(For the complete text, click here.)
Mark Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions"
in G9 Write
Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions" is a fascinating, and
currently very relevant essay. Selections two through four focus on some
of its most important ideas. After students read and discuss the
essay, you might ask them to write an essay in which they agree or disagree
with Twain's conclusions. Be sure to tell the students to include specific
examples of people who do, or do not, think for themselves.
A Study in Semicolons
Some students don't use semicolons; others
sprinkle them over their writing like pepper on mashed potatoes. As a result,
some teachers tell students not to use semicolons at all. Textbooks usually
instruct students to use semicolons for two purposes: 1) to separate items
in a series when those items themselves include commas (as in street addresses),
and 2) to separate main clauses, especially when the main clauses express
contrasting ideas. Items in a series are rare in texts, so the first rule
usually does not present students with many problems; semicolons and main
clauses cause headaches.
psycholinguistic model suggests that punctuation is a reader's guide
to chunking. In essence, they indicate the ends, and sometimes the beginnings,
of words that chunk together into phrases, clauses, and, ultimately, main
clauses. The rules that govern the use of punctuation marks developed as
conventions; they were neither legislated nor set in stone. There are,
as a result, two different types of problems with these rules. First, conventions
change over time. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for
example, sentences tended to be longer, and semicolons tended to be used,
much more frequently than they are today. How then, does one establish
"rules" for conventions that do no remain constant, especially since we
expect students to read texts from previous centuries? The only thing we
can try to do here is to help students understand that conventional "rules"
change over time.
The second type of problem with the
rules is that conventions, in order to be "taught," are often oversimplified.
Writers and publishers are not legally bound to follow the rules, and some
writers, especially, for example, writers of poetry, intentionally violate
the rules. Thus, if they look, students will often find examples in their
reading that do not fit the rules. In addition, in that they are conventions,
the "rules" derive primarily from the simple cases. It is easy enough,
relatively speaking, to see the contrast implicit in "He went swimming;
she did the dishes." Such examples can be used to "teach" the rules. But,
in real texts, sentences are not usually that simple.
I do not mean to suggest here that the usual
textbook rules are harmful. They cannot be harmful because they are almost
totally ineffective. Teaching students to use semicolons to separate main
clauses means absolutely nothing to students who cannot identify the main
clauses in their own writing. At worst, in other words, the usual textbook
rules are simply a waste of time.
Within a KISS-like approach, however, one
needs to go beyond the usual textbook rules. We need to be honest with
students, teach them how to identify clauses, teach them the basic rules,
explain that these rules are conventions, and then have the students do
some exploration on their own to see the extent to which these rules are
valid. In rereading "Corn-pone Opinions" to select some passages for exercises
for my college students, I noted that Twain used a fair number of semicolons
in the essay. It could provide an interesting source of data for a study
in the use of semicolons.
There are, in my edition of the essay, forty-five
semicolons. The sentences that contain them have been collected in a separate
"data" document. We need to note at this point that there are probably
other editions of this essay, especially when it comes to punctuation.
The version used here was transcribed, years ago, from a collection of
essays. Unfortunately, since the work is in public domain, I did not note
the exact source. The important point here is that I did not transcribe
this version specifically for this study, and I was certainly not even
looking at, much less messing with, the semicolons when I made the transcription.
Feel free, of course, to compare it with other versions, but as a text,
this version should be an acceptable field for looking at the use of semicolons.
Having collected the data, I examined it to
explore two things -- what the semicolons syntactically separate, and the
nature of the ideas that are separated. Syntactically, I had early
noted that some of the semicolons separate subordinate clauses. Thus, in
looking at syntax, I attributed each semicolon to one (or more) of three
categories -- main clauses, subordinate clauses, and "other." Initial observations
also suggested that, in terms of meaning, some of the semicolons separate
main clauses in which the second clause amplifies, rather than contrasts
with, the first. As a result, for the study of meaning, the semicolons
were likewise attributed to one (or more) of three categories -- those
that separate contrasting ideas, those that separate amplification, and
My analysis appears in the
"Discussion" document. One of the primary purposes of this study is
to show that the rules, and the research that supports them, are somewhat
subjective. Obviously, in cases of subjectivity, people will disagree.
Thus the "Discussion" document will enable readers to check their own judgments
against against mine. I have, in the "Discussion" document, also analyzed
every word in every sentence. This should enable parents and teachers who
do not feel comfortable with their own skills in analyzing sentences to
use some of these sentences as exercises for their children or students.
(Some of these sentences will also be used in other areas of this site
for review exercises.)
The Syntactic Use of Semicolons
In exploring the syntactic distinctions made
by these forty-five semicolons, I found that 38 (87 %) separated clauses.
However, it seems that only 31 (69 %) can been seen as separating main
clauses. One of these (# 29) was counted
both in the main-clause group and in the "other" group because the entire
S/V/C pattern of the clause that comes after the semicolon is ellipsed.
Thus some grammarians may not consider it to be a main clause. Eight of
the semicolons separate subordinate clauses. This can be seen most clearly
in numbers 30-36, where six semicolons
separate clauses that are subordinate to the initial "we know."
The remaining six semicolons (seven if we
count # 29) do not separate either main or subordinate clauses. Number
separates a gerundive from the noun it modifies. Numbers eight
and nine, both in the same sentence, set off appositives. Number 29,
discussed above, separates a full main clause from an ellipsed version.
Numbers 39, 40, and 41, all in the same
sentence, separate finite verb phrases within a subordinate clause, within
an 84-word main clause. (Since none of the finite verb phrases includes
a comma, this cannot be considered as falling under the rule that semicolons
separate items in a series.)
Keeping in mind that we are dealing with a
short sample from only one writer, we can still draw some important conclusions
here regarding the use of semicolons. The general rule that semicolons
separate main clauses is valid, but we need to remember that main clauses
can become subordinated within other clauses, as in the "we know" example
given above. In "Corn-pone," however, Twain used six semicolons (13 %)
that cannot justifiably be explained as joining main clauses. If Twain
could do it, why can't our students? One could, perhaps, come up with additional
rules to justify Twain's use of these semicolons, but that approach would
be silly. As it is, most students do not understand, and cannot apply the
simple rule that most teachers try to teach. A better approach (a KISS-like
approach) would be to enable students to identify clauses, give them the
usual, general rules, and then invite students to explore texts on their
own to see how writers do or do not follow the rules. Finally, Twain's
essay suggests that, in correcting students' writing, we need to think
twice before marking as an error any semicolon that does not join main
The Semantic Use of Semicolons
It may be a personal bias, but I have long
suggested to students that the ability to recognize (and communicate) similarities
and differences is the initial building block of human thought. It may
have begun with our ancient ancestors when they learned that some things
were the same (edible) also but different from non-edibles. Such thinking
is central to any type of categorization -- types of trees, types of sweeteners,
types of government. And beyond categorization, any comparison / contrast
depends, obviously, on the ability to see and communicate similarities
and differences. Thus I love to tell students that semicolons separate
main clauses, especially if the clauses present contrasting ideas. The
semicolons in Twain's essay validate my instruction, but only in part.
The semantic question is more complex than
the syntactic. In both instances, there are questions regarding what any
specific writer was formally taught or unconsciously absorbed. Was Twain
"taught" to use semicolons to separate main clauses with contrasting ideas?
Could Twain identify clauses? Or did he absorb the rules from what
he read? These questions apply to both the semantic and the syntactic issues.
But the semantic goes beyond these. What, exactly, are "contrasting" ideas?
And, even if a writer does, consciously or unconsciously, use semicolons
to separate contrasting elements, do we, as readers, always catch the implicit
difference? "He went swimming; she did the dishes" implies, to many thoughtful
readers, that he was having fun whereas she was stuck in the kitchen, but
not all readers will catch the distinction. Thus, as we look at how a writer
uses semicolons to clarify meaning, we need to be especially cautious.
In analyzing how Twain uses semicolons to
separate contrasting clauses, I think I found 21 cases in which I can point
to the contrast. In some cases these are simple distinctions between the
past and the present, as in numbers 25 and
26. Some of the contrasts are between affirmative statements and negations
(# 21, 22,
and 29). And he uses the contrast between
"the Smiths" and "the Joneses" (# 28),
but he does so to argue that the Joneses follow (become similar to) the
Smiths. Similarly, he uses seven semicolons to distinguish religious and
other groups (30-36), but his purpose in
clearly distinguishing the groups is to suggest that most members of all
these widely different groups are what they are for the same thoughtless
reason. The fundamental same/different perspective is relevant here, but
I hesitate to say that his purpose is in the contrast. I counted two of
the semicolons (16 & 17) twice, as
both contrast and amplification. Interested readers can check the discussion
document to see if they agree not only about these two, but also about
some of the more complex cases.
One of the things that surprised me is the
number of cases (20) in which I see the second clause as amplifying the
first. (Perhaps there are distinctions that I missed?) Textbooks usually
suggest that colons or dashes should be used when the second clause amplifies
in some way the meaning of the first. Perhaps Twain was a poor student.
Or perhaps the textbooks are wrong. Note, however, that cases of amplification
still involve the basic same/different perspective, the difference being
that what comes after the semicolon further defines the similarity. In
some cases (such as 37 & 38),
the second clause does not so much amplify as it restates the first in
different words. The relationship between such clauses can almost be viewed
as one of apposition. Note, in this regard, that two of the semicolons
(8 and 9) that I have classified as syntactically
"other" literally separate appositives.
Conclusions from a small study such as this obviously
have to be tentative. My hope is that it has suggested some ideas regarding
the rules about appositives, that it has provided some sentences that can
be used for exercises, and that it has suggested a type of meaningful project
that students can themselves do within the KISS framework. There are several
ways in which such a project can be organized. At the simplest level, every
student in the class could be asked to find and bring in one sentence,
either from a specific or from any text. [Note that "find" is in bold because
if the students make up the sentences, you will probably get middle-of-the-concept,
cookie-cutter sentences.] Then have each student read his or her sentence
aloud and explain what the semicolon joins, both syntactically and semantically.
For a more formal project, the class can be divided into small groups,
with each group focussing on a specific short text (such as Twain's essay).
Each group could do a study similar to this one, and then each group could
share its results with the class as a whole.
This border is based
Thomas Hart Benton's (American,
Huck Finn (1936,
Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City, MO)
from Jim's Fine Art Collection
[for educational use only]