Step Away From That Semicolon — Now!

There is something about professional physicists that society finds very difficult. You may recall, for example, the hot water that whelmed Professor Alessandro Strumia when he took on the Athena Swan coterie at CERN, daring to suggest that male dominance within the field had more to do with personal choice and gender attributes than it did endemic discrimination. Maybe it is the average physicist’s autistic tendencies that explains Alessandro’s tin ear when it comes to the sensitivities of the #Metoo brigade, but I’m sure the opprobrium his views attracted made its mark and he must privately regret his candour, even if he might not admit so publicly.

More recently, we have the example of Dr Binoy Sobnack, a physics lecturer at Loughborough University. If anything, his fall from grace was even more spectacular, since his transgression resulted in a demotion, followed by a trip to an employment tribunal. Fortunately, he won his case, though this did not mean that he escaped the judge’s withering disdain.

And what, you might ask, was his crime? Was it rampant sexism, or did he just fail to live by the principles enshrined in his employer’s myriad of mission statements and pledges to the gods of wokeism? Apparently not. What he did was much worse. He broke the sacred rules of punctuation, which rendered him wide open to accusations of passive aggression – which everyone but a physicist knows is the worst type.

To be precise, Dr Sobnack “created an ‘intimidating tone’ with his use of ‘multiple punctuation marks’, the tribunal heard”.

Yes, I know it’s shocking, and you’d better reach for the smelling salts, because this is only going to get much worse. Not one to mince his words, the judge ruled that excessive use of punctuation is ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ and that by failing to modify the tone of his texts, Dr Sobnack was guilty of ‘culpable and blameworthy’ conduct. Judge Richard Adkinson wrote:

“The use of multiple exclamation or question marks could well change or influence how a recipient might perceive a text message, and might make an otherwise neutral text appear aggressive, intimidating or suggesting disbelief.”

Did he just say ‘suggesting disbelief’??

Surely, disbelief has to be the most egregious suggestion known to mankind. I can well see why Dr Sobnack had to be removed in his capacity as a hall of residence warden. Even so, the judge ultimately ruled in his favour:

“Judge Adkinson concluded that the university’s decision to sack him was wrong because many of the allegations made against him were unproven and in the latest instance had not even been investigated.”

So, he was let off on a technicality then. The bastard got away with it.

I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with the concept of passive aggressive punctuation, and so I decided to investigate further. And this is what this intrepid reporter discovered: It seems that there is only one thing more passive aggressive than incorrect punctuation – and that is correct punctuation. Internet linguist, Gretchen McCulloch (yes, I did just say that) explains here carefully what shock there is to be expected when encountering a text message that finishes its last sentence with a full stop:

“’If you’re a young person and you’re sending a message to someone, the default way to break up your thoughts is to send each thought as a new message,’ she told the BBC. ‘Because the minimum thing necessary to send is the message itself, anything additional you include can take on an additional interpretation’.”

The implications of this should be clear. If you include that full stop, the delicate creature on the receiving end is going to look at it and think, ‘Just a dawg-gawn minute here, what did I do to deserve that?’ The full stop, it turns out, is the universal symbol of rudeness. It means, ‘Oh, and by the way, screw you’.

All of this has serious implications for the average Cliscep contributor. Not only are we to a man, woman and child, seriously syntactically challenged, we are wont to not leave it there. Many of us indulge in colourful language (I’m sorry, language of colourfulness) that can be deemed politically incorrect at the best of times. The thought that we can also be coming across as unthinking jerks because of our feeble command of punctuation fills me with horror. Only last week I used a semicolon in a way that I now realise could so easily have led to a friendly tap on the door by a SWAT team’s battering ram. No, seriously, I’m pissing myself here. I’m terrified that soon I’m going to have to finish this article and I’m not allowed to use a full stop. Ah, I’ve just thought of a way out. All I have to do is…

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April 2, 2021 at 11:30AM

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