Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and even Change Your Life

Author(s): Cecelia Watson


A biography of a much misunderstood punctuation mark and a call to arms in favour of clear expression and against stifling grammar rules Cecelia Watson used to be obsessive about grammar rules. But then she began teaching. And that was when she realized that strict rules aren't always the best way of teaching people how to make words say what they want them to; that they are even, sometimes, best ignored. One punctuation mark encapsulates this thorny issue more clearly than any other. The semicolon. Hated by Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut and Orwell, and loved by Herman Melville, Henry James and Rebecca Solnit, it is the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language, and many are too scared to go near it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care? In this warm, funny, enlightening and thoroughly original book, Cecelia Watson takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the surprising history of the semicolon and explores the remarkable power it can wield, if only we would stop being afraid of it. Forget the rules; you're in charge. It's time to make language do what you want it to.


Available Stock:

Order this Item

Add to Wishlist

Product Information

“Watson approaches her subject historically. She begins by recalling writers who have gone on record as hating the semicolon, such as Kurt Vonnegut, and traces its history of transformation ‘from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. We see its origins in 1494, when Aldus Manutius first presented it, and then the way it came to be treated in the convoluted ‘grammar wars’ of later centuries, as writers struggled without success to reduce its complexities to simple rules. Two fascinating chapters show the way semicolons have played a central role in court cases — including the horrifying story of Salvatore Merra, in which the much-debated legal interpretation of a sentence containing a semicolon ultimately led to his execution. 

The power of the book lies in its leisurely literary illustrations of the way writers have used semicolons to great effect, including Irvine Welsh, Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and brilliantly in Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ — a moving sequence of semicolon-separated plaints that build to one of the most powerful climaxes I have ever read. I’d defy anyone to repunctuate this and retain the rhetorical effect. The extracts from Welsh and Chandler are especially well chosen, for they give the lie to those, like Vonnegut, who thought that the only purpose of semicolons is to show that the writer has ‘been to college’. Her example from Trainspotting is as far away from college as you can get, and Mark Renton’s description is all the more powerful for the use of a semicolon. (‘The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’) 

Watson thinks of herself more as a punctuation therapist than a punctuation theorist, and her clarity and good humour pervade the book, along with some cheeky illustrations by Anthony Russo. Some people will hate her for even trying to make us appreciate semicolons, but not me. As I say, I loved this book; I really did.” 

Cecelia Watson – The Spectator

General Fields

  • : 9780008291532
  • : HarperCollins Publishers Australia
  • : Fourth Estate
  • : 0.276
  • : July 2019
  • : ---length:- '19.1'width:- '13.6'units:- Centimeters
  • : July 2019
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Cecelia Watson
  • : Hardback
  • : 1908
  • : English
  • : 428.23
  • : 128