Hartford Courant (Sunday)

Some new books on language to spread some holiday cheer

- By Rob Kyff Special to The Courant

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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