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Book Review

‘Semicolon’ a lively, scattershot study of a mark that breaks all the rules

Although she intermittently provides a history of its evolving usage over the centuries, the semicolon is not the real subject of Cecelia Watson’s lively, scattershot book.

Rather, this self-described “reformed grammar fetishist” aims to rescue punctuation in general from its imprisonment in rules about grammar “purportedly derived from logic” that in her view confuse and distract us from “the deepest and true purpose of language: true communication and openness to others.”

To make her point, Watson takes us on a tour that begins with the semicolon’s birth in Venice in 1494 as a mark “meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of a comma and that of a colon.” She reproduces a page from the semicolon’s first appearance in print and segues to a snappy review of what it looks like in various typefaces: “relaxed and fuzzy” in Poliphilus, “watchful, aggressive, and elegant” in Garamond, “a thin flapper in a big hat, slouched against the wall at a party” in Palatino. These breezy summaries are typical of Watson’s style; she is great fun to read and pleasingly opinionated, with a tendency to wander.

There’s no missing her main thrust in Chapter II, which looks at the parade of English-language grammar manuals that followed the 1758 publication of “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” by Robert Lowth. Watson has good fun with Lowth’s pedantic corrections of Shakespeare and Milton before moving on to subsequent books that in her view all display “a fundamental tension . . . the conflicting demands of rules and taste.”


Until they started codifying arbitrary rules, she argues, “the majority of grammarians and scholars advocated personal taste and judgment as a guide to punctuating.” But by the mid-19th century, a new generation of rule-makers judged this stance shamefully sloppy. Aiming to make grammar a science, they confined English in straitjackets like sentence diagrams, which certain readers may remember from elementary school English classes.


Where has the semicolon gone during this enjoyable screed against overreaching grammarians? Watson yanks her narrative back to its putative topic as she points to the increasingly strict rules about the correct use of semicolons as examples of a natural-science approach to grammar that did more to bewilder than enlighten, most notably in two early-20th-century court cases.

The lightweight story of a dispute over the semicolon in a law about when hotels could serve liquor pairs oddly with the much more serious instance of a man condemned to death even though the lack of a semicolon in the verdict indicated that the jury intended to spare him. Her indignation over the latter leads to a persuasive exhortation to be on the lookout for biases in language and the law. A lengthy footnote attacking the rigid view of punctuation espoused by “original intent” legal scholars should have been part of the chapter’s main text, buttressed by a more comprehensive discussion.

Watson’s academic training is broad-based, encompassing the history of science, philosophy, and the humanities, so it’s not surprising that her book ranges widely. Her best chapter closely examines passages by five wildly different writers — Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, Herman Melville, Henry James — to masterfully demonstrate the varied ways individual artists use semicolons to speed up a sentence, slow it down, create energy, suggest mysteries.

Watson’s joyful love of language comes through in her marvelous appreciations. The 4,000-odd semicolons in “Moby-Dick” are “sturdy little nails holding narrative threads spread out wide enough to comprehend not just the whale but everything the whale comes to mean.” In “Portrait of a Lady,” when James describes the climactic kiss between Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “the semicolon is that tantalizing veil shimmering between the two halves of the sentence, showing us just enough to let us dream.”


She’s just as passionate in the next chapter, once again employing the semicolon as a launchpad for a critique of grammar as an instrument of class and racial bias. Another terrific exegesis — of Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of semicolons in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — moves into a sharp takedown of a speech by David Foster Wallace telling African-American students they had to use Standard Written English if they wanted to be taken seriously. While honoring Wallace for understanding that “language, and the choices we make surrounding it, is political, always,” she faults him for reinforcing the hegemony of “the secret-handshake grammar of the powerful.” Overstated, perhaps, but a worthwhile reminder that “when we consider rules, we have to ask: whose rules?”

Rambling and idiosyncratic, “Semicolon” is nonetheless essential reading for anyone who cares about language and its uses. Watson asks us to look hard at rules that pretend to be objective and consider their origins and implications; and in doing so, she advocates a skeptical, searching attitude that could usefully be taken toward many aspects of American life beyond grammar.


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.