A historian and philosopher of science offers a "biography" of a very controversial punctuation mark, charting its rise and fall from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
It is hard not to sympathise with Irvine Welsh, who said that anyone who got so worked up about a semicolon 'should get a f***ing life or a proper job'. Yet Watson’s years thinking about it have done the world a favour. The semicolon is not a small thing. It leads straight to our insecurities about education and class ... Because she spent so long researching and writing, Watson has been able to make her book wondrously short. She has hunted down the very finest examples of semicolons in use, in order to prove how poorly rules serve us ... The aim of Semicolon is admirable; its effect on me has been counterproductive. Everything I read I now scan for any sign of this little punctuation mark. Far from helping me connect to meaning, my eyes are so peeled for a sighting of a semicolon I’m barely taking in any meaning at all.
Watson...has gotten the historical background from Malcolm Parkes’s unbelievably learned Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West. Instead of doing a historical survey, though, she skips from Manutius to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians in order to get rules-based pedantry in her sights early on. In tone, her book is closer to Lynne Truss’s jokey Eats, Shoots & Leaves than it is to, say, David Crystal’s levelheaded Making a Point ... But her chattiness is much less annoying than Truss’s, and her argument runs in a different direction.
...Watson traces the warring (and gendered) camps of prose style — a fixation on clarity and directness versus a curled sensibility, one interested in the fertile territories of ambiguity. Watson covers impressive ground in this short book, skittering back and forth like a sandpiper at the shores of language’s Great Debates. There are fascinating forays into how grammarians 'created a market for their rules,' the strange history of diagramming sentences and the racial politics of so-called standard English. Watson is sharpest when acting a bit like a semicolon herself, perceiving subtle connections and burrowing into an argument. Whatever her subject, her targets are always pedants, those acolytes of 'actually,' all those who profess to love language but seek only to control it ... Watson opposes conventions only as they exist to spare us from thinking. Don’t just learn the rules, her clever, curious book prompts us; learn to ask, whose rules (and to admire that semicolon while you’re at it).