A recent publication of The Financial Times contains a review by Lucy Kellaway on an interesting and entertaining book by Cecilia Watson, titled Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Maybe Even Change Your Life.
Kellaway says that she herself hadn’t paid much attention to semicolons in her own writing until she read Watson’s book. She writes, “Then I read Semicolon by Cecelia Watson, an academic recovering punctuation hysteric. Watson used to be such a stickler for the rules of grammar she could recite passages from the Chicago Manual of Style. Then a decade ago, she had an argument with her PhD supervisor about a semicolon in her thesis and has spent the ensuing period questioning everything she thought this little mark stood for.”
Kellaway proceeds to give a short and humorous history of the use of semicolons through the years. George Orwell, whom she calls “the god of clear writing,” doesn’t care for it and neither does Kurt Vonnegut who says “its only function was to show its user had been to college.” But, she notes, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, could not have produced that book without the semicolon. She says Moby Dick “contains 4,000 semicolons, or one every 52 words.” Semicolons have “gone in and out of fashion with the rules for their use getting ever more complicated.”
The use of the semicolon goes back to 1494. The current Chicago Manual of Style notes 37 rules for the use of this punctuation mark. Kellaway remarks that “it is not hard to sympathize with Irvine Welsh who said that anyone who got worked up over a semicolon
“ should get a f***king life or a proper job.” But she says that “Watson’s years thinking about it have done the world a favor.” She maintains that the semicolon “is not a small thing as it leads straight to our insecurities about education and class.” Kellaway goes on to say that “Watson’s book gets cross with people who get cross about punctuation. The semicolon is not snobbish but the rules hysterics are. …What has happened is that the ‘pleasures of … following rules have choked the very basic ethical principle of giving a shit about what other people have to say.’”
Kellaway writes that while the purpose of Watson’s book is admirable, it has not had a good effect on her. She is so conscious now of examining every context in which a semicolon is used that she tends to lose sight of what an author is really saying.
Having been a writing instructor at the college level, I understand completely people’s confusion over the use of the semicolon. For myself, though, I like the semicolon and find it useful when I am explaining something and of course when listing items in a series with its own internal commas. It gives not only order to one’s expressed thoughts but also a certain panache to one’s overall writing! Having admitted that, I confess that I leave myself vulnerable to being labeled snobbish.
Lucy Kellaway. “Mark of Distinction.” The Financial Times, August 10, 2019, p.9