Who’s Afraid Of A Semicolon?

In ‘Semicolon,’ historian Cecelia Watson dives into the odd history of the fascinating punctuation mark.
Hands over a blue typewriter

Once during a lecture on grammar and writing rules, one of my high school teachers drew a semicolon on the board, and then put a huge X through it. “The semicolon is too hard to explain, and none of you are using it right, so from now on it’s banned in your essays,” he declared.

This seemed pretty extreme at the time, but since then, I’ve realized it’s not uncommon. Harried English teachers, having tried and failed to explain the differences between commas, colons, dashes, periods and semicolons, have decided to make their lives easier by getting rid of one of them. And the semicolon is probably the most problematic. It’s confusing; it looks like a weird hybrid of a colon and a comma; and it seems like it could be replaced by some other punctuation mark in almost every instance.

All unloved things have their defenders, however, and the semicolon could not have asked for a better one than historian Cecelia Watson. In her book Semicolon, she describes the history of the punctuation mark and why it is so valuable a tool in the writer’s kit.

Where Are Semicolons From?

When people first started writing, there was no punctuation. Even spaces between words were not a given for part of written history. Speech didn’t have punctuation or spaces, so it really wasn’t at all obvious that written language would need anything like that. As writing progressed, writers and transcribers started to invent punctuation as a way to make writing easier to read and understand. Spaces divide words, periods divide sentences and on and on.

Early punctuation was mostly invented around the idea of a pause in speech. A period was a long pause, a comma was a short pause and a colon was somewhere in between. But then printer and publisher Aldus Manutius decided in 1494 that there should be a pause somewhere between the comma and the colon, and so he created the semicolon.

It may sound a bit silly to need another designator of pause length, but clearly it was useful, or the semicolon wouldn’t have survived. The period in which Manutius worked was very experimental, and there were plenty of punctuation marks that didn’t make it to the present (and for a history of all the punctuation, definitely check out Keith Houston’s Shady Characters). Printers kept using the semicolon, and it evolved into a pause midway between a comma and a period, as colons became used for other purposes. Then, in the 18th century, things started to get complicated.

The Rules Of Semicolons

Semicolon is nominally a book about semicolons, but even if you have no particular interest in this singular punctuation mark, it’s worth reading for its look at the history of grammar. As mentioned in the last section, many punctuation marks for a while were defined as various lengths of pause. It was really an art with no hard-and-fast rules; you would use whichever punctuation mark felt right. And then, some people decided that wasn’t good enough.

During the 19th century, parents complained that their children’s time would be better spent learning the “natural sciences” rather than how to write; a complaint that echoes to this very day among people who champion STEM courses. To answer this, grammarians transformed punctuation from an art to a science, where there would be exacting rules to follow (this is also when sentence diagramming first appeared). No longer would you be intuiting when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon. Grammar scientists would be able to tell you where each correctly belonged.

Because people living today have been immersed in this thinking for so long, the idea that grammar could be an exact science doesn’t raise any red flags. But as Watson illustrates in her book, it’s kind of bunk. If it were true, then language would never change, which we know isn’t true (just go on the internet). The semicolon is the unfortunate victim of book hucksters and prescriptivists who want to tell you how to write, and it has been vilified for years because of this.

What’s A Semicolon For?

Why not throw away the semicolon? If we reject the scientific reasons for using it, and if students struggle so hard to figure out how to use it, then is it really worth keeping around? Unsurprisingly, Watson would answer yes. Surprisingly, she has a pretty convincing argument.

Throughout Semicolon, Watson sprinkles in defenses of the sheer usefulness of the semicolon, but the longest section in the book takes a more artistic approach. She looks at a wide range of authors — truly wide, from Moby-Dick author Herman Melville to Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh — and examines the beauty of their semicolon use. A well-placed semicolon is like a perfect simile; it conveys something to the reader that any alternative simply wouldn’t. 

It’s unlikely that you’ve put much thought into the semicolon since writing classes, but maybe it’s time to return to that pesky punctuation mark. If anything will convince you of its artistic beauty and historic importance, it will be Semicolon

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