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

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

by Cecelia Watson


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“Delightful.” —Mary Norris, The New Yorker

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062853059
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/30/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 181,749
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

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

Conclusion: Against the Rules? 173

Acknowledgments 185

Notes 189

Credits 207

Index 209

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