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Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  1,200 ratings  ·  280 reviews
A page-turning, existential romp through the life and times of the world’s most polarizing punctuation mark

The semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?

In Semicolon, Cecelia Watson charts the rise and fall of this
Audiobook, 4 pages
Published July 30th 2019 by HarperAudio
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James Good grief! Congratulations on "one-ing" a few ribbons.

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Dec 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
Cecelia Watson, self-professed member of the modern Grammar Police, takes readers on an interesting adventure in her exploration of the semicolon (;). While this may seem a dull and esoteric journey, Watson makes it highly entertaining and informative as she investigates the origin of this punctuation mark that has not only fallen into disrepute, but also become something that angers many readers. Created in the late 15th century in Italy, the semicolon was a special mark created by a printer to ...more
Jul 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
The semicolon has to undoubtedly be the most divisive and misunderstood punctuation mark in history, closely followed by the Oxford comma. In Semicolon, Ms Watson discusses the history, use, misuse and powerful impact the semicolon can have on a person's writing. A famously tricky method of punctuation scares some, and hence why many shy away from even attempting to use it. But, here, the author shows just how simple and effective it can be.

The author has managed to make a rather dry topic quite
Aug 21, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: x2019-read, auth-f
Based on the reviews, I thought this book would be a bit more enjoyable. And though I liked it, I didn't like it as much as I was expecting to. It's well researched, with occasional moments of light humour about people arguing over grammar rules (because, really, fighting over grammar is too funny, except when it's not, as the author illustrates in a murder case in the US many years ago upon which a man's life hung). And though this book was about the semicolon (which has been in existence since ...more
Niklas Pivic
How should one go about writing a pop-scientific book that is solely about the semicolon? Is it best to be bone dry and scientific, as with most dictionaries, or bone dry and severely funny, as with Benjamin Dreyer's "Dreyer's English"?

Thankfully, Cecelia Watson approaches this nerdy subject with both clerical adroitness and humour, and she constructs all of this chronologically. From the start of her book:

How did the semicolon, once regarded with admiration, come to seem so offensive, so unwiel
Sep 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: language-studies
I anticipated this book for weeks while I waited on the library reserve list. The first 50 pages met my expectations. After that, it looked like the author was trying to make a book out of an essay.

The first three chapters give a history of the semi-colon and a summary of how grammar rules evolved in the US. My big take-away from this section was that one’s preference among conflicting rules depends on one’s perspective on the finished product of the written text: how it looks (orthography), how
Paul Ataua
Aug 10, 2019 rated it liked it
The semicolon as always been the most mysterious of punctuation marks, and although Cecelia Watson's book never really gets to uncover the real nature of the pause, it is a fairly light and enjoyable read. The first half, which deals with the origins and early history of the semicolon, is mildly interesting, but it is the second half when we get to look at Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, and Irving Welsh among others, that the book really gets into gear. I am not sure I came out any more confident ...more
This short, intense book was a very pleasurable read! I usually have a small goal when I begin each book - hoping for a change, to take away a nugget, to learn a new fact, identify a take-away. . . .sometimes they are specific and form in my brain before the book is opened and some pop-up as it ends. In this case, I wanted to know exactly what is the "right" function of a semicolon in the world of writing.

HA! Yeah. I was engaged from the very beginning, stayed that way when it got technical. Lau
Alex Sarll
Yes, I freely admit it; this is a very on-brand book for me to read. Although the British edition is misleading in its presentation; you could undoubtedly learn something from this about the use of semicolons, but to read this lively and digressive essay primarily for practical reasons would be only a little better than reading Proust for the patisserie tips. Watson takes us from the semicolon's birth (in the Renaissance, alongside a host of other marks which proved not to share its staying powe ...more
Jan 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up for a lark because I like semicolons, but it also makes a concise and persuasive argument that prescriptive punctuation rules are bunk, even more so than I've always thought. This tiny book has genuinely changed my mind about some things, and I feel freed.

Apparently the prescriptive rules only started cropping up at all in the 19th century, as a result of competing grammarians. Before that, punctuation was seen as purely expressive, subjective and musical; just put the pauses wh
Aug 28, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book had some very interesting, albeit somewhat idealistic ideas, about punctuation and grammar. Although the semicolon was (mostly) at the centre of the book, there were a lot of detours to grammar and other punctuation marks. This was not at all unpleasant, but I felt like Watson could have broadened the scope of her book by calling it a history if punctuation and broadening the work with even more information on those marks beside the semicolon. Nevertheless the book was clever, we’ll st ...more
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title indicates this is a book all about semicolons, but grammar; grammar manuals; the teaching of grammar; whether punctuation in general is a part of language; and whether there should be rules for punctuation and grammar, and if they should be followed are also addressed.
There is also chapter devoted to style and the use of semicolons by authors as diverse as Henry Melville and Raymond Chandler, and how effectively these semicolons are used.

I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway in
Michael F
Sep 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Not only an excellent little book on the history and virtues of the semicolon, but also a thoughtful examination of the very concept of punctuation rules and an eloquent critique of the arrant pedantry to which grammar lovers like myself are too often prone.
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
We all know the Grammar Nazi. Meet the Grammar Punk.
Leo Vladimirsky
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
kept me up until 5am. watson has a subtle seductive prose that brings to life fundamental philosophical issues of language that go far beyond punctuation; this book is absolutely worth your time...
Absolutely delightful, and even at some times gripping! Watson wields footnotes with an almost Pratchettian assurance.
Neil R. Coulter
Is it really possible to write an entire book about the semicolon?

No. It's not.

Cecelia Watson talks a bit about the history of the semicolon in the early chapters of this book, and then...there's really not much more to say about it. So most of the book ranges between punctuation generally and style and usage, ending with a chapter about the role of rules in writing and communication. She presents passages by Herman Melville, Raymond Carver, Irvine Welsh, Henry James, and others, which, it's tru
Aisha (thatothernigeriangirl)
3.5 stars
Thank you 4thEstate for the review copy

My relationship with the semicolon has always been nonexistent but recently, I developed a thing for it and decided to read this book. Usually when we see a book like this, we think ‘rule book’ but that’s the surprising thing about this book; it’s far from being a rule book.

Very early on in the book, Watson declared that she sought to encourage semicolon-haters to give the punctuation mark a chance while chiding the uppity users who stifle the fun
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Professor Cecelia Watson informs us that the semicolon originated in Italy "as an aid to clarity" in the fifteenth century. Paul Robinson, a humanities professor at Stanford, dismissed the semicolon as a "'pretentious'" mark used chiefly to "'gloss over an imprecise thought.'" In addition, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut "discoursed on its ugliness, or irrelevance, or both." Ms. Watson, a historian, has written a book that is ostensibly about the semicolon. However, it is also about the past, pr ...more
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Such a delightful and entertaining read! Who knew that the semicolon had such a history? In addition to the history of the semicolon, we get a whirlwind tour of the history or punctuation and grammar rules; and Watson explains how we got from punctuation as the writerly form of musical notation to the strict usage rules found in the liked of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Sep 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
This book is delicious. It's funny, it's learned, it's humane; it even convinced me to read paragraphs from Moby-Dick, or, the Whale, which I have been beyond-loath to do. ...more
Oct 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A joy to read! Informative, funny, and an overall excellent review of the history of grammar and punctuation.
Ian Ridewood
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Empowering and inspiring in opposition to boring sticklers for the "proper" rules of English. Whose rules? it asks. Honestly, those rules be damned, because instead we search for style.
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
After getting bogged down in an interminable book about dictionary history (Dictionary Wars), I was a little hesitant to try this one. I hate not finishing a book I've sunk time into; what if this was another along those lines that looked fun but was instead a slog?

It's far from a slog, and in fact, quite a lot of Watson's short book is a full-on delight. She argues against rulemongering, classism, and snobbery, all in the service of propping up the misunderstood punctuation. I loved her dissert
Carey Calvert
Nov 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
... upon reading Semicolon, The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, I thought it at once a treatise on the use of the semicolon, warts and all, but more importantly, why a book on a semicolon at all?

But its freewheeling prose, weaving history including the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (brilliance), and David Foster Wallace (scathing), for example, expands its seemingly narrow scope.

And on page 16, where author Ceceila Watson, historian and philosopher of science, and a teach
Bruin Mccon
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
I reached peak geek in 2019 while reading a non-fiction book about the semicolon and I do not regret a thing.

Semicolon is a love letter to the best punctuation ever. It’s about the history of this beautiful mark. Honestly there is no reason anyone has to read this book, but I think bibliophiles tend to love the semicolon. If that’s you, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy the heck out of this short read.

For instance, there is a significant section about “the semicolon law.” It involved rules for drin
A fun read for grammar and punctuation nerds and a nice reminder about how language rules are created by those with power and enforced as a means to maintain that power.

Audio was a little weird, insomuch as sidebars were sometimes prefaced as such but were ended every single time with "return to text." The inconsistency was more confusing than understanding without any introduction what the aside was.
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fun, thoughtful biography of the semicolon, my favorite punctuation mark; ultimately an argument for reconsidering grammar and punctuation rules altogether, or at least ceasing to pretend they're mathematically sound, rather than intuited from reading.
Sep 01, 2020 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arc
My pickled little grammarian heart would obviously demand that I read this book right away, and to cement it, here's a lovely Longreads interview with the author. "People have always been complaining about the world falling apart because people aren’t using language correctly. And to see that back in the 1200s, 1300s, there’s a certain delight." Love it!! ...more
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm not sure exactly what I expected from a book claiming to tell the history of a punctuation mark, but this was not it. It was well written, but for me, the structure felt mind-numbingly academic; I felt like I was reading a dissertation written by a graduate student who was trying to lightening things up by inserting quasi-humorous footnotes throughout.

The only part that really interested me and broke from this structure was towards the end when Watson discussed the controversial teaching of
Clare McCarthy
When I say that I LOVED this little book, I embrace my linguistic nerdery. I actually squealed with delight when this selection arrived from the Junior Library Guild. I was the one kid who reveled in sentence diagramming in 8th grade. I studied Latin because, as Walter Sobchak said so eloquently, "This is not 'Nam...There are rules." And the semicolon is my favorite piece of punctuation. (Yes, I have a favorite piece of punctuation; leave me alone. Oh, wait, you already have.)

Cecelia Watson's bo
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Cecelia is a historian and philosopher of science, and a teacher of writing and the humanities. She is currently part of Bard College’s Faculty in Language and Thinking. Previously she was an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow at Yale University, where she was jointly appointed in the Humanities and Philosophy departments. Prior to that, she was a researcher at the Max Planck ...more

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“At times I've felt less like a punctuation theorist than like a punctuation therapist” 1 likes
“The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494” 1 likes
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