From My Bookshelf: SEMICOLON

The semicolon is a punctuation mark created in antiquity, long before the common man became literate. It reached its pinnacle in the nineteenth century, where literary giants such as Herman Melville and Henry James loved it. During the twentieth century, it gradually fell from favor, with influential authors such as Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut loathing it. Today, with all grammar and punctuation on the ropes, it is nearly reviled.

However, thanks to author Cecelia Watson and her critically acclaimed book, the semicolon has a witty and erudite champion. Watson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, which automatically makes her okay with me. She’s a historian and philosopher of science. She’s taught at Yale and been a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Currently she’s Scholar in Residence at Bard College. She handles advanced punctuation the way I wish I could.

cecelia watson semicolon

For years I felt myself to be a punctuation geek. During my childhood, no one else I knew seemed to experience the sheer delight in compound sentences, which required usage of a precisely placed semicolon. Although my formal training was rudimentary, supplied by my county’s public school system, I taught myself the rest of what I know through reading, reading, reading.

I have always felt punctuation to be architectural in a way. It supports sentences like pier beams support houses, and it enables the meaning to be conveyed efficiently like air conditioning circulating through a well-designed HVAC system.

More recently, as it’s become fashionable in certain circles to decry punctuation as elitist and therefore horribly wrong, I’ve begun to view myself as a punctuation defender. Where are we as a civilization if we discard literacy? If our public education generally is failing to teach children how to read with comprehension above a fourth-grade level, generally is failing to teach children how to write clearly so they can be understood, and generally is failing to teach children how to add, subtract, and divide without the use of their smart-phone calculators, then why aren’t we cleaning up that problem? So-called educators who sweep the problem of American’s declining literacy under the rug by telling children they needn’t spell words correctly as long as the teacher can guess what they mean are perpetuating a huge deception on the public trust.

Of course there are many dedicated teachers and brilliant teachers working hard in the trenches, coping with lack of funding, poor salaries, and overcrowded classrooms as they do their best to teach bright, compliant children along with those who are lazy, undisciplined, uninterested, or unable to pay attention. Systems too often become similar to factories, pushing children through regardless of results because more are pouring in. Not all children learn the same. Not all children fit the mold. One size or approach does not fit all. And there’s never enough time to give to those that don’t fit.

Lamentably, too many children never start off well or quickly fall behind. Poor home life, poor nutrition, poor parental enforcement of homework, etc. are all documented problems that hinder learning. Immigrant children enter classrooms with no knowledge of English and must struggle to catch up if they can. These difficulties–and more–are known issues. They are solvable.

However, the solution is not to throw knowledge away. We shouldn’t discard history. We shouldn’t pretend things that make us uncomfortable don’t exist and never did. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves about what is wrong, not if we honestly want to fix the problem. Why, then, is there this push within portions of our society to throw grammar and spelling away as things “invented by dead white men,” which isn’t necessarily true or valid? Why are segments of modern society clawing their way back to the Dark Ages with such enthusiasm? Are we so lazy that it’s easier to toss a subject or skill set than to make the effort to master it?

I understand that all people are not educated equally in this country–which is an outrage–but the solution should be to boost those who lag behind, not drop everyone to a level below mediocrity.

Again, being the product of a mediocre public education, I worked hard to boost myself because I wanted to be a writer. I figured out early on that the only way I could express myself was through a better understanding of grammar and comma placement. Through my adolescence, I observed the contrast between my eagerness and my classmates’ indifference. My high school English-class teachers droned through the lessons and made scant effort to help anyone comprehend why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. No doubt these teachers had burned out from years of trying to ignite fire in kids destined to be farmers and car mechanics. But don’t farmers and mechanics need some poetry in their souls as well as knowing how to spell correctly? And who is to say what a child might grow up to become, if taught the importance of standards and given the pride of mastering them?

Today, when I read certain product reviews on Amazon or social media messages, I wince at how poorly our language is handled. Yes, some individuals are dyslexic; some limped through language arts classes the way I struggled through geometry; and some simply don’t care. I get that. But compare a text message today with something written in 1865 by individuals with third-grade educations and be ashamed of where we’ve fallen. Are we living too fast and too busily for it to matter?

That’s enough of my tangential soapbox.

As for this book, SEMICOLON, it’s charming and witty, by no means dry. Granted, you won’t whip through it the way you might a novel. Although delightful, it’s not written for speed. But Watson makes punctuation a lively skip across history and popular culture. She explains how Raymond Chandler made the semicolon incredibly expressive.

Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln on the subject:

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”

Finally, here’s a quote from Watson herself:

“Newspaper columnists and pundits have been giving it six months to live since at least the 1970s. But no matter how much its function has shifted over time, no matter how many rules are piled on top of it, and no matter how many people rail against it, as long as there are those of us who find it beautiful and useful, it will survive.”

And I say, long live the semicolon and all who use it well!


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