In the delightful Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia 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 shares some lesser-known facts about the punctuation mark.
My husband and I fell in love, in part, over discussions of the semicolon, a woman told me last year. I’m afraid of it, students tell me every year. Love, fear, or outright hate—the semicolon can elicit them all. People have always had strong feelings about the semicolon, and its history testifies to its ability to touch hearts—or nerves. Here are a few things about its past that you might not know.
1. It’s young. Well, not young compared to you and me—but relative to the rest of our punctuation mainstays, the 525-year-old semicolon is a spring chicken. The period dates all the way back to the 3rd century B.C., although it began as a dot placed at the tippy-top of the end of a sentence and didn’t drift down to its current position until the 9th century. Commas and colons—in concept, at least—trace their origins back as far as periods, but their original forms were also simple dots, suspended at different elevations. They didn’t unfurl into their present shapes until much later, with the comma reinvented in the 12th century as a slash that slowly slid down below the baseline of the text into its modern form; and the colon began to turn up in its current incarnation in the late 13th century.
The semicolon would take a couple more centuries to join the party. It debuted in 1494, in an Italian book called De Aetna. The publisher of the book, Aldus Manutius, believed readers and writers would find a use for a break midway between the quick skip of a comma and the patient pause of a colon; and so, out of these two marks, he created the chimera we know as the semicolon, with its colon head and comma tail.
2. It might be poisonous. A Dutch writer known as Maarten Maartens (the pen name of Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz), now not exactly a household name, was tremendously popular as an English-language writer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of Maartens’s books, The Healers, features a scientist who develops an “especial variety of the Comma” called Semicolon Bacillus, with which he manages to kill several lab rabbits.
3. It has a long history as a courtroom troublemaker. A semicolon that slipped into the definition of war crimes in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal threatened to derail the prosecution of captured Nazis, until a special protocol was created to swap it for a comma. This wasn’t the semicolon’s first or last brush with the law. It was notorious among early-20th century Americans for interrupting liquor service in Boston for six years, after a semicolon snuck into a regulatory statute during retranscription. More sinisterly, semicolons (and indeed all manner of punctuation marks) have been implicated in many appeals cases in which a defendant has been sentenced to death.
4. In spite of its fraught history, legal scholars still succumb to its charms. In the 1950s, Baltimore judge James Clark found an innovative way to ensure his trial transcripts were correct and to add some drama to his court’s proceedings by reading punctuation aloud during sentencing: “Ten years in the penitentiary,” he might say, pausing to let the convicted person blanch in terror at receiving the maximum allowable sentence. “Semicolon,” he’d then continue, and after another pause, finally: “sentence suspended.” The judge hoped the shock of a tough sentence followed by a generous reprieve would help reduce recidivism. Suspending sentences in this fashion earned Clark the nickname, “The Semicolon Judge.”
5. It hasn’t always been bound by rules. For most of the history of the English language, punctuation was a matter of taste. Writers relied on their ears and their instincts to judge where best to mark a pause. But then, with the spread of public schooling in the 1800s, savvy teachers saw a market for a new class of books that would make grammar a teachable science. Perversely, instead of making people more confident in choosing a punctuation mark, rules seem to have had the opposite effect, conjuring up confusion and consternation. Gradually, proper punctuating came to be seen as the province of the elite, although the best writers still followed their own star: “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule,” Abraham Lincoln mused; “with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say that I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”
6. In the 19th century, the semicolon was all the rage. Back when Lincoln was sprinkling semicolons into his speeches, rules for the semicolon allowed more possibilities for its use than we have today and, perhaps as a result, it was extremely popular. It was so popular, in fact, that colons (and parentheses) became puncti non grati; semicolons were gobbling them up. Some grammar books simply stopped giving rules for those unpopular punctuation marks, while a journal aimed at school teachers and administrators proclaimed that when it came to the colon, “we should not let children use them.” One grammarian, troubled by the notion that colons were now contraband, urged writers to defend them against the encroaching semicolon, forlornly noting that colons were “once very fashionable.”
7. You could bet on a semicolon. “Semicolon is the best,” proclaimed the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1902. They didn’t mean the punctuation mark, however: a horse named Semicolon had a long and successful racing career in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Based on his wins, his younger brother, Colonist, sold for $3,500 (around $100k adjusted for inflation). Mirroring the relative popularity of semicolons and colons at that time period, Colonist seems not to have matched Semicolon’s winning record.
8. It’s… a woman? Or at least not a heterosexual man? Criticisms of the semicolon—and there have been many—are often couched in peculiarly gendered terms. Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut avoided them, with the latter describing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” In an attempt to explain why so many macho writers avoid it, Vanity Fair editor James Wolcott mused that perhaps it was fear of looking “poncy.” “‘Real’ writing is butch and cinematic,” he explained, “so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases.” Grammar pundit James J. Kilpatrick had a full-on misogynist meltdown over the semicolon, calling it “shy,” “bashful,” “gutless,” “girly”—and therefore “useless.” Of course, the semicolon can indeed be used to show traits stereotyped as feminine or effete, like hesitancy and delicacy (which are no bad things, incidentally); but it can also come down like a hammer, curt and decisive. How lucky for us writers that the semicolon doesn’t yield to pressure to behave in only one way just because guys like Hemingway expected it to.
9. It’s probably not going to go extinct. Newspaper columnists and pundits have been giving it six months to live since at least the 1970s. But no matter how much its function has shifted over time, no matter how many rules are piled on top of it, and no matter how many people rail against it, as long as there are those of us who find it beautiful and useful, it will survive.