The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Ecco, 9780062853059, 224pp.
Publication Date: July 30, 2019
A page-turning, existential romp through the life and times of the world’s most polarizing punctuation mark
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.
Through her rollicking biography of the semicolon, Watson writes a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.
About the Author
Praise For Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark…
— Philadelphia Inquirer, “Big Summer Books”
“Look, some people just enjoy arguing about punctuation. It’s in their nature. But if your enthusiasm for this polarizing little mark stems from adoration and inquisitiveness (and only occasionally the haughty knowledge that you’re right), Cecelia Watson’s “biography” of the semicolon will be a delightful companion.”
— Elle, “Thirty Best Books to Read This Summer”
“Charming . . . an argument for deep knowledge and style awareness, moving beyond strictures to something educated, intuitive, and graceful.”
— New York Journal of Books
“An impeccably readable meditation.”
“In this impressive debut, Watson . . . takes readers through a lively and varied ‘biography’ of the semicolon. . . . The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Informed and witty . . . from chapter to chapter, [Watson] brings a gadfly’s spirit to the proceedings, thoughtfully lobbying for written English that resists restrictions and recognizes that ‘rules will be, just as they always have been, inadequate to form a protective fence around English.’”
— Kirkus Reviews
“In Cecelia Watson’s hands, what starts as an exploration of the obscure origins of a modest punctuation mark becomes a slyly profound proof of the value of creative freedom itself. Grammar fiends and poetic anarchists alike will find Semicolon inspiring, challenging, and delightful.”
— Adrian Johns, Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History, University of Chicago
“Intimidated by the semicolon? Fear not: Cecelia Watson’s sprightly history is the perfect antidote to punctuation pedantry. It’s also a paean to the music of language by a writer with a silver ear.”
— Lorraine Daston, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Visiting Professor, The Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago
“Cecelia Watson takes the history and logic of this strange, unbalanced punctuation mark and with an eloquently natural voice transforms them into a work of sane, funny, and humanistic philosophy; [couldn’t resist] it’s superb.”
— Daniel Menaker, author of The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense