Vonnegut's Famous Semicolon Advice Was Taken Out of Context
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For many writers, picking your favorite punctuation mark is a bit like picking your favorite child. All of them can move you to awe with their power and finesse, and all of them can frustrate and disappoint you with their weaknesses. Don’t you dare speak ill of them. Any of them.
That’s why I was surprised when I first saw Kurt Vonnegut throwing shade at the semicolon. His quotation is usually presented in isolation, like this:
First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Aside from the puzzling and seemingly offensive putdown of “transvestite hermaphrodites” and my memories of being taught about semicolons in grade school rather than college, I couldn’t imagine that any talented writer would so universally dismiss an entire punctuation mark.
Not one to take things at face value, I went searching and quickly found that the Vonnegut quotation, so often offered with a giddy air of insider superiority, is taken out of context. Here's the next line:
And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.
The way he delivers the line, it’s still not clear whether he’s saying he was kidding or simply saying that he’ll warn us in the future when he is kidding, but at the least, it casts doubt on his meaning. A further reading of the essay casts more significant doubt because he goes on to disparage indigenous storytellers:
I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid.
And then he went on to disparage Shakespeare:
Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho [a tribe of Native Americans].