“Delightful.” —Mary Norris, The New Yorker
A page-turning, existential romp through the life and times of the world’s most polarizing punctuation mark
The semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?
In Semicolon, Cecelia Watson charts the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. But in the nineteenth century, as grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing, with the semicolon a prime victim. Taking us on a breezy journey through a range of examples—from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—Watson reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language.
Through her rollicking biography of the semicolon, Watson writes a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.
In this impressive debut, Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, takes readers through a lively and varied "biography" of the semicolon. She covers the punctuation mark's history (which began in 1494 Venice, in a travel narrative about scaling Mount Etna) and changing grammatical function, from creating rhythm to separating two independent clauses, along with the love/hate relationship writers have long had with it. Watson argues, with growing passion as the book progresses, that the semicolon, and punctuation in general, must be deployed with flexibility, not rigid adherence to precedent, and even finds court cases to prove her point, including a controversy in 1900 Massachusetts over whether the semicolon in an onerously restrictive state liquor statute was meant to be read as a comma instead, thus making the law far more liberal. Watson lands an especially strong point with her takedown of the inflexibility and "rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types" and especially of Wallace himself, for a "speech he liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be... non-standard.' " The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration. Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the author's first name.
Barely a book
This should have just been a New Yorker article. It’s really padded and repetitive even given that a hundred pages at the end are not even text.