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

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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 infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. But in the nineteenth century, as grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing, with the semicolon a prime victim. Taking us on a breezy journey through a range of examples—from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—Watson reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language.

Through her rollicking biography of the semicolon, Watson writes a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.

213 pages, Hardcover

First published July 30, 2019

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About the author

Cecelia Watson

1 book54 followers
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 Institute for the History of Science and a scientific consultant for Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany.

She has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College; and an M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, both from the University of Chicago.

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