Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
by Cecelia Watson
Ecco. 224 pp. $19.99
Courtesy of Harper’s Magazine
Pietro Bembo, a Venetian poet and scholar, staked his first claim to fame in a short book he published in 1496, when he was in his mid-twenties. De Aetna described, in Latin, a hike Bembo had made to the top of Mount Etna in Sicily. Even in summer, he observed, there was snow on the peak. An ancient Greek geographer, Strabo, had said that there wasn’t, but the evidence of one’s own eyes, Bembo wrote, was “no less an authority.” This was Renaissance humanism flexing its muscles—a few generations earlier, an ancient geographer might have carried more authority than a firsthand report—and it wasn’t the only instance of that in Bembo’s book. Various marks subdivided his text. One of them, which signaled both a medium-length pause and a semantic boundary inside a sentence, hadn’t been used for that particular function before. Between them, Bembo; his publisher, Aldus Manutius; and Manutius’s type maker, Francesco Griffo, were introducing the world to a new punctuation mark: the semicolon.
Bembo—who went on to have an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, edit Petrarch’s poems, become a cardinal, and help make Tuscan the basis of modern standard Italian—wasn’t a lightweight figure. Manutius wasn’t either, and the typeface he launched with De Aetna, which was also the first book to use italics, caught on. In humanist circles, for which he’d designed it, a primary value was eloquence, exemplified by the extremely long sentences of the ancient Roman orator Cicero. The Romans, like the Greeks, hadn’t used punctuation, and Cicero himself had expected readers to navigate his clauses by means of rhythm. Fifteen centuries later, that was a tall order. If you wanted your eloquence to be comprehensible, semicolons were a useful addition to the repertoire, and writers snapped them up. From Manutius’s printing house in Venice, they spread across Italy and up through France and the Low Countries, reaching England in the 1530s. One of the anonymous artisans who set the type for the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, inserted lots of them into his portions of Hamlet.
That compositor—whose high-handed yet slapdash ways created many puzzles for future scholarly editors—seems not to have had a very solid theory of how to use semicolons. In that, he wasn’t, and still isn’t, alone. “The semicolon,” Cecelia Watson writes in Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, “is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated.” Lots of us, in other words, worry about semicolons—about where to put them, or about whether or not they’re addictive or pretentious or old-fashioned. Even if you agree that no other mark does as effective a job of supporting parallel constructions, or of separating listed items that need internal commas, uncertainty can creep back in under the guise of aesthetics. For every semicolon-fancier who has called it something cute, such as “the mermaid of the punctuation world—period above, comma below,” there’s someone else to call it “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.”
The haters are often, but not always, boys. Gertrude Stein, who considered the semicolon a jumped-up relative of the “servile” comma, was with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Donald Barthelme in this matter. There’s an association with cluttered Victorian interiors and periwigged eighteenth-century savants, and perhaps there’s a fear of being likened to Jane Austen. The last would be a bad reason for avoiding semicolons even if Austen had overseen her books’ punctuation, which she didn’t. But there are more defensible reasons for lower-level unease. As Watson explains, the semicolon is historically unstable, gaining and losing functions in a tug-of-war with the colon. More generally, received wisdom tends to mix up punctuation’s oral performance-cuing and meaning-delimiting duties. Watson’s examples of virtuoso semicolon users usually have a strong preference one way or the other. Martin Luther King Jr. and Irvine Welsh—together at last—exploit the rhetorical rhythms of speech, while Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf are more interested in what’s possible on the page.
Watson, like me, 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. When one of Melville’s reviewers uses the word “limbo,” Watson throws in a winsome footnote for any readers who might be thinking of the dance. But her chattiness is much less annoying than Truss’s, and her argument runs in a different direction. Being a stickler can be fine when you’re writing, she argues, but enforcing conventions can also be a way of bullying people, or worse. One chapter details an entertaining episode in which a poorly placed semicolon banned late-night liquor sales in Massachusetts. The next details a judge’s use of a similar slip to override a jury, in New Jersey, in 1927, and put an Italian immigrant to death.
Featured image illustration courtesy of Helen Gräwert
This review was first published in the July 2019 edition of Harper’s Magazine
Christopher Tayler is contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.