Hartford Courant (Sunday)

Some new books on lan­guage to spread some hol­i­day cheer

- By Rob Kyff Spe­cial to The Courant Herman Melville · New York City · Mark Zuckerberg · Africa · Raymond Chandler

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, half-way 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/ Harper/Collins, $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 tip off 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 U-2!

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