Pause and reflect; semicolons are useful

In the world of the rule followers, the semicolon has two licit functions: to separate items in a series that have internal punctuation, and to splice two independent clauses.

In the wider world of readers and writers it draws dislike, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s contemptuous dismissal of semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites,” or suspicion, as from people who identify use of the semicolon as a gesture of pretentious erudition.


Cecilia Watson is not much impressed by either group. In Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 213 pages, $19.99), she encourages us to think more creatively about punctuation.

In 1494, when Aldus Manutius joined the comma and colon to create the semicolon, to indicate a pause greater than a comma but less than a colon, punctuation was highly individual, like spelling. Punctuation had begun simply as a series of pauses, like the rests in musical notation, to assist in reading a text aloud.

By the nineteenth century, grammarians were employing punctuation as a means to indicate syntactic divisions in sentences, to systematize what had been a matter of individual preference and style. In the mid- and later nineteenth century that tendency developed into a “scientific” approach to grammar; that’s when sentence diagramming was developed, to show that grammar could be as exact a discipline as geometry.

And by the twentieth century we had the Rules, codified in textbooks and stylebooks in an ever-expanding thicket.

But Ms. Watson points out that the fundamental problem with which grammarians have struggled is “negotiating the competing demands of rules and personal taste”; that is, “between rules and usage.” The problem for writers and readers, then, is “how to go about figuring whether punctuation is any good or not without the security of a book of rules.”

Ms. Watson has views on the utility of rules.

Since to write well one must read widely and with attention, rules come after the fact. “These rule lovers,” she says, “possess an innate understanding of the proscriptions provided by the rules; they like rules because the rules give words to, and validate, an instinctive understanding of the usage that the rule lover already has.”

But the instinctive understanding comes first. “Rules,” she says, “even when explained very carefully and consistently,” seem inadequate “to teach students what they wanted to know, which was how to write with control and mastery over language.” She would rather see them as “frameworks within which to work rather than as boundaries marking the outer limits of rhetorical possibility.”

She would like us to move beyond mere rule following, since “rules are inadequate to form a protective fence around English,” and deploy punctuation, particularly the much-maligned semicolon, with more personal freedom. (After all, we already use the comma for both prosodic and syntactical purposes.) She quotes, with effect, longish passages from Raymond Chandler and Martin Luther King Jr. in which a series of subordinate clauses, some long and with internal punctuation, is set off with semicolons, leading to a powerful periodic close.

“The semicolon,” she says, “represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think; it measures time more meditatively than the catchall dash, and it can’t be chucked thoughtlessly into just any sentence in place of just any other mark.”

Indeed it is; see whether you can look beyond the rule book.