The Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecilia Watson
Published: July 30, 2019
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.
About the Author:
Cecelia Watson is a historian and philosopher of science, and a teacher of writing and the humanities. She is currently on Bard College’s Faculty in Language and Thinking. Previously she was an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow at Yale University, where she was also a fellow of the Whitney Center for the Humanities and was jointly appointed in the humanities and philosophy departments.
“A deceptively playful-looking book that turns out to be a scholarly treatise on a sophisticated device that has contributed eloquence and mystery to Western civilization . . . Delightful.” (Mary Norris, The New Yorker)
“Delightful, enlightening . . . The twisty history of the hybrid divider perfectly embodies the transience of language, the ways it can be shaped by cultural shifts that have nothing to do with correctness or clarity.” (Vulture)
“What? Sit on the beach reading about punctuation? Yes, when it’s as fun, rangy, and witty as this.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, “Big Summer Books”)
“Look, some people just enjoy arguing about punctuation. It’s in their nature. But if your enthusiasm for this polarizing little mark stems from adoration and inquisitiveness (and only occasionally the haughty knowledge that you’re right), Cecelia Watson’s “biography” of the semicolon will be a delightful companion.” (Elle, “Thirty Best Books to Read This Summer”)