Theodor Adorno: punctuation as music

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Theodor W. Adorno

Serious about the semicolon

“Punctuation marks,” wrote German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, “are marks of oral delivery.” Because of that, they’re a sort of musical notation: “The comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence.” Exclamation points are “like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats.” Colons are like “dominant seventh chords.”

Open Culture notes that Adorno “is known for many things, but a light touch isn’t one of them. His work includes despairing post-fascist ethics and a study on the sociology and psychology of fascism. Those who dig deeper into his catalog may know his rigorously philosophical Negative Dialectics or dense, opaque Aesthetic Theory.  Given the seriously heavy nature of these books, you might surprised, as I was, to read the paragraph below”:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (<<> >) lick their lips. 

Read the Open Culture snippets from Adorno’s piece here – or, if you’re up to it, read the whole essay here.

A few days ago, Ben Yagoda attacked the humble and serviceable semicolon. We’re pleased to see that Adorno gave it a rousing defense. From Open Culture:

There is no mark of punctuation that Adorno rejects outright. All have their place and purpose. He does decry the modernist tendency to mostly leave them out, since “then they simply hide.” But Adorno reserves a special pride of place for the semicolon. He claims that “only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form” can understand the difference between semicolon and comma. He differentiates between the Greek and German semicolon. And he expresses alarm “that the semicolon is dying out.” This, he claims, is due to a fear of “page-long paragraphs”—the kind he often writes. It is “a fear created by the marketplace—by the consumer who does not want to tax himself.” Right, I told you, he would hate the internet, though he seems to thrive—posthumously—on Twitter.


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One Response to “Theodor Adorno: punctuation as music”

  1. George Says:

    “He differentiates between the Greek and German semicolon.”

    Well, at least in Ancient Greek, the “;” marks a question. In German, it serves something like the couplings on a long freight train, say a “unit’ (hundred-car) train such as those that keep one waiting inordinate times at level crossing. I wonder whether Adorno offered insights on their popularity–did early German type-founders find the period unprofitable?

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