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. Read more…