Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Punktuation: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Colon

Among the people I interviewed for today's story about the overuse of colons in academic book titles (subscription only, sorry) was Kiki Benzon. Unfortunately, due to lack of space, the wit and insight of Ms. Benzon -- a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at University College London and former Montrealer -- was left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Here are Ms. Benzon's colon comments:

My history with the colon is somewhat speckled.
For a while there, colons ticked me off big-time. I used to think that if an author used a colon in the title of an academic article or book she was basically saying, “Hi. I am unable to identify the definitive core or central epistemological node of my essay so what I’ll do is like expand the title by way of this-here colon so that I can then drop in lots more terms and basically double my chances of hitting on something which might reflect the content of my article and/or could be the least bit intriguing to a prospective reader.”
So instead of “Gloves and Shakespeare,” you’d get “When Digits get Draped and Palms Embalmed: The √úberinstrumentality and Semiotic Propositionalhood of Intergendered Protocamouflage-Analogues in The Bard’s Historical “Mass-Cult” Garb-Heavy Dramas.” Or some such.
I figured colonocentric titles were just like unnecessarily wordy and complex prose, where pages of fluff and verbiage could (and ought to have been) be replaced by a few short sentences. The colon, I determined, was a crutch: the easy way out for someone who lacked linguistic finesse and discipline.
Some academic titles are brilliantly crisp and un-colonic. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations kind of says it all. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man couldn’t really be more loaded, elegant or evocative.
Then there are some really innovative titles that resonate on a number of levels without resorting to the two stacked dots, like Brian McHale’s article, “POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM” or one I just came across in a conference programme, Brian Jarvis’s “Art. After. 9.11.” These titles, I think, rock.
But lately I’ve recognized that -- depending on its deployment -- the colon can actually be a useful means of refining general ideas or, in the best cases, enacting a conceptual expansion that the book or article discusses in depth. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is a good example of this.
These days though, I tend to restrict my own colon-ization to instances where a textual sound-bite epitomizes my critical approach and some aspect of an artist’s work -- for example, “‘Harry, they pissed on us!’: Critical Excretions in Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Thing Fish.”
But generally speaking, I’d say colonic evacuation is a noble enterprise indeed.
Thus spake Kiki Benzon.

For more discussion of the colon issue, see Jennifer Jacobson's article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (which inspired mine in the Post) and a discussion of said article over at Language Hat.

Post-script

Speaking of which, do you know why truckers tend to have intestinal problems?

They have semi-colons. [via Alan Kellogg]

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