Tobias Carroll | Longreads | July 2019 | 11 minutes (2,868 words)
Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.
Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance.
I talked with Watson about the origins of her book, the role typography played in it, and how semicolons can improve your dating life. (No, really!) An edited version of our conversation follows.
Tobias Carroll: Did you always plan to write about the semicolon? Or was it something where you realized at some point that you’d researched the subject enough that it could be a book?
Cecelia Watson: I had always planned on it, after I realized there was a good story that hadn’t really been told behind these grammar books, and that I could tell from the point of view of history and philosophy of science. I knew that I wanted to write an article about it, and I thought after that article came out in 2012 that I would be able to put the subject down and I would be finished with it.
I found that I wasn’t. People kept wanting to talk to me about it, for one thing. And we’d have all these amazing, emotional anecdotes. And that kept me thinking.
Part of it was a reaction to the political events in the past couple of years. It’s since stretched out: what could be done constructively to make the world, or at least America, a more welcoming and constructive country? I started thinking about language in those terms, and how political languages and even things like punctuation marks can be. That, as much as anything, made me want to finally write this book.
In the section in which you discuss the role a semicolon had in restricting the sale of alcohol in Massachusetts, I found myself thinking back on the court case brought against the Affordable Care Act that had to do with something that was clearly a typo. Was there a point of resonance for you where you found your work on this subject particularly relevant to the current moment?
I think one thing that I have noticed, that has struck me as peculiar, since beginning to think more carefully about language is that a lot of the people that I know who consider themselves most liberal and most open to things like immigration and least being xenophobic — those are often the exact people who first call out a typo in someone’s internet post.
Or we’re able to say, “Look, that person is stupid, they’re a bad person because of their use of language,” and I thought, how odd. Because in a lot of ways, the people who espouse these very principles of openness are people who need to be reminded that language can be another way to close off borders.
You cover centuries-old Italian texts when the semicolon first appeared, and you also point out that the semicolon initially was also almost identical to another typographical element used in books of the time. Did you know from the outset that the book was going to begin there? How did you find that particular element of the beginning of this narrative?
I started my research there and so, in a way, in my mind that was always the beginning of the story for me: going back to the birth of the semicolon. I think that that story also connected to me due to two things. One is this idea that 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.
Also, I found that the humanists and their attitude towards punctuation marks in general really resonated with me when I was thinking about, “Well, how would we use them now?” The idea that they were planning, they were experimenting, they were creative, they made up new things to suit their purposes — and they didn’t live by these super strict rules for the most part. That I thought struck me as where I wanted to end up. It was also where I wanted to start.
People I would least expect had this emotional inner reaction … It turns out people care viscerally … People can remember instances from their past where a semicolon gave them some kind of problem.
Given the amount of historical and literary ground you cover in this book, what was your process like for researching Semicolon?
I was lucky that when I started this project, I was still a graduate student at the University of Chicago, which has a truly magnificent collection of books. I had the luxury of being able to go and find this vast selection of these dusty grammar books. Because the library is so capacious and so invested in preserving those resources, they had not been thrown away over the years or even archived offsite.
My first experience with getting the research materials was going and seeing this overwhelming number of books that had all been published right around the same time and clearly had done well at the time. I could tell from looking at how many editions were noted in the front of the book, but they had also obviously just not been touched for fifty or a hundred years, in come cases. They had just been sitting there.
I was lucky to have that. And also, the historical newspapers are such an incredible luxury to have, to be able to word search. It doesn’t always work perfectly and you have to be creative with your search terms to get what you want out of these things.
I didn’t think that I would ever have stumbled across things like this Massachusetts law that you mentioned, which is such a great story and occupied so many years of national attention. But how would you ever find that going through actual paper newspapers?
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In writing the book, you’re bringing in the implications on law and language and culture and everything else. How did you determine what you were going to leave in and what was going to be excluded from the scope of the narrative?
I would say the putting in part was the easy part, to the extent that anything is easy in writing. I always envisioned the book as a long essay, and that gave me a lot of freedom to just write my way through it and to think through the act of writing and see where it took me. The hard questions to me were things that I left out that I know people will notice. So one really obvious topic that I thought about including was the semicolon’s history and its use in suicide awareness. I mean, it’s a great use of this semicolon and one that I support a lot as a movement. I kept trying to think where to put it in the book, and it seemed disrespectful to footnote it in a way. But there was also no room in the narrative to put it in. So I made the choice to leave that out. And I still question, when I read the book, if it’s not the right thing to do.
The other thing that I feel some qualms about leaving out is computer languages. That is one of the only places where I think punctuation use genuinely does matter in this kind of fundamentalist way of, if you put a semicolon in the wrong place in your code, your website won’t load.
I think it’s very lucky for us that our brains don’t work that way and we have much more possibility available to us. But it will be interesting to see. I mean, I wonder if the generations of kids grow up coding will have a different idea and understanding about the role of punctuation than language does, because they’ll have seen it be so absolutely damning or saving.
I found a lot of the footnotes in the book to be fascinating: the conflict between the prescriptivists and descriptivists, for example. I’m curious about where you made the distinction as far as what to leave in the body of the text and what to put into footnotes …
I think that’s a question that I was occasionally asked by my copy editor as well. I tend to think, if this one is something that feels like my personal commentary or a little aside that if we were in conversation, I might change the tone of my voice to tell you.
And also, if I really want to go on a long rant about something that will hopefully take us away from the main narrative. I’m thinking of one particular footnote that was about legal formulas that I think spilled onto two pages; I deleted a little bit and I put some room in the bottom.
Earlier, you mentioned that after you had written the original article, people kept coming to you with interesting anecdotes. How much of that ended up in the book and how much of that was stuff that was good to have on hand for research but couldn’t quite fit into the book itself?
In some ways, those anecdotes were the essence of the book because it taught me that the people I would least expect had this emotional inner reaction to something like the semicolon. It turns out people care viscerally — a lot — and not just people who love it. People can remember instances from their past where a semicolon gave them some kind of problem. I feel like for me it was the turning point in going from, “Okay, I could just do the history of this little punctuation mark,” to thinking about, “What is it that makes us so anxious and nervous about this punctuation mark and what are the broader issues at work?” I think there probably wouldn’t be an interesting book without all of the comments and stories that I was told over the years.
There’s also this idea that has traveled with the semicolon for a long time now, that it’s for educated people, that it’s for particularly elite individuals.
Was there one that you remember particularly that didn’t quite fit into the book?
Of course, all the good stories I’m thinking of are things that people told me personally, and I don’t want to name names. But I have at this point been told by two different people that they fell in love with their partner because of their discussion of the semicolon.
Oh my god.
That was a first date subject for them.
I can’t remember if I actually put any of that in the book, I think probably because I didn’t want to out anyone. I’m not sure. I’m never sure how confidential these things are supposed to be, but that was really remarkable to me that people had that particular attachment and association with it. Of course I could totally imagine that.
That sounds amazing. And I’m now hoping I at some point go on a date with someone and they bring up the semicolon because …
I think you might need to bring it up. Really.
This is true.
Both of the people who told me that were women and that the man had brought it up and they were entranced, so …
I enjoyed the section where you wrote about how the semicolon appears in different sets of fonts. What was your process like for comparing those?
This is actually embarrassing. I am one of those people who will just go on font websites if I’m bored and look at the fonts.
I can completely relate to that.
I am totally into typography, especially because I had happened to be looking at these packs from the advent of the printing press, to where people were really designing fonts for the first time. It was immediately on my mind that these things all have such different characters.
You wrote a bit about your own shifting experience with language and grammar as you grew up. Did writing the book further change your relationship to the semicolon? Did it change how you use it in your own writing?
Oh definitely. I am certainly freer and looser with it. I would say it changed even more my tendency to use the dash all the time. I was definitely guilty of just sticking dashes, and also sometimes ellipses, in everywhere and just subbing it for anything. When I was writing the book, I would realize even when I was writing sentences in the book, I just wanted to dash dash dash dash and it really changes the texture of writing, I think, to try to think a little bit more about alternate choices.
It’s made me a slower and more deliberative writer, I would say. That’s done, I think, a good thing.
In a way that I do not see with commas or exclamation points or anything else, I feel like the semicolon will attract heated partisans on both sides of numerous debates. Not long ago I saw an argument on Twitter that the semicolon was inherently gendered. Why do you think that it remains a source of such controversy?
I think it’s a number of different things. One thing is just close proximity to the colon, and the fact that if people are uncertain, a lot of times they can put in a colon where they would put otherwise put a semicolon. You don’t need a semicolon at all. Well, you can write with nothing but a full stop if you want to be Hemingway. You can certainly do away with ever using a semicolon. So I think if people have any hint of uncertainty, they default to, “I’m just not going to use it.”
There’s also this idea that has traveled with the semicolon for a long time now, that it’s for educated people, that it’s for particularly elite individuals. I think that makes people intimidated. They may have had a teacher along the way — I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me, “Oh, my teachers said we weren’t allowed to use them.”
I still have people who teach who tell me, “I simply don’t let kids put a semicolon in their college papers or high school papers.” It’s, like so many things, fear of looking like a jackass when you use it wrong. And I love too that you have seen the gender debate. There have been all of these different people, who have said over the years that the semicolon is really feminine. I don’t know if that’s the particular thing that you saw, but that’s typically what people say.
I think I saw the reverse, where someone was arguing that it was this very overly masculine.
That’s amazing. I need to find this conversation. I would love to see it. I just often see sentiment of, “Oh, it’s a weak indecisive mark and it’s girly and that’s why the great male authors don’t use it.”
In this book, you cover history. You cover usage. You cover legal history. Did you have an ideal reader in mind I guess for the book?
I tried to write it so that it would be good for everybody who has any kind of interest in language. But beyond that broad audience, I really hope that people who used to be like me pick it up and read it all the way through. By “people who used to be like me,” I mean people who used to be really pedantic and snobby, or the types of people maybe who place a lot of thought in rules. I hope that those people will pick up the book and find themselves maybe starting to be more generous in communicating with other people. In terms of the book that would be really, in my opinion, the thing that would make me happiest.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky