by Ceclia Watson, Pam Ward (narrator)
Publication Date: July 30, 2019
The semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?
In Semicolon, Cecelia Watson charts the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. But in the nineteenth century, as grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing, with the semicolon a prime victim. Taking us on a breezy journey through a range of examples—from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—Watson reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language.
Through her rollicking biography of the semicolon, Watson writes a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.
Another great recommendation from the Irresponsible Reader. I’m an unapologetic user of the semicolon and really have never understood why it was such a divisive mark. This short-ish (about 4 hours on audio) history / essay on the mark cleared up some of that for me. People really do get weird about trying to codify every last possible detail.
Watson balances on a fine line between ‘yes! rules are necessary for clear communication’ and ‘no! throw out the rules and let your flag fly your own way!’ concerning punctuation in general. She includes convincing arguments for both sides – but I’m still falling on the prescriptivist side of things. I’m not fussed how someone uses punctuation, as long as they DO use punctuation, and in such a way as to clearly communicate their message. My resentment stems from writers (and I’m using that term to loosely encompass anyone trying to communicate in a written form, whether it’s text messages or novels) who make me work overly hard to parse the meaning they’re trying to convey. I’d like to know if they’re inviting people to eat grandma, or inviting grandma to eat and I’d like to do so without breaking a sweat.
The narrator does a fantastic job with this book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys the occasional dip into linguistic nerdism.