Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson

Eight stars

Cecelia Watson, self-professed member of the modern Grammar Police, takes readers on an interesting adventure in her exploration of the semicolon (;). While this may seem a dull and esoteric journey, Watson makes it highly entertaining and informative as she investigates the origin of this punctuation mark that has not only fallen into disrepute, but also become something that angers many readers. Created in the late 15th century in Italy, the semicolon was a special mark created by a printer to set apart a piece he was publishing from all others at the time. Its use remained stagnant until the 19th century, when it became more popular. There were no rules of English grammar or punctuation at the time, leading many to take up the effort to dictate to the general public how to write and how not to do so. This included demonstrating the semicolon’s use, but not always clearly defining the rules by which it could be used properly. The book continues with some mention of how this piece of punctuation cost many people their lives, as it was inserted into (or left out of) legal statutes in the United States. Watson explores how a single semicolon changes the interpretation of words to the point of sending a man to his death, while exonerating his willing accomplice. Watson then tackles how some modern authors have used semicolons to shape their writing, sometimes defying the generally accepted rules laid out in the aforementioned grammatical guides. The attentive reader will see just how useful and transformative the semicolon could be, allowing authors to take readers on adventures in a single sentence. This exploration shows how a single punctuation mark can be so subjective in its use and provide such a headache to the reader, while also serving to pace the prose on the printed page, while also posing the question of being pretentious or useful. It is not likely that the semicolon will gain its 19th century notoriety again, but I am happy that Cecelia Watson took the time to pen this piece and keep me on my toes as I learn. Recommended to those who hold onto their Grammar Police badge with vigour, as well as the reader who loves to learn about all things linguistic.

I remember seeing this book when it was newly published and wanted to get my hands on a copy. However, my excitement had it relegated to a shelf, as I had lots going on at the time and could not get to it. I am glad that I took the time to finally read this, as I did learn a great deal, even if I did not ascertain the rules by which I could (and should?) use the semicolon in my writing. I have survived well without using it and, truth be told, it ties me in knots to think about writing with it. Watson does a fabulous job keeping things light while not skimping on the information presented. Her approach is entertaining and the varied topics kept the momentum of the book moving at lightning speed. While this topic does not seem to evoke laughter and enjoyment, Watson did remarkably well and I would hope readers take a gamble with this one. A mix of long and short chapters, depending on the topic at hand, kept the story moving and the learning at a premium. Grammarians of the world…find me more books like this (or write them) and I vow to improve my writing.

Kudos, Madam Watson, for this great piece that has me cringing a little less at the semicolon.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: