Musical pauses and feminine appellation

January 2, 2009

I have just read (finally!) Lynne Truss’s terrific Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. This book is a must-read to anyone who wants to understand punctuation.

In it, Ms Truss discusses an old punctuation source that tries to differentiate how commas, semicolons, colons and periods (full stops) are different. This particular writer had a rather musical approach to the difference: a comma is a one-count pause; a semicolon is a two-count pause; the colon, three; and the period, four. She points out how ridiculous this really is, and that who in their right mind would really do this. Later she admits that the gist of it might hold some truth. Punctuation, after all, was originally created to aid actors in their presentation of texts.

My composer buddies all remember how Karlheinz Stockhousen, at various points in his life, serialized rests (of course). George Crumb and many other ’70s new-music-notation-revisionists created various sizes of fermati (so-called “birdeye”), and hybrid symbols that all indicated various degrees of pausing. Most of those symbols have faded away and we are back to a traditions fermata, a comma, and the double-slash “railroad tracks” sign. I would bet that if composers expanded the comma line to include semicolons and and colons, performers would understand them. On second thought, fermati give performers more flexibility.

In the book, she continues to point out what a hopeless party-pooper Gertrude Stein was with regards to punctuation: she considered all but the period to be useless – which reminds me of a joke:

How many lesbians does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, and it’s not funny. (Told to me by a lesbian btw.)

Yesterday, after referring to Daniel as “my husband”, a family member asked me “does that mean you are the wife” to which I assured them that I was also a husband, not a wife. He then said that he was confused when he referred to his (female) friend and her friends as “girls” because she insisted she was “a woman”. I explained: “Girls are either ages 0-12, and 75-100. All the rest are women.” He replied: “Yeah, but she is 76.” Without losing a beat I explained: “…and a lesbian: ALL lesbians are women, and only lesbians can call each other “girls”. He now understood feminine appellation.

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