Review: Exploring the unexpected joy – and common misuse – of the semicolon
'Semicolon' by Cecelia Watson unravels the history and purpose of the ambiguous punctuation mark
Presumably, cult Scottish writer Irvine Welsh won’t be putting Cecelia Watson’s hugely enjoyable exploration of the semicolon on his summer reading list this month. “People actually get worked up about [the semicolon], do they?” he once mocked. “They should get a life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.”
But Watson’s investigations into the semicolon have been her life for the past 10 years, as she’s explored with careful and thoughtful curiosity the history, usage, love and hate of this “misunderstood mark”. And, naturally, one of her favourite examples of semicolon use is from the first line of Welsh’s most famous book, 1993’s Trainspotting, written in his vernacular, rule-breaking Scots: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.”
When you read that sentence again, you can see that Welsh could have used a full stop instead, but in Watson’s generous view, the “springy little semicolon” here is an “instrument of quickness, a springboard”. It adds an air of “conspiratorial addendum, the way good gossip is often quickly whispered”.
This small extract from Watson’s Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark distils her thesis that grammar rules have always been fluid and adaptable, particularly when it comes to her punctuation mark of choice. So, although Welsh uses the semicolon to create energy, Watson explains that the initial consensus as far back as the Renaissance was that the semicolon should be used to accentuate a pause in a sentence. This idea that punctuation marks are analogous to rests in music stuck for centuries, the comma a pause shorter than a semicolon, which in turn is a pause shorter than a colon – with the longest pause attributed to the full stop.
Yet Watson finds at least four possible grammatical uses for the semicolon by the mid-1800s, most detailed in An English Grammar by the brilliantly named George Payn Quackenbos. There were long discussions about independent and dependent clauses, and how the semicolon could bring together two sentences that could function on their own. Academics also mused on whether the semicolon should separate items in a list, when a comma could just as easily fulfil that function.
No wonder people are nervous about using the semicolon properly these days. Author Kurt Vonnegut once derided the poor semicolon as “representing absolutely nothing … all they do is show you’ve been to college”. Yet one of the main ideas of Watson’s book is that by not using it “properly”, in disregarding the “rules”, the semicolon has become more interesting. It’s a grammatical mark that has an ambiguity and nuance that helps writers – that’s my excuse when I use it incorrectly, anyway.
What makes Watson’s book so readable is that she doesn’t offer solid grammarian answers to any of these thorny questions. This isn’t a How To Use A Semicolon guide, thankfully, even though she admits she was once a “Rule Lover”. It’s a breezy affair, in the same ballpark as Lynne Truss’s all-conquering Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and is just as happy to delve deep into some quirky legal cases muddied by the use – or not, as the case may be – of a semicolon. There was once a Semicolon Law concerning after-hours drinking in Boston, Massachusetts, and the death sentence handed out to two men in 1920s in New Jersey rested on the interpretation of a piece of punctuation.
Yes, perhaps Watson slightly exaggerates when she suggests that “the semicolon is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class and education are concentrated”, but she does at least see that idea through, with a chapter discussing whether semicolons are elitist, or merely for snobs, given their tendency to suggest a measure of intelligence in their usage.
Her answer is to direct people towards Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, which is described by Watson as “the finest deployment of semicolons I’ve ever come across”. King uses the punctuation mark to list agony after agony, indignity after indignity, in his wait for change. “The semicolon is used to open a window on the lived experience of black people in America in 1963,” Watson writes. Hardly elitist, and not bad for what is essentially a dot with a little squiggle below.
Watson makes a really good point that you could write perfectly correct English all day and still not have what all of us want when we write – style and impact. That can only come from reading a lot, and studying closely why and in what context the likes of Irvine Welsh use a semicolon rather than a full stop.
The semicolon taught Watson that if you think less about rules, and more about communication, then perhaps it’s possible to consider a richer way of learning, teaching, using and loving language. Even Irvine Welsh’s language.
Semicolon, published by 4th Estate, is out now.
Updated: August 24, 2019 09:34 AM