“What!? An entire book about semicolons??? You’ve got to be kidding!”

“And an audiobook of all things???? How can you listen to a semicolon?”

Yes, I have to admit: I really did listen to an audiobook about a punctuation mark. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson, was actually worth listening to in this format!

But it’s a vast oversimplification to say that the entire book — even though it’s only 224 pages in the dead-tree version — is about one particular punctuation mark. Some of it is about the history of book-making, some is about the general purpose of punctuation, some is about the controversies swirling around style books and prescriptivist rules, some of it rambles along vaguely relevant tangents, and some is about the philosophy of written versus spoken language. Because of the latter problem, the audiobook is accompanied by a link to a PDF document; audio, after all, will take you only so far.

The most interesting part of Semicolon is the endless dispute about “following the rules.” But whose rules? As you can see in the linked PDF document that I referred to in the previous paragraph, even Shakespeare and Milton came under fire for violating “the rules,” even though those rules had been made up out of whole cloth rather than being handed down on stone tablets or deduced scientifically. More generally, I rather like the description in Goodreads:

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.




Categories: Books, Linguistics