Saturday, September 14, 2019

Books: "Semicolon," A Fun Look At A Misunderstood Mark

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
By Cecelia Watson
Ecco; hardcover, 224 pages; $19.99

The semicolon is possibly the most divisive punctuation mark of the modern era. Just hearing about it provokes a reaction, be it love or hate, as well as being deeply misunderstood.

Whether you faithfully abide by grammar rules, or completely detest them, Cecelia Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, has written a book that transcends the battle lines, and it is simply called Semicolon.

Watson, who is also a teacher of writing and the humanities on Bard College's Faculty in Language and Thinking, has created this charming, fascinating history of a punctuation mark that grammar fanatics and eschewers alike can love. She explains how grammar rules originated to "scientize" language and examines specific historical moments when history hinged on the reading or misreading of this particular mark. 

Watson explores our compulsion toward doctrine and offers cultural commentary about punctuation, a la Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Sin and Syntax, without the pressure to conform to any convention or precedent. She aims to free us from all the restrictive traditions of grammar because such formalities "keep us from seeing, describing, and creating beauty in language that rules can't comprehend."

The first thing to do is learn about the semicolon's significance. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, David Foster Wallace, and Rebecca Solnit love it. The question is why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?

At one time, this infamous punctuation mark was the trendiest one in the world of letters. That changed in the nineteenth century when grammar books became all the rage and the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing, with the semicolon a prime victim.

Semicolon takes us on a breezy journey through a range of examples - from Milton's manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep - as Watson reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we'd think. 

Watson feels that 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. She includes a history of grammar guides that explains why we don't need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, more primary value of language, which is communication.

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