Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, Ecco, 224 pages, $19.99
Cecelia Watson’s buoyant yet scholarly compact history of a punctuation mark begins by noting pedigree: “The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494,” she writes, adding that its parents were the comma and the colon. Perhaps this typographical symbol hasn’t ignited arguments about usage similar to the intensity of response generated by, say, the Oxford comma (which the author manages to include in the title). But as Watson illustrates, most readers and writers do take a stand; rarely does the semicolon occupy middle ground among word enthusiasts.
The author notes that Kurt Vonnegut didn’t care for semicolons; neither did George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway. Stephen King is no fan. However, Martin Luther King didn’t seem to mind using them, and Herman Melville managed to clock one in for every 52 words in Moby-Dick. That’s 4,000 semicolons in 210,000 words. “The semicolons are Moby-Dick’s joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed.” As for Raymond Chandler’s feelings on the matter, he took punctuation — using it and not using it for various effects — quite seriously. “Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon,” he once wrote. Watson ponders why Chandler rarely used them in his fiction, yet frequently did in his essays. Her description of Chandler’s private detective narrator Philip Marlowe’s very rare deployment of the semicolon in The Big Sleep provides helpful insight into Chandler’s overall stylistic choices; here she makes a strong case that good punctuation can actually be exhilarating.
At one point, Watson poses a rhetorical question: “Are semicolons always pauses, then?” This lets her ponder the disparate ways that various authors use the mark. She enlightens the reader about each writer’s style, voice, and philosophy as she explores usage. (The answer to her own question, by the way, is no; no, semicolons are not merely pauses. How dare you.) Watson delineates this versatility by exploring the contrasting ways writers use it, including, for example, a comparison she makes between essayist Rebecca Solnit and novelist Irvine Welsh. Solnit deploys the mark for clarity and precision, says Watson, whereas Welsh brandishes the semicolon to create energy within realistic prose. The author’s asides like this are thought-provoking — at least to enthusiasts.
Burning questions include: Should the semicolon sit before conjunctive adverbs, such as “however”? Ought it connect two or three closely related independent clauses, where the use of a comma would lead to a run-on sentence? Should it — and here we approach Oxford-comma-level scrutiny — ever be used as a super-comma in a list? Every time Watson sets out to explore a question she comes up with fitting examples and sprightly prose. The result is that this little book is something of a page-turner.
Watson even manages to place the work of Henry James in upbeat territory, even though he, like Emily Dickinson, is more well-known for using lots and lots of dashes. Watson doesn’t hold that preference against either of these writers. “Ambiguity can be useful and productive,” she says cheerfully, “and it can make some room for new ideas.” In fact, her insights about the dash provide a hint about why she has such strong feelings about punctuation marks in general. “A couple years ago I gave up using the dash for Lent when I noticed my writing was downright staticky with horizontal lines.”
The semicolon and its rococo history are deployed by the author to explore linguistics, define vigor in punctuation, mention languages that use the mark (including Turkish and Arabic), and offer insights about a wide range of writers. When it comes down to it, enjoying this book depends less on strong feelings about rules, which are a relatively recent linguistic development, and more on embracing the versatile language we take for granted every day. Semicolons notwithstanding.