Any Good Books, October, 2019
Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson (Ecco, 2019)
It's characteristic of the thoroughness of Cecelia Watson's research that the she knows both the date of the semicolon's invention (1494) and the name of the inventor, a Venetian publisher; the type designer was Bolognese. The humanists of the Renaissance were busy inventing marks, most of which quickly faded out of use; the semicolon survived because of its utility as a way to mark a pause, longer than the one marked by a comma, and shorter than that of a colon. In other words, its use was purely a matter of prosody, the music of language.
From the middle of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, grammarians contended to publish the most thorough explications of English grammar, and the most 'scientific'. The competition was fierce; one dauntless scholar published “The Grammar of English Grammars, which contained 1,192 pages filled with tiny print surveying a selection of 548 English grammar books that had been published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, up until the 1852 printing of his own book.” Some authors based their grammatical theories on Latin and Greek; others attempted logical induction directly from English. They all had much the same difficulty: “how could it be possible to give useful rules for punctuation, while at the same time acknowledging that those rules couldn't describe every valid approach to punctuating a text?”
But it was ever thus: ambiguity creeps in through the cracks. Watson has a couple of chapters about legal situations where the rules were asked to carry more weight than they really could bear. “Any remaining hope that the law could somehow escape the challenges posed by punctuation went out the window when a semicolon set about wreaking havoc up and down the Northeast Corridor in a dramatic Massachusetts court case that caused six years of controversy in courtrooms, in legislative debates, and in the streets.” Six years!
She has another couple of chapters about the stylistic uses of the semicolon. Herman Melville wrote in the nineteenth century, the semicolon's golden age. “No,” says Watson, “it's not really that Melville uses the semicolon to stretch out the distance between a capital letter and a period; instead, the semicolons are in the service of carrying you slowly, gently, pleasurably away from whatever it was you thought you were reading about–the process of beheading the whale, or how to assess winds, or cannibalism.”
In the hands of the modern essayist Rebecca Solnit, on the other hand, “A semicolon is sometimes not a pause, but the opposite: an instrument of quickness, a little springboard that launches you rapidly from thought to thought.” These observations return the semicolon to the realm of music. The punctuation may, incidentally, accord with The Chicago Manual of Style, but it was chosen for its rhythm.
Watson is not opposed to rules, exactly, but she is opposed to idolatry about them. For one thing, as we've seen, they had to be invented. For another, they can make no claim to completeness, because the language is always flourishing in new ways. As language changes, we imagine that it decays, because the rules of our youth pass out of fashion; in reality, though, “[t]here was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated 'properly.'”
She's also opposed to the pernicious snobbery by which those of us who happened to grow up speaking the dominant dialect ascribe some kind of moral virtue to following the rules. “Rules 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 that you've used a comma splice and I'm excused from confronting what you were saying, since you didn't say it properly.” Don't be that person. Communicating is better than standing on privilege, any day.