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.

Semicolon is a small book about such larger connections — or perhaps it is more accurate to call it the biography of a punctuation mark. Certainly, it offers history: “The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494,” Watson writes, by way of introducing Aldus Manutius, the humanist printer who first dreamed up this hybrid form. “The humanists,” she writes, “tried out a lot of new punctuation ideas, but most of those marks had short life spans. Some of the printed texts that appeared in the centuries surrounding the semicolon’s birth look as though they were written partially in secret code: they are filled with mysterious dots, dashes, swoops, and curlicues.” The point of all this experimentation was to reinvigorate the language, which had grown staid and fallow prior to the Renaissance. In that sense, the semicolon, like much punctuation of the era, was intended to encourage play, or freedom, as a way of reanimating our relationship as readers to a text.

There’s an irony at work, of course, since over the last half millennium, the semicolon has come to be seen as just the sort of deadened apparatus it was created to circumvent. Donald Barthelme considered it “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” Kurt Vonnegut was equally dismissive: “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” he once opined. “First rule: Do not use semicolons.” I love Vonnegut; he’s the writer who made me want to be a writer. But on this, I disagree. Rather, much like Herman Melville, whose semicolonic legacy Watson unpacks in detail, I regard the semicolon as an elegant gesture — clean and fluid, a mechanism by which to stretch not only scene and story but also (and more significantly) point-of-view.

“Melville,” Watson notes, “uses the semi-colon to stretch out the distance between a capital letter and a period; instead, the semicolons are in the service of carrying you slowly, gently, pleasurable away from whatever it was you thought you were reading about.” The observation is essential, exploring effect and not merely form. For Melville — and, by extension, every digressive writer, enraptured by long sentences and the discovery inherent in their measure — the semicolon allows, in Watson’s terms, “the freedom of movement … needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes.” Moby-Dick, for example, contains 4000 semicolons, or “one for every 52 words.” Setting aside the obsessive glory of cataloguing every semicolon in an enormous novel (how great is that, though?), I’m struck by another observation, which again has to do with how punctuation is employed. “Just as sailors,” Watson argues, “needed instruments to wander out past sight of shore, Moby-Dick required writing technologies that could allow it to venture out beyond the genre constraints of its time.”

For Watson, this has everything to do, again, with the fluidity of language, which is — or must be, if it is to remain flexible and relevant — constantly evolving. It is addressing this that Semicolon comes to life. The history is interesting, if arcane in places, tracing disputes between linguists, the rise of sentence diagramming, even a series of legal challenges, most notably the so-called “Semicolon Law,” in which a piece of errant punctuation caused Massachusetts taverns to stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m.; the statute was upheld in 1900 by the state Supreme Court. Watson, however, finds her sharpest voice in literary analysis. It’s not just Melville but also Henry James and Rebecca Solnit, Raymond Chandler and Irvine Welsh.

“I use [the semicolon],” the latter insists. “… People actually get worked up about that kind of thing, do they? They should get a fucking life or a proper job.” The comment provokes Watson’s most pointed reaction: “Welsh is wrong that thinking about punctuation is ‘nonsense,’” she answers in a footnote, “but of course he might nevertheless be right that I need to get a fucking life and a proper job.” What makes this all so vivid is her willingness to engage. “The semicolon,” she later reminds us, “has, furthermore, been drafted in the fight for equality. The finest deployment of semicolons I’ve ever come across, in fact, is in Martin Luther King’s, Jr.’s ‘Letter for Birmingham Jail.’” To support her argument, Watson quotes a two-page string of semicoloned clauses — “when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters”— before concluding that this represents “mimesis at its finest,” with the punctuation serving as the apparatus of King’s extended sentence while also heightening the urgency, the insistence, of its call.

In the end, Watson insists, it is not rules that render the semicolon (or any other punctuation) effective; it is the sensibility they help evoke. “Rules,” she writes, “can be an easy, lazy way to put the onus on someone else: if you make a grammar mistake while trying to convey something heartfelt, I can just point out you’ve used a comma splice and I’m excused from confronting what you were saying, since you didn’t say it properly.” We see such pedantry every day, in the classroom and on social media; it is the opposite of discourse. It shuts us down rather than opens us up. And yet, if Semicolon has anything to tell us, it is that language is about more than information; it is about touch and receptivity. “The semicolon,” Watson wants us to remember, “is that tantalizing veil shimmering between the two halves of the sentence, showing us just enough to let us dream.” It is a breath, a rest, a taking stock, “a way to slow down, to stop, and to think.”