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

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

Cecelia Watson. Ecco, $19.99 (244p) ISBN 978-0-06-285305-9

In this impressive debut, Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, takes readers through a lively and varied “biography” of the semicolon. She covers the punctuation mark’s history (which began in 1494 Venice, in a travel narrative about scaling Mount Etna) and changing grammatical function, from creating rhythm to separating two independent clauses, along with the love/hate relationship writers have long had with it. Watson argues, with growing passion as the book progresses, that the semicolon, and punctuation in general, must be deployed with flexibility, not rigid adherence to precedent, and even finds court cases to prove her point, including a controversy in 1900 Massachusetts over whether the semicolon in an onerously restrictive state liquor statute was meant to be read as a comma instead, thus making the law far more liberal. Watson lands an especially strong point with her takedown of the inflexibility and “rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types” and especially of Wallace himself, for a “speech he liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be... ‘non-standard.’ ” The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration. (July)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the author's first name.