The Sexy Semicolon, Really?

AVAILABLE ON PODCAST

iTunes

Spotify

Anchor.fm

A marriage made in 1494!

Loved and loathed, sexy and sinister may not be modifiers that come to mind when you think of the semicolon. Cecelia Watson argues otherwise in her deep dive on this misunderstood mark, concluding a decade of research, tracing its birth to 1494 in an Italian essay on climbing Mount Etna, along with its rise and long-awaited-though highly-unlikely demise. Classic and contemporary writers, or those she dubs Semicolon Savants, employ it with panache; as you may wish to as well, if you want to tap into the full arsenal of punctuation in your toolbox.  Why? To write with clarity and style.

But sexy? Read on.

Semicolon: the Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson is a quick 188 pages about semicolon history, legal cases, and literary examples with a surprising conclusion.

Reformed Grammar Nazi

As readers might imagine, there is more to the semicolon than meets the mark. A self-admitted grammar fetishist, Watson traces much of the grammar schools, rules, and books to sales and snobbery. In the early days, writers used punctuation as they wished, a kind of tool box for the musicality of language, the prosody, or rhythm of the writing.

In the 1800s, the demand from educators and parents to ‘scientize language’ with rules spawned an industry of grammar books. The Chicago Manual of Style as a current example is in its 17th edition and 1146 pages long. Today, online apps like Grammarly use Artificial Intelligence to review your writing.

Watson shows that prior to nineteenth century, scholars advocated for personal taste and judgment as a guide to punctuating. How simple and revolutionary!

 

Grammar and style guides have survived decades but few have an illustrated edition.

What You Need to Know

Manuals and guides abound, but let’s keep it simple. The classic, The Elements of Style by E.B. White and his old Cornell professor, the steel-rimmed spectacled, master of brevity and clarity, William Strunk Jr., is 85 pages short! And, that’s after White added a chapter.  Yes White is the great essayist, and author of Charlotte’s Web. These authors know of what they write. The men are deceased but I write of them in the present tense because the writing is very much alive. More importantly, they shared a sympathy for the reader: keep the burden light.

Here’s what they have to say on semicolons.

Elementary Rules of Usage #5: Do not join independent clauses with a comma. (p. 5-6)

If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.

It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark. 

Strunk goes on to conclude that this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition. Indeed!

In summary, these reflect widely acceptable usage.

  • The semicolon links clauses that are closely related.
  • It may also be used to separate items in a series, when any element may have an internal comma.
  • And, it may be used for a longer pause.

When the Italian humanist Aldus Manutius created the first semicolon over 500 years ago, he combined the comma with the colon, creating a pause longer than the comma and shorter than the colon and the period, or full stop.

 

Orwell’s Sixth: the Non-Rule

And as George Orwell concluded in his notable essay, Politics and the English Language, in the sixth rule of his six writing rules. (Link to rules)

vi. Break any of the rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s a hard-won claim for the grammarian, but let judgment and personal taste be your guide. Have a novel way to employ the em-dash, the semicolon, the parentheses? Have at it.

 

Watson writes that semicolons were trendy!

The Sexy Semicolon?

At last. Watson shares reportage from a writer who takes note of facial hair trends on his stroll through the streets. His article appeared in the 1857 Chicago Daily Tribune.

Forty-three wore the moustache with a fancy tuft upon the chin, but with smooth cheeks; looking as if a semicolon was the best representation of their idea of facial adornment.

I will keep an eye out for men’s evolving facial hair fashions. As for the semicolon, it has survived half a millennium; whether you’re a grammar hippy or a grammar nazi, it’s likely here to stay.

Jan 25, 2022

2 Comments

  1. Buzz Shattan

    MyLinh – Thank you for a delightful and informative episode . Amazing to learn there is a genesis date for the semi-colon, and it is a mere 500 years ago. Loved that you refer to Strunk & White in the present tense since, as you put it, their writing is so alive.
    Now that you have niftily sparked our interest in punctuation, it might be fun to do a future episode on the em dash or the ellipsis.

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      Hi Buzz, Love this, thank you for writing! I have thought about the M-Dash and the parenthetical aside, as well as the ellipsis. Good ideas for future letters. Expert opinions aside, I tend to give a nod to the writer whose artful use has found success with readers.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

Stay Up to Date

Become a better reader and writer today and try the TreeHouseLetter for free. Always learning with a bit of fun.

Latest Posts

What Music Teaches Us About Writing

7 Min read The Music in Prose Creative Writing Forum, West Point Sentence rhythm, Beryl Markham and David Foster Wallace Writer's Toolbox, Improve writing immediately * I met with the Creative Writing Forum at West Point to discuss what music can teach us about...

The New Words Are In, Merriam-Webster Dictionary

2 Min read 13 New words Late to Coffee with a Baker's dozen * New words are in. And, 370 words have been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this September. You likely know many and below are some of my favorites. The editors break them down by category, but I...

Reading for Foodies

5 Min read 2 Book recs, memoir and craft Improve writing immediately AVAILABLE IN PODCAST Spotify iTunes * "Buy me five, ten, okay? That's 50, make it a 100," my mother says, leaving a Ben Franklin on the counter with two packs of TJ's peanut butter cups.* I order the...

Bringing Writers and Readers Together: Why I Write

2 Min read Short Take Creative process For writers and readers AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify iTunes * Maybe the better way to think of this letter is, why you read TreeHouseLetter. For me, it's about why I write. Which, are two sides of the same coin. I updated my site...

“Old Age is Not for the Young”*

6 Min read 2 Book recs, by elderly writers Serial comma 10,000-hour-rule Explicit language, 13 to 103 AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify iTunes * If you believe 10,000 hours of practice will help achieve mastery, say, on the violin or as a volleyball player, then the...

Books I Love

5 Min read 17 Books, 19.5 including mentions in footnotes Genres: Memoir, Essays, Fiction, Writing, Love, Poetry, War Toolbox, Texture in writing Contemporary and classic books from the top of my stacks, my more current reading. * The most common question I get is,...

What Book Would You Take to a Desert Island?

7 Min read 2 Book recs Film rec Article abstract, on Virtue and Vice* Toolbox, Improve writing, ages 9 to 99 AVAILABLE IN PODCAST Spotify iTunes * What book would you take to a desert island? I didn't know and hadn't given it much thought until Saturday when I told my...

Topics

Become a better reader and writer today and try the TreeHouseLetter for free. Always learning with a bit of fun.