Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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Book review: Punctuation..?

September 18, 2012

User design, a book design company based in the UK, kindly sent me a copy of their recently reissued book on punctuation, simply titled Punctuation..? Or not so simply: shouldn’t those two full stops be a three-dot ellipsis? Maybe it was intended to get editors talking.

More booklet than book, Punctuation..? consists of 35 illustrated pages aimed at a “wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert)”. It’s an attractive pamphlet that covers the usual punctuation marks – comma, dashes and co. – and some less familiar ones, such as guillemets [« »], interpunct [·], and pilcrow [¶].

The book’s advice is basic and broadly helpful. General readers won’t mind its traditional definition of a noun as “a word used as the name of a person, place or thing”, though to me this everyday description is dated and deficient. The prose sometimes jars: “As with many rules, there is always an exception”. Well, which is it?

There are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; this one has a few. It says em and en dashes are “longer than the hyphen (-) which is not a dash”, which implies some hyphens are dashes. This construction recurs. (See my post on that vs. which.)

For clarity, some words should be in inverted commas or italics (“the word to”), and some shouldn’t (“What about ‘rent’?”). “[D]iscreetly indented paragraphs” is probably meant to be discretely. Semicolons are not the mark “least used in many modern books” – what about pilcrows and interpuncts? – and there’s more semicolon trouble in this example of exclamation mark use:

Ah! you are wrong, once she sees me cleaned up; washed and shaved, she will find me irresistible!

It suggests that when she is washed and shaved, she will find the speaker irresistible. The first comma is also problematic. The same page says exclamation marks are used to “demonstrate hope or regret”, as in “I hope Betty can come!” No: the word hope does that. Elsewhere, words are repeated (“ready to to feed”), omitted (“at end of this sentence”), and questionably hyphenated (hook-up as a verb).

Punctuation..? has a sense of fun, particularly evident in the sometimes witty sketches that enliven the book’s already-pleasant appearance. Their style may be seen in the image below. The tone is light and friendly, some of the marks are well described, and there is welcome coverage of technical marks, such as prime symbols, which would often be overlooked in a work of this type.

Unfortunately, these virtues are overshadowed by the slip-ups in grammar, style, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Other reviewers have been less critical, but I don’t know if they failed to spot the problems that bothered me, or just didn’t care. Punctuation..? is a nice idea for a book, but it needs and deserves  more work and better editing.

Those groovy semicolons

August 20, 2012

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about semicolons and the word groovy. Links and excerpts follow.

Semi-attached to semicolons looks at some of the attitudes and strategies this punctuation mark inspires:

The usefulness of semicolons is apparent in all types of prose, yet the mark is not universally liked or adopted. Many writers gladly include it in their set of grammatical and rhetorical tools, and some positively adore it, but others avoid it altogether or even go out of their way to insult it.

Much as I love Kurt Vonnegut, I think he was wrong to dismiss semicolons, unpleasantly, as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”. In a video of the writer restating his line we hear a hall full of students receiving it with laughter and applause. But I doubt many of them have pondered the matter at length and reached the same conclusion.

The post continues with a look at the effect of Vonnegut’s remark and with a quick empirical assessment of my own semicolon usage (which I feared would be excessive). Comments so far are generally positive about the mark, and some are very enthusiastic. Where do you stand?


The different grooves of ‘groovy’ sketches the word’s development over the last century and a half, showing the different meanings it has had along the way. Its original 19thC sense was physical, having to do with grooves. However:

Within a few decades, groovy had taken on a figurative sense, as words tend to do. . . . From groove meaning rut or (routine) way of life, groovy came to mean staid, stuck in a rut, or tending to stick to a narrow or conservative way of life. So it was mildly pejorative, quite contrary to its familiar current meaning.

The jazz age in America gave birth to the phrase in the groove, and from this emerged another groovy: playing jazz or other music with seemingly effortless skill, or being capable of doing so.

Groovy is often associated with its hippie heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s. When this era ended, the word took a precipitous dip before regaining popularity in the 1980s, thanks in part to pop culture. You can read its groovy mini-history here.

Comments, as always, are welcome here or there, and older articles are available in my Macmillan archive.

Semicolons reinvented

August 19, 2008

After I wrote an overview of semicolon use, a friend pointed out that the mark is also commonly used in winking smileys: ;). He described it as a “salacious flirt”, a kinder term than the late Kurt Vonnegut’s “transvestite hermaphrodites“. I admit that I have used and occasionally abused the semicolon in emoticons – always in a highly informal context – but have yet to decide if that constitutes a lapse of some sort.

The semicolon is also used in computer programming code (e.g.   is HTML code for a type of space), but in this guise is rarely seen by the non-programming public. Whatever about the mark’s private life, its incorporation into emoticons and coding language has given it a new lease of life, albeit an odd one, and rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

How to use a semicolon

June 20, 2008

As punctuation marks go, the semicolon is much misunderstood. Many writers use it where a colon or comma would be more appropriate, and vice versa; other writers ignore it rather than risk misusing it. Yet the semicolon is not difficult to master. It has a number of uses, some of which are very handy and some of which you’re unlikely to need.

Style and usage guides often stick to two main categories of semicolon usage; others subdivide these categories and include archaic and less common usages. It may help to bear this in mind, because the categories can overlap slightly. The divisions below are not definitive, but will help break up a rather long post.

semicolon-sSemicolons are often misused to introduce a list, but a colon is usually what’s called for here. So without further ado:

1. If any item in a list or series has an internal comma, semicolons can be used to divide the items:

Research was conducted by laboratory technicians in University of Limerick; National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; University College Cork; and Dublin City University.

The bag that was found on the hill contained a paperback novel; a lunchbox, empty except for some crumbs; a green fold-up umbrella; and an Ordinance Survey map, which had notes made on it with a pen.

2. Similarly, semicolons can be used to separate coordinate clauses in long sentences. Many of these clauses contain commas, allowing semicolons to emphasize the overall structure and distinct parts of the sentence. They steer the reader through long and sometimes complex passages (though neither of the following examples is particularly complex):

“It would have been in vain for Scrooge to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time.” (Charles Dickens)

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish little selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” (George Bernard Shaw)

3. Semicolons can be used to coordinate independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are but, and, so, or, nor, for and yet – basic words that show the relationship between two connected clauses. If any of these is present there is usually no need for a semicolon, unless the writer wants a bigger pause, perhaps to emphasise whatever follows (see quote by Bacon, below).

Sometimes the clauses joined by a semicolon reflect one another, in the sense that they contain mutually antithetical or complementary ideas:

“If youth knew; if age could.” (Henri Estienne)

“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” (Sir Francis Bacon)

4. The semicolon has been called a kind of supercomma because it introduces a pause somewhere between that of a comma and a full stop. If you can read clauses as separate sentences, but their respective contents are related closely enough to warrant their sharing a sentence, a semicolon may be the most suitable mark:

“Beauty is worse than wine; it intoxicates both the holder and the beholder.” (Aldous Huxley)

“No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment.” (Jane Austen)

“The present season was indeed divine; the flowers of spring bloomed in the hedges, while those of summer were already in bud.” (Mary Shelley)

The present post includes two semicolons used in this manner, though with less panache than the examples above.

5. Some style guides recommend using semicolons after each item (except the last) in a bullet point list, if the entries are short enough to begin with lowercase letters. Where bullet points contain full sentences, begin with uppercase letters and end with full stops.

6. Finally, a note on conjunctive adverbs, which include accordingly, after all, anyway, also, besides, consequently, finally, for example, furthermore, hence, however, in contrast, incidentally, indeed, in fact, instead, meanwhile, moreover, namely, nevertheless, nonetheless, now, on the other hand, otherwise, similarly, still, therefore, thus, and undoubtedly.

These can function as conjunctions but they are not true conjunctions – they are transitional words or phrases that join independent clauses. When conjunctive adverbs lie between two independent clauses, they are often best preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma, though this is not always the case.

Tomorrow will begin brightly; however, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

This information could also be phrased as follows:

Tomorrow will begin brightly. However, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

Better still, however could be swapped for but, and the punctuation tidied accordingly:

Tomorrow will begin brightly, but rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

But the following formulations are more common:

Tomorrow will begin brightly, however rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

Tomorrow will begin brightly, however, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

The former treats however as a simple substitute for but, i.e. as a pure conjunction, which it isn’t, while the latter generates a comma splice that renders however ambiguous, since it could belong to either clause. Using however where but (or though, yet or still) would do the job can make a sentence slower and stuffier.