“Delightful.” —Mary Norris, The New YorkerA page-turning, existential romp through the life and times of the world’s most polarizing punctuation markThe 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.
Cecelia Watson is a historian and philosopher of science, and a teacher of writing and the humanities. She is currently on Bard College’s Faculty in Language and Thinking. Previously she was an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow at Yale University, where she was also a fellow of the Whitney Center for the Humanities and was jointly appointed in the humanities and philosophy departments.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Love, Hate, and Semicolons 1
I Deep History: The Birth of the Semicolon 13
II The Science of Semicolons: American Grammar Wars 23
III Sexy Semicolons 45
IV Loose Women and Liquor Laws: The Semicolon Wreaks Havoc in Boston 57
V The Minutiae of Mercy 73
VI Carving Semicolons in Stone 91
VII Semicolon Savants 97
VIII Persuasion and Pretension: Are Semicolons for Snobs? 159
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