineffectiveness,” it’s hard to arrive at agreement over these qualities or who is to judge their degree of manifestation. Hargraves writes:

Nearly all judgments about what constitutes a cliché have traditionally relied on consensus: if enough people think a form of words is overused, or if a person who is perceived as having some authority about language declares such a thing, then the word or phrase becomes a cliché. The result of this haphazard process is that many phrases are designated clichés without there being evidence of their frequent use. That is, infrequently used words and phrases may be deemed clichés, simply because a large number of people, or a small number of influential people, find them annoying or designate them as clichés for some other reason… But they are never annoying in equal measure, to the same people, in the same contexts, and for the same reasons.

But while human judgments of what constitutes overuse are invariably subjective, lexicographers can turn to artificial intelligence for a more reliable assessment. A corpus — “a collection of natural language in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of linguistic research” — can reveal statistical relationships between words and their usage in specific groupings in natural speech or writing. Hargraves explains:

From these statistics emerge portraits of the life of words, their mating habits, their abuses, their triumphs and failings, in a much clearer and more comprehensive light than can be gleaned from casual reading or listening; it is a portrait that is far more dependable than the one that results from merely consulting your intuition about how often a form of words is used or whether people use it consistently, aptly, or inappropriately. Modern computational lexicography makes it possible to learn at a glance which pairs or groups of words are getting together far more often than their overall frequency in the language suggests that they would. Such pairings of words are called collocations and may include typical combinations representing several different parts of speech, such as adjective + noun (like abject poverty), noun + noun (like software download), or adverb + verb (like virtually guarantee).

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Alistair Reid's 'Ounce Dice Trice,' a children's book that plays with extraordinary names for ordinary things. Click image for details.

Often, however, it is misuse rather than overuse that renders something a cliché. Hargraves offers an illustrative example:

Take the noun phrase best-kept secret. Best-kept, as an adjective, has few uses in English other than to precede the word secret, and discounting the adjective dark, best-kept is the adjective most likely to be found preceding secret in nearly every genre of writing. But as a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are “kept.” This, in effect, makes both parts of this compound expression not very meaningful. It is also the case that the best-kept secret is found preponderantly in journalism, a medium that is by its nature contrary to the idea of “secret.”

Indeed, Hargraves holds journalism particularly accountable for perpetuating clichés — the very tendency, no doubt, that originated the disparaging pun “churnalism.” He writes:

Of all genres … none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché… Many phrases originate in genres outside of journalism and continue to have a specific or technical meaning in their place of origin: matter of fact in law, for example, or exhibit a tendency in scientific writing. Once an expression has made a home in the fertile and supportive soil of journalism, however, it thrives and grows in thick patches, often losing its particular semantic characteristics.

He goes on to bemoan the fact that “journalism contains more clichés per unit of text than any other genre” and later hones the precision of his arrow, making the unambiguous assertion that “journalism is demonstrably the greatest repository of cliché in English,” adding that “this is not a criticism, just a fact.” Curiously, though, Hargraves makes a distinction between “journalism” and “blogging,” chastising them on a sliding scale of “spreading and popularizing (and thus further deadening) clichéd expressions” — a rather dated divide in an era when some of the best independent journalism takes place on “blogs” and every major print publication has an online presence of the “blog” variety. (Blogs, he argues, are “full of unedited writing that is shot through with clichés, which are gobbled up uncritically by the avid perusers of these genres” — a rather ungenerous depiction of online readers, to say nothing of writers.) Journalism, after all, is a genre of cultural commentary and criticism, and a blog is merely a platform for publishing, whatever the genre — comparing a genre to a platform seems, to use the appropriate and thus non-clichéd idiom, an apples-to-oranges proposition.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words,' 1948. Click image for details.

But misplaced distinction aside, Hargraves makes a gravely valid and urgent point about the responsibility of writers today, be they “journalists” or “bloggers,” in an age when writing is considered “content” and treated as the vacant page-filler the term implies; when Emerson and Longfellow’s journal lives on to publish “native advertising” for the Church of Scientology on the web and once-reputable business magazines have reincarnated as listicle-purveyors online. Echoing Schopenhauer’s lament on writing “for the sake of filling up paper,” Hargraves’s words ring with particular poignancy in our present context of formulaic language that borders on content farming:

People who are required to write — whether hastily or not — and those who write without any awareness of what separates good writing from bad, such as poorly educated students or poorly read adults, naturally write in a semiautomatic style… Taken together then, carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print.


Journalists are required to produce verbiage hastily most of the time. While their work is typically edited, it is not edited for clichés because cliché is a substantial part of the code of journalism, and consumers of journalism accept conventional and stereotyped ways of expressing ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, as part of the diet. Because of the natural tendency of speakers and writers to be influenced by what they read and hear, it is also inescapable that journalists are the greatest vectors of cliché in English.

Therein lies Hargraves’s most important point — a case for the eradication of clichés as a political act, part of our shared civic responsibility as readers, writers, and users of language. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s manifesto for the glory of language, he writes:

There is so much writing and speech that has clearly been done with no clear thought given to the purpose of the words that compose it. If all writing was entirely of this kind, it seems likely that people would be put off reading and clichés would live in a rather small, moribund world that would eventually extinguish itself. But we all must read, whether for entertainment, vital communication, or acquiring new information; and all of the writing we read is bound to contain some portion of cliché. Because of these factors we cannot help exposing ourselves to cliché and being infected by it. Whether we become active vectors of cliché ourselves is a matter of choice. All that is required for clichés to flourish is for good writers to disengage their attention from what they are doing.


A cliché in itself and by definition has no element of originality and if a cliché is to be used, it places greater demands on a thoughtful writer to justify its use in preference to a more straightforward or succinct expression. Requiring a cliché to do more than it normally does by extending its meaning, application, or reference is one way to do this.

What Penguin publisher Sir Allen Lane memorably said of design, Hargraves asserts about language:

It takes only a little more time, but considerably more effort, to write mindfully than it does to write mindlessly. You have to engage your intellect and examine the requirements of what you mean to express, and the words available to do it for you. But writing mindfully can be developed to become a habit with some effort, just as writing mindlessly becomes a habit with no effort.

In the remainder of It’s Been Said Before, Hargraves draws on corpus data to identify some of the most toxic clichés in the English language and goes on to equip us with the tools and critical thinking necessary for using more imaginative alternatives to them. Complement it with a stimulating examination of another centerpiece of linguistic communication, the magical world of metaphor, then revisit these five excellent books on language.

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