Cecelia Watson and her rainbow-colored Semicolons book cover


Punctuation for writers is better thought like musical notation for composers.

Too many rules are arbitrary and clumsy attempts to guide to better writing. Hence the strange intimidation and vitriol toward one piece of punctuation in particular, the semicolon, which was created in 1490s Venice. Treat it with care and with love. That’s a goal from Cecelia Watson’s slim 2019 book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • Vonnegut on semicolons: “All they do is show you’ve been to college”
  • Prior to the 1800s, “pointing “ a text or setting punctuation was a matter of personal taste
  • The semicolon was invented in Venice in 1494 to denote a pause between a comma and the already established colon, created by Aldus Manutius of the humanists (very en vogue in the 1800s)
  • Donald Barthelme called them “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly”
  • “It is not concealed from you how great a shortage there is of intelligent scribes in these times“ wrote one 15th century French humanist
  • The writer was like the musician who used rests as they liked, until the rules started being standardized in the 18th century (set by the 1800s)
  • In 1826 Bradford Frazee’s Improved Grammar called parentheses “nearly obsolete”
  • In 1843, Oliver Felton’s grammar said “the colon is now so seldom used by good writers, the rules for its use aren’t necessary”
  • HW Fowler’s 1926 classic dictionary of Modern English
  • By the early 1800s, the semicolon shifted from meaning a pause to instead separating clauses
  • Was punctuation about orthography (spelling), prosody (patterns of stressing) or syntax (ordering)?
  • By 1888, the California state board of education said there was “but one use of semicolons,” to separate independent clauses that contained commas
  • Semicolon Law in Massachusetts due to confusing punctuation
  • Salvatore Medea sentenced to death in 1927 because of a missing semicolon
  • On law fundamentalism: “ the law is skeletal, a mirror, naked framework of words, and those words require interpretation for the law to become adamant into act in the world”
  • “You could write perfectly ‘correct’ English all day, and still not have what most of us really want, which is style. We want our words have impact.”
  • Rules can’t actually teach writing well
  • Goold Brown published the first English survey of rules but in 1758 Robert Lowth’s short introduction to English grammar had lasting influence: He used Shakespeare and Milton as examples of bad behavior
  • Lindley Murray wrote bestselling English Grammar, then Samuel Kirkham , who used Latin and Greek to find rules for English
  • From art and music to a science
  • In 1847, Stephen Clark brought The Science of Language with the sentence diagram
  • Today a semicolon separates independent clauses and a long list, but it also can still serve as a pause for pacing, either slowing or in the case of the first sentence of the Trainspotting, it speeds it up (“The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he was trembling.” vs “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy. He was trembling.”)
  • Tianamen Square was a fax revolution; email for Seattle WTO demonstration in 1999; Facebook Arab spring and occupy Wall Street a Twitter hashtag
  • Herman Melville’s first novel was bestseller Typee, following two sailors into Polynesia as an adventure. Others he wrote were light and fun. Moby Dick was something else entirely, and it surprised its fans and confounded the critics. “Mr. Melville grows wilder and more untamable with every adventure,” a review in the New York Evangelist observed. The book didn’t sell well when it was first published in 1851, and it wasn’t until well after his death when a group of literary critics in the 1920s rediscovered and repositioned it that the book moved into the classic American canon.
  • Typee: 107k words and 845 semicolons and Moby Dick was 220k words and 4K semicolons , one every 52 words. “The semicolons are Moby Dick’s joints”
  • DH Lawrence among those who resurrected Moby Dick in 1920s
  • “Henry James is a novelist who writes like a psychologist, and William James is a psychologist who writes like a novelist.”
  • Henry James rewrote his novels later in life in 1907-1909 called New York edition, author feels they became too detailed and told not showed. William revised to open up his writing but Henry closed down with heavier detail and cluttered words
  • Translating semicolon: Wittgenstein translated by GEN Anscombe. His “Der Philosoph behandelt eine Frage; wie eine Keankheit” Could be “The philosopher treats a question; like an illness” but instead was: “The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.”
  • Thoreau wrote that we “stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment”
  • MLK’s use of semicolon in Letter to Birmingham jail in the “stinging darts of segregation” passage: dragging out a long list of injustices, it’s an example of mimesis
  • David Foster Wallace: we teach in writing class the foreign language of Standard Written English, and some students come with extraordinary advantages in already having spent their lives familiar with it — others far from it. That’s from his 2002 essay American Usage but he gets criticized for this essay, especially in Language Hat blog post
  • Theodore Adorno Punctuation Marks essay
  • “A fence keeps things out as surely as it keeps things in. Who is kept out of our conversations, our public life and our academies by these language-fences?”
  • “A grammar attack is quite simply an ad hominem attack that looks more legitimate because it’s dressed up in a cap and gown”
  • Philosophy of punctuation should prioritize drama, style and clarity. Often many grammar and punctuation rules are imprecise ways to guide toward better writing. “Don’t write a 1-sentence paragraph” is arbitrary, because it really means make sure you have evidence for a claim and/or are well placing a spare dramatic one sentence for the reader

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