BN Review

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

I’ve long considered punctuation a form of musical notation, each mark its own sort of rest. There’s the quarter rest of the comma, the half rest of the semicolon, the three-quarter rest of the colon or the em-dash, and the whole rest of the period: full stop. All this is in keeping with how I think of language, as a medium in which meaning evolves not just from words, their definitions, but also from the sound and rhythm of the lines. “I wouldn’t deny that there’s joy in knowing a set of grammar rules; there is always joy in mastery of some branch of knowledge,” Cecelia Watson acknowledges near the beginning of Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. “But there is much more joy in becoming a reader who can understand and explain how it is that a punctuation mark can create meaning in language that goes beyond just delineating the logical structure of a sentence.” A reader, and a writer both. What I mean — and what Watson is presenting also — is that literature is intuitive as well as intellectual, an art in which emotion, feeling, are as essential as ideas. Punctuation, then, becomes a necessary aspect of this flow and music, not least because it shows us where to breathe.