In praise of the semi-colon

An e-mail from Jogo:
This is a lovely story about a NYC public servant who composed a sentence for a subway placard using the semicolon aptly, dare one say perfectly.

Fine stewards of English, such as Lynne Truss and Louis Menand, praised this man. But Noam Chomsky did not. As you'll read in the story, he had something entirely different to say about it. His evil and inhuman coldness have never been better illustrated than by the few words he spoke when asked for his comment. I know that you comprehend the depth of his monstrousness. May you teach your children well.


I guess Chomsks was asked about the use of the semicolon as an expert on grammar but chose to reply as an "expert" on political science.

If he were so lucky as to be profiled by Norman Geras on his blog, to the question:

"If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently?" he would answer: I would have studied political science and be Norman Finklestein.

And wouldn't we all be better off if he gained his reputation for his dubious Leftist theories rather than become a legend in linguistics which then gave him the momentum to stick his nose where it doesn't belong?

"Evan Solomon: I just talked to Noam Chomsky, and I asked him about what went wrong, and he said, 'I'll tell you what went wrong, and this is what Bernard Lewis won't tell you. What went wrong is that we had profound support of repressive regimes, we had British imperialism that destroyed national industries in Egypt, we had American support of repressive regimes, like the Shah, that is not a move towards modernization, but rather a repressive regime. And what it is, the trouble there that is we have created artificial boundaries throughout Africa and our imperialist impulses that created problems they can't solve. It's not their problem. How do you respond?

Bernard Lewis: Well, Mr. Chomsky's views on Middle Eastern history are about as reliable as my views on linguistics, but I'll let that pass."
Jim Jepps said…
I wonder what else he said? After all it's unlikely he uttered one sentence and then hung up the phone...

I mean is it just possible that they quoted everyone else in order to make them look happy go lucky types and stuck Chomsky's "sniff" in as a deliberate dig?

I think you've been pretty trusting of the press's ability to select a representative sentence from a controversial figure without attempting to portray him in a bad light.

Without the transcript how do you know he didn't have some very pleasant things to say first? You don't.
bob said…
Good point from Jim. Having had the experience recently of seeing someone interviewed and then seeing the interview get screened, it wouldn't suprise me if his quote were utterly ripped out of context.

By the way, I just looked at to see what Noam's use of semi-colons is like. There are a number of perfect and near-perfect uses in the most recent article, "We own the world", which reads to me like someone transcribing his spoken comments. The second, a more scholarly article on Margaret Boden had one wrongly used semi-colon, and a few correctly used ones. And the third, Cold War II, had none at all. Interesting...

Maybe not! Anyway, I think the quote is very typical of Chomsky-thought, so I equally wouldn't be suprised if he wasn't ripped out of context.

Incidentally, Jim, if you're still here, I believe you are an eye-witness to Mark Steel's statement that he's left the SWP. Any more detail?
Bob is such a nice interlocutor. But really, Bob, I ask you, in what possible context could Chomskey's "I suppose Bush would claim it’s the effect of No Child Left Behind" be in any way relevant to a question about the perfect grammatical application of the semi-colon?

Whatever happened to his sense of fun, of humour?

“A sense of humor always withers in the presence of the messianic delusion, like justice and truth in front of patriotic passion”
(Henry Louis Mencken)

Manufactured "delusion" and unbridled "passion" being indeed symptoms of Chomskyitis.
bob said…
CC: perfect anlaysis, great Mencken quote. Lack of humour and fun is something I diagnosed as at the core of Chomskyism long ago, so I'm glad we agree. See:

Meanwhile, I'll try and stop being so nice.
Don't you dare! Niceness is a rare and greatly underestimated quality and practically unheard of in a socialist Marxist. The only exceptions that come to mind are you, Norm Geras and Alan Johnson. Perhaps a common fondness for Jane Austen might explain this aberration:-)

I read your detailed and painstaking analysis. I wish I had discovered your blog in 2005 which seems like a very distant past right now.
bob said…
Norm and Alan are good company to be in! I'm afraid I am not totally committed to Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice, but I just can't quite bring myself to read any more, even though I know I'll enjoy them, when there are so many sexier books on the shelf...
Bob: Jane Austen does not lack for sexiness. You have to know how to read her novels. Take a lesson from Prof. Morris Zapp...

"I couldn't understand the title you gave me, Professor Zapp."

"Eros and Agape in the later novels, wasn't it? What was the problem?"

The student hung his head. Morris felt in the mood for a little display of high-powered exposition. Agape, he explained, was a feast through which the early Christians expressed their love for one another, it symbolized non-sexual, non-individualized love, it was represented in Jane Austen's novels by social events that confirmed the solidarity of middle-class agrarian capitalist communities or welcomed new members into those communities--balls and dinner parties and sight-seeing expeditions and so on. Eros was of course sexual love and was represented in Jane Austen by courtship scenes, têtes-à-têtes, walking in pairs--any [194-195] encounter between the heroine and the man she loved, or thought she loved. Readers of Jane Austen, he emphasized, gesturing freely with his cigar, should not be misled by the absence of overt reference to physical sexuality in her fiction into supposing that she was indifferent or hostile to it. On the contrary, she invariably came down on the side of Eros against Agape--on the side, that is, of the private communion of lovers over against the public communion of social events and gatherings which invariably caused pain and distress (think for instance of the disastrous nature of group expeditions, to Sotherton in Mansfield Park, to Box Hill in Emma, to Lyme Regis in Persuasion). Getting into his stride, Morris demonstrated that Mr. Elton was obviously implied to be impotent because there was no lead in the pencil that Harriet Smith took from him; and the moment in Persuasion when Captain Wentworth lifted the little brat Walter off Anne Elliot's shoulders. . . . [authorial ellipses; nothing is omitted here or immediately below] He snatched up the text and read with feeling:

" . . . she found herself in the state of being released from him . . . Before she realized that Captain Wentworth had done it . . . he was resolutely borne away . . . Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles with the most disordered feelings. How about that?" he concluded reverently. "If that isn't an orgasm, what is it?" He looked up into three flabbergasted faces. The internal telephone rang. . . . [195-196]

"Where were we?" he said.

"Persuasion . . . "

"Oh, yeah."

The telephone rang again. . . . He covered the mouthpiece with one hand and said to the students, "Just read through that scene in Persuasion will you and try to analyse how it builds up to a climax. In every sense of the word." He leered at them encouragingly. . . ."
Anonymous said…
Two quick comments.

1) I've never quite understood the criticism of Chomsky that because he's not a university-trained poli sci prof, therefore his views must be naive and uninformed. (By contrast, I've long agreed with the criticism that Chomsky is humorless.)

2) Whatever we may think of Chomsky, his implicit criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act (that it is wrongly, even disingenuously, held up as a panacea for the problems of public education in the US) is dead on. NCLB is a nightmare for just about everyone except politicians.

Otherwise, the story about the semicolon was sweet...
It is hard to believe that anyone could post such a milk-souring comment after reading about Prof. Zapp. But I'm willing to go along with the change of mood.

".. his implicit criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act (that it is wrongly, even disingenuously, held up as a panacea for the problems of public education in the US) is dead on. "

Mike, the semi-colon story was about semi-colons, not Bush'es educational policies. Chomsky just couldn't resist the opportunity to try to thread an elephant through the eye of a needle.

BTW, I'm still waiting for your explanation as to why you singled out the Israeli Jewish woman for your disapproval in a presentation that has “Fighting anti-Semitism” in its title. And all because a Jew spoke up and disagreed with your one-sided support for a fascist organization which openly adulates Hitler and preaches the completion of the final solution.

You see, the disease of humourlessness is quite contagious...
Anonymous said…
“I've never quite understood the criticism of Chomsky that because he's not a university-trained poli sci prof, therefore his views must be naive and uninformed.”

The main problem is he presents himself as an expert: on history, on political science, on international relations, on any topic he desires to write about.

Part of this is his own doing and part of it is the fault of those who buy his books. I can only imagine the outrage if Professor Lewis wrote a book on linguistic theory and presented himself as an expert in that field. Poor Chomsk would probably have an aneurism.

Oh, and his views are naïve and uninformed because he insists on using a New Left lens of analysis that was dated in 1980, if not before.

To Noga’s comments, I followed the STO link and found Mike’s comments disturbing as well. Anyway, Noga nailed it with this one:

“Any ideology that gives support to murderous organizations or political parties whose express platforms stipulate unambiguously genocide and destruction needs all the help it can get, from what is known as useful idiots.”

Don’t forget fellow travelers….

Forgetting Orwell’s Lessons for the Left: Useful Idiots and Fellow Travelers in the 21st Century

The “Three Way Fight” strategy is irrelevant, as Orwell recognized. In the struggle against totalitarianism one must choose sides. A “third option” may make you feel good about your personal politics but in the end it accomplishes little if anything.
Anonymous said…
Okay, a bit more before I head home to tend to sick children:

Noga is right to chastise me for a change in tone, but I don't think I've contracted humorlessness from Chomsky. I'm pretty funny in person, I promise... (Besides, as Jim Jay and Bob have pointed out, Chomsky can't be blamed for derailing the semicolon story; the writer and editor are responsible for that.)

And the New Centrist is right to point out that Chomsky too often participates in an illegitimate appeal to authority, based largely on his prodigious written output. But the logical flaw works both ways: just because he's a trained linguist doesn't mean we should disregard his (sometimes well researched) analysis of current events.

I'm sorry to hear that the New Centrist thinks the three way fight is "irrelevent." I liked it better last fall, when s/he argued that "While I don’t agree with the perspective they certainly are not useful idiots and fellow travelers, unlike most of the radical left these days." (

As for Noga's continued attempts to bait me, I will limit myself to these two points:

1) Predictably, Noga ignores the fact that I endorsed the position taken by the organization Susskind represented (MADRE, worth checking out here: ). If Noga's criticism is that I unnecessarily or inappropriately called attention to Susskind's nationality and religion, that's an arguable point, but it gets lost in the muddle she makes of my views.

2) Noga's use of the phrase "one-sided support" to describe my views of Hezbollah is obviously, and deliberately, false.
Anonymous said…
I should have asked Mr. Neches for help with that last sentence; uses cannot be "false," much less deliberately so. Thus, let me re-phrase: "Noga's characterization of my attitude toward Hezbollah as "one-sided support" is obviously, and deliberately, false."

There, that's better.
"Noga's use of the phrase "one-sided support" to describe my views of Hezbollah is obviously, and deliberately, false."

Very funny.

No, you did explain to me, on another thread that you follow a path of critical support for Hezbollah. And the astonishing example you provided was, that Hezbollah is really not all that it is cracked up to be because they discriminate against women! An organization, which is openly declaring genocidal aspiration against a neighbouring country, and practices terrorism and other mafia tactics, and the only thing you can find to criticize about it, is that they oppress women?? Like I would give a damn. No one should be a member in that vile organization, man or woman. No one should offer moral support for that organization. Period.

I find your verbal aggression very disturbing. Here you are, promoting a coalition of goodwill between the Western Left and terrorist organizations, which means that you condone Hezbollah’s actions and words as far as (at least) Israel is concerned. Yet you dare accuse me of BAITING you, because I challenge your perverse ethics?

If you can't stand challenges (as you clearly said in your blog) perhaps you shouldn't declare your opinions in public, where they are read, questioned and protested. Your verbal assault on my integrity (baiting is not done by decent persons) means that you probably can't defend your positions. Your being aggrieved by my insistence that you clarify your moral political commitments does not translate into an accusation that I bait you. It translates into: you can't defend those positions and deep in your heart you must know they are indefensible so you try to shut me up by yelling: baiter, baiter!

Please tell us, what did you think of Norman Finklestein’s performance in Lebanon?
bob said…
Gosh. Who would have thought the humble semi-colon would have sparked off such a lively debate! Where to start?

With a renewed commitment to read some more Jane Austen, starting, on Professor Zapp's advice, with Persuasion. (Although the Lodge extract actually made me want to re-read Small World and Changing Places.)

Or with a position on Chomsky's "expertise"? Certainly, the fact he is not a professional political scientist doesn't invalidate his views (any more than it invalidates mine). But the problem with Chomsky is that he performs himself, and is widely regarded, as an expert, and he was able to achieve this because of his brilliance in linguistics. Worth reading: the bit in Norman Mailer's fantastic Armies of the Night where he witnesses the younger Chomsky's first forays into the political sphere.

Or a position on the "three-way fight" concept? I think it has relevance, but not if we see the two evils the fight is against as equivalents. Capitalism and reactionary anti-capitalism are very different orders of evil, requiring very different approaches, with very different degrees of immediacy and urgency. And if the capitalism the three-way fight identifies as an evil is imagined in too narrow and concrete a way, simply as American imperialism (as in the "Third Camp" position taken up by and others), then it is potentially an equally reactionary position. (I've got a long blog post on this I wrote and never posted, that I'll dig out some time.)

On the Hezbollah question: I don't think there is any question of even the most critical support for a murderous fascist outfit like Hezbollah. I haven't read the comment thread at STO, so I won't comment further on that yet.

And, finally, Mike, I hope your kids are OK. (And I'm not just saying that to conform to the Austenian niceness that Noga identifies in me.)
Anonymous said…
I know that the Three Way Fight perspective is not generally supportive of Islamist terrorism and I have linked to your website on occasion. I view the Three Way Fight perspective (along with Bill at WW4) as part of small segment of the left that refuses to directly support Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. in the name of anti-imperialism.

That's why Noga's challenge was disturbing. If this was the SWP or ISO or some other totalitarian leftist outfit that would be one thing, but Three Way Fight is trying to radically differentiate themselves from those elements.

When I used the word irrelevant I did not mean it as an ideological cheap shot. I meant it literally. As Orwell noted, in the struggle against totalitarianism one must take a side. In such a struggle liberal capitalist regimes must be willing to use whatever force it takes to defeat our ideological enemies. I know it isn't pretty stuff but this is reality, this is history.

The Three Way Fight perspective is irrelevant simply because it lacks any power. Political power, economic power, military power, it has none. When you are set against ideological forces that possess all three...well, I think you can see where I'm going. If not, having zero power makes you an irrelevant player in the game. You can write up all sorts of critiques and manifestos and position papers and have conferences and talk to other like-minded leftists but at the end of the day you will have no impact on the ground.

That is what I mean by irrelevant.

But that's what I think of the radical left in the U.S. in general. The rad-left has no power so it engages in largely symbolic actions that do nothing to change conditions but these actions make people feel proud and secure about their particular political identity.

And I hope your kids are ok too...
Anonymous said…
Hello again,

Bob, those of us who have worked to develop the 3WF perspective would all, I think, differentiate ourselves from the "third camp" analysis you rightly criticize. An important part of my analysis focuses on the ways in which "global capital" is factionalized (think, Russia/China vs. EU vs. US, etc.) and the contexts in which those factions become unified. I come from an anti-imperialist background, but it is absolutely clear that US imperialism, while a real force in the world, is not even close to being the totality of capitalism.

We strongly agree that we need "very different approaches, with very different degrees of immediacy and urgency" in dealing with capitalism and reactionary anti-capitalism. One difference with your view, perhaps, is that we do not always view reactionary anti-capitalism as requiring a more immediate and more urgent response. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending upon context.

This gets to the heart of the dispute I had with Noga last year: in my assessment of the war in Lebanon, and in that of my comrade Matthew Lyons, the IDF was a more "immediate" and "urgent" evil than Hezbollah. Noga disagrees, and you and/or the New Centrist may also. What caused me to disengage from the dialogue with Noga (which early on was fairly productive) was her repeated attempt to assign me positions I do not hold, such as the previously mentioned "one-sided support." I have been publically critical of Hezbollah, and have been harshly attacked by the US equivalents of the British SWP (especially the group/magazine Left Turn) for doing so. I refuse to describe Hezbollah as fascist or in any important way anti-capitalist, but they are clearly reactionary. In the grand scheme of things, I've got better stuff to do than repeatedly correct mis-statements made on blogs by someone who clearly doesn't view me as anything other than a dupe of fascists and anti-semites.

New Centrist, all of this leads me to agree with the your clarified position on the three way fight's irrelevance. My writings on these subjects (including the whole long exchange with Noga and others last spring) are definitely irrelevant in the way you describe. You are absolutely correct that our teensy-tiny sub-current has no power. Our hope is two-fold: first, that the ideas developing around the 3WF website can percolate within the slightly larger, slightly less powerless radical left in North America; second, that this left can, over the long term, become more relevant and thus more "powerful" (though not in the authoritarian sense of "taking state power"). This two-fold hope is perhaps foolish, but we cling to it nonetheless.

Oh, and the kids are allright, to borrow a phrase. Just a little stomach flu.
Here is the thread Mike refers to:

Mike, you think you can walk on the razor's edge of definitions without falling. You can't do it. You can't pretend to care about justice and human rights and still support Hizzbulla by redefining their mission to better fit your ideology.

You can't make light of antisemitism and refer to Jews and white-skin privileges, and still maintain that you want to "fight antisemitism".

You can't ignore that there are 12 million Jews in the world and 1.5 billions Muslims, 22 Arab countries, 55 Muslim countries, and one tiny Jewish state, inhabiting one tenth of one percent of the entire Middle East Region. Once you factor this into your scheme of things, you can't help but notice whose side you are on when you choose to support an Arab Muslim terrorist organization that represents the wishes and dreams of (most of) their co-religionists.

Your entire edifice of arguments is based on word games, self-delusion and moral experimentation.

You should read Hitchens' latest:

"In each instance, he seems almost surprised that the females concerned have any emotions, but then, as he phrases it with splendid callousness: “They always expected some calamity, these Jews.”
Anonymous said…
That was the best Hitchens piece I've read in several years, although I must confess that (perhaps predictably) I long ago gave up paying regular attention to his writing. Thanks for the link, Noga
That's not very funny, Mike.
Anonymous said…
Ha! That's a good one. Touché!
A-propo, Chomsky, Hitchens, fascism, racism, and humour... Right on cue:
This is more legible:
Incognito said…
Chomsky is an idiot..

punctuation was never my forte. I'm sure my writings are chockful of mistakes. ah well.
Anonymous said…
to bad u can't read
Chomsky said, could be inferred as, it was well done and shows educatin, which bush would say was a result of nclb
ie, chomsky is PRAISING the semicolon, and snarking that bush would claim credit

geez, you out of it
bob said…
That Anonymous comment is truly a classic, given its topic. I might get a T-shirt made saying "Hey Bob, to bad u can't read".
Anonymous said…
as the anonymous guy who can't spell..
If I had wanted to, I could have produced a well written, grammatically correct sentence, and used a spellchecker.

But the whole thing was to funny: you all are misreading Chomsky, or, at the very least, taking a short exercpt of what NC said, and reading into it to much.
You could interpret what NC said as , roughly, the punctuation is fine, and it is ironic that G Bush would claim credit for it, since NCLB is damaging to education and not relevant to this particular sentence.

but no; in your chomsky blind hatred, you infer the most evil possible interpretation of what he is quoted as saying, without, as any modest scholar would have, checking 1st to see if the quote was truncated or mangled, something that you, or any educated person, should know.
bob said…
We're not scholars, and certainly not scholars of Chomskyism, so it's a big ask for us to contact the NYT to see if the quote was truncated or mangled. But what would be a context in Bush is relevant to a story about a subway employee's grammatical intervention? Why on earth would Bush say anything about this, and why on earth say something about Bush?

You could interpret what NC said as , roughly, the punctuation is fine, and it is ironic that G Bush would claim credit for it, since NCLB is damaging to education and not relevant to this particular sentence.
Of course it's not relevant to this particular sentence, which is just one reason Bush made no comment on this sentence. The NCLB Act was passed, what, six years before this happened? Why would anyone imagine Bush would claim credit for NCLB for this poster? It seems to me that whatever the context, Chomsky cannot pass up an opportunity, however tendentious, to vent his blind hatred, of Bush. There's no "irony" involved, just sneering.

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