Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” as Want to Read:
Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  794 ratings  ·  174 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
Hardcover, 213 pages
Published July 30th 2019 by Ecco
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Semicolon, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
James Good grief! Congratulations on "one-ing" a few ribbons.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.58  · 
Rating details
 ·  794 ratings  ·  174 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Dec 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Shelves: auth-f, x2019-read
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
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
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.
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 28, 2019 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Michael F
Sep 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
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 ...more
Absolutely delightful, and even at some times gripping! Watson wields footnotes with an almost Pratchettian assurance.
Paul Ataua
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
Leo Vladimirsky
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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...
Carey Calvert
Nov 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
... 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
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Bruin Mccon
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
We all know the Grammar Nazi. Meet the Grammar Punk.
Sep 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
Ian Ridewood
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Oct 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A joy to read! Informative, funny, and an overall excellent review of the history of grammar and punctuation.
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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, ...more
Robert Stevens
Jan 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you like the semicolon, use it; if you loathe it, avoid it, but stay quiet and do not try to change those who love and in return, we won’t convince you of its greatness. That is the power of language and the array of gifts it gifts us.

My favorite punctuation mark is the semicolon; so, this book was a must on my reading list. While I was not blown away by this book, I did find the history of punctuation and grammar going from an art to a science alongside the conflicts linked between
Nov 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you're a syntax person, this is one for you. The semicolon is one of my favourite punctuation marks (possibly my favourite altogether, but the en-dash comes close, and I have a soft spot for the interrobang), and yes, the fact that I have multiple favourite punctuation marks probably tells you as much about me as you'll ever need to know.

Watson's point is not to illustrate how semicolons should and shouldn't be used; rather, the point is that punctuation rules shift as language evolves, and
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 21, 2019 rated it it was ok
This was an interesting read, quick and short. But I could have used the People/Time magazine version and been satisfied. And I'm still not sure that this book achieved what it set out to, as described in the Introduction. The Boston story and the Mark Twain story were funny.

It was interesting to learn about punctuation overall and about the semicolon, the mark I use the least. I found it curious that Watson uses the colon quite frequently in this book; its use was remarkable and appeared on
Jul 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Do you know how the semicolon should be used? Or when it started appearing? What was the first manuscript we can spot it in?

These are only some of the questions Cecelia Watson answers for this less-than-favorite punctuation mark. In this book, you're going to find an extensive history of when, how, and why semicolon appeared, as well as how to properly use it. And, who knows? Maybe by the end of this book you'll be fond of this misunderstood punctuation mark. The only thing I know for sure, is
I wondered how an author could get an entire book out of one punctuation mark. Watson does so by going far afield. The quality of the writing is good, but I didn't find this book especially interesting or compelling. But I learned one interesting thing: Sentence diagrams were a marketing ploy. Since the 1800s, teachers and administrators have been telling publishers that their students find the study of grammar boring. These teachers and administrators suggested that students' time was better ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading
  • The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language
  • First You Write a Sentence.: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life.
  • Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
  • The Grammarians
  • Audience of One: Television, Donald Trump, and the Fracturing of America
  • Grand Union: Stories
  • I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution
  • Essays One
  • Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
  • Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
  • The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator
  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants
  • Quichotte
  • Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side
  • Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects
  • Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral
See similar books…
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
“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” 0 likes
More quotes…