Sunday 25 August 2019

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson: A plea to open our hearts to the semicolon

Language: Semicolon

Cecelia Watson

4th Estate, hardback, 224 pages, €11.99

Freedom of movement: with one for every 52 words, semicolons are 'Moby-Dick's joints', Watson argues
Freedom of movement: with one for every 52 words, semicolons are 'Moby-Dick's joints', Watson argues
Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

There is something fairly ungainly about it, alright; the cobbled-together look of it; the hunch that there are other tools that do just the same thing in better style; or that disconcerting feeling that spreads through you when the time has come to finally use one but doubt is rearing its ugly head. Are you sure this is the right time to whip out one of those ugly things grammarians call semicolons?

Your reviewer was - up until reading this diminutive champion by US historian and philosopher Cecelia Watson - on the spectrum of semicolon resentment, perhaps somewhere near the stance taken by Kurt Vonnegut that dismissed them as "representing absolutely nothing" ("All they do is show you've been to college," the Vonner would add). If I wanted to place a conceptual platform - a mirror, a bandstand, an escalator - in the middle of a sentence, the good old trusty en dash was my only man.

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But there are underdogs and also-rans littered about this world of ours and the semicolon is surely among them. These are items, creatures and concepts that we don't set aside time to get to know but which perform a necessary task in their respective corner of the universe, everything from slimy endangered molluscs to hanky-waving traditional dances. As much as we like to roll our eyes at humanity, there is a certain comfort in knowing that holding hands with these outcasts are the Cecelia Watsons of life, the passionate and informed cheerleaders whom if you give them a little of your time, will plead a strong case in favour of their charges.

Watson is the type of person who, when asked why she says "two gins and tonic", declines to go into pluralisation theory and instead explains that it is because the gins are more important than the tonic. It is one of many flecks of personality that warm us to her as she sets out a neat and immaculate manifesto for opening our hearts to the semicolon. In taking us through the history of the neither-one-thing-nor-the-other squiggle, she illustrates without any hectoring why the rules of language are very much there to be broken precisely because no one can fully agree on what exactly they are.

The semicolon's historical journey from clarity to confusion is one of gentle intrigue in Watson's hands, "a place where our anxieties and aspirations about language, class and education are concentrated, so that in the small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink".

Born in Venice in 1494, the semicolon's job was to indicate a pause not quite as short as the comma but not as halting as the colon. Those pioneering humanists wanted to expand minds and midwife eloquence, so the prevailing attitude to policing punctuation was one of "whatever works for you".

The Grammar Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries saw academia impose scientific principles to punctuation. Legal language required clear and instructional clauses, and by the time the 20th century rolled around, the semicolon found itself at the centre of case-swinging courtroom technicalities, such as that of our own Roger Casement (who, Watson reminds us, was "hanged on a comma").

In the recent (and essential) Dreyer's English, Penguin's copy-editing guru Benjamin Dreyer dryly insists that the only thing one needs to say in defence of the semicolon is that Shirley Jackson liked them. Watson cuts a similar swathe, putting the mark's application under the pens of Martin Luther King Jr, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Solnit and Irvine Welsh into neat but confidently impassioned essay format. With one for every 52 words, semicolons are "Moby-Dick's joints", she trumpets, "allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes". Language is multiple and language is subjective, and to fasten either your writing style or the type of stuff you like to sit down with to a rigid rule structure is to deny the flourishes and undulations that make you and I sound different in the same tongue. Those of us, Semicolon argues, who get wound up in the optics and utilisation of grammar are missing out, pedants denying ourselves worthwhile messages.

One is inclined to agree when it's put like this. I personally can't stand to see commas used as full stops (eg, "I went to the shop, the weather was nice, I needed bread."). If encountered on the wrong day, it can cause a physical reaction and a tightening of my patience. Watson's view is that all this serves is to erect barriers to connection, just as it did with the snooty German pharmacist who pretended not to understand her when she used "ich mochte" (I liked) instead of "ich möchte" (I would like).

And it might be that you don't emerge the other side of this beautiful and robust non-fiction nugget with a new-found love for the semicolon. What matters is that the ecosystem of communicated ideas in which it dwells will feel a little more rounded and welcoming; which is a very good result indeed.

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