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

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  1,301 ratings  ·  307 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
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Average rating 3.63  · 
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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: 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
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
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 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
We all know the Grammar Nazi. Meet the Grammar Punk.
Oct 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Who knew punctuation could cause such controversy! Enthusiastic, engaging exploration of a generally lesser-used type of punctuation. I confess I was astonished by all the confusion about its use. I love books about grammar and punctuation, and this one reminded me of Nancy Willard's Simple Pictures Are Best, one of my daughter's favorite children's book. Paraphrasing that: Simple rules are best. ...more
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
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
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
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.
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...
Absolutely delightful, and even at some times gripping! Watson wields footnotes with an almost Pratchettian assurance.
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. ...more
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Pre- and descriptivists alike
Recommended to Alan by: Flickr user See Reeves
I don't think I know a single other person who would enjoy Cecelia Watson's Semicolon as much as I did—no, not even the talented former coworker who impressed me greatly by using appropriate semicolons in her technician's notes. Which is a shame, because this book turned out to be lively and entertaining, and surprisingly wide-ranging considering its brevity and niche subject.

Watson does not confine herself to the consideration of the semicolon—she branches out, relating the use of commas, dashe
Nov 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Why did Raymond Chandler seldom use semicolons in his Philip Marlowe novels, while peppering his essay “Oscar Night in Hollywood” with them? How did a semicolon restrict alcohol consumption in Massachusetts, and much more harshly, how did one lead to the execution of Salvatore Merra while serving up life imprisonment for his partner-in-crime and tocayo Salvatore Rannelli? And how did the semicolon help establish that wonderful cadence, that intensifying swell, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter ...more
Neil R. Coulter
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, editing
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  ·  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, pr ...more
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.
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. ...more
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.
Mary Warnement
I didn't know what to expect of Watson's slim volume. To say it didn't disappoint is an understatement; her writing was excellent company on the subway. She brought old friends like Erasmus into the conversation--I hadn't know he coined the Latin lunulae for parentheses--and new ones like G.E.M Anscombe, whom I must learn more about. Could that pants anecdote; Anscombe removing her pants upon being denied entry because women in pants not allowed in that Boston establishment (143-5); could that p ...more
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 dissert
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 teach
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 drin
Jan 19, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow! An entire book about the semicolon? How could I resist? But in case you're wondering, it is not entirely, or even primarily, about the semicolon, although certainly there's a lot about its literary value. But it's primarily about the value of grammar rules in general, with most of the examples drawn from arguments about the usage of semicolons. The author has a refreshingly subtle take on that issue. She also has a sometimes sly, sometimes wry, occasionally vicious sense of humor; [take not ...more
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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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