11 November 2019

To Semicolon or Not to Semicolon

The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson
Harper Collins, 2019
213 pages

I was amused to find a whole book written about one little punctuation mark, and purporting to present its history no less. Ordinarily one does not worry about a punctuation mark's past, just how it should be used now. So, being the word nerd that I am, I had to check it out.

Venice, 1494: Aldus Manutius, printer and publisher, decides to put a comma and a colon together, thereby creating a mark for a mid-length pause, shorter than a colon, longer than a comma. In those days grammar rules had not yet been created and codified and it was every writer/printer/publisher for themself! The marks were often thought of as denoting pauses for reading passages aloud; pauses that would help convey the meaning of the words.

The author follows the semicolon from its birth through subsequent centuries of use and controversy. It is quite amazing how many people have passionate reactions to the mark, both pro and con, even into the twenty-first century! Many examples of how it's used are given, with quotes from works by Milton, Martin Luther King Jr, Raymond Chandler, and Herman Melville.

"Moby-Dick", a favorite novel of mine, is discussed in a long section of the chapter "Semicolon Savants". Apparently Melville's famous book contains about 210,000 words with 4,000 semicolons.

The semicolons are "Moby-Dick's" joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes. page 36.

Despite the eye-catching title, most of the book is about grammar rules, how we got them, the so-called Grammar Wars, and the edicts of style guides like the "Chicago Manual of Style". That list may sound dry and academic, but the text is lively and has fun examples. If you are fascinated by words and how they are used, or confused by grammar rules, this book should entertain you.

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