Reading Note:
Bembo’s Moustache
2 August 2019

Every time I edit a serious piece of writing, I go through it once just for the semicolons. I tend, as you may noticed, to use them too often; I seem naturally inclined to write in pairs of sentences. The first one rises to make a point; the second descends toward a conclusion. I do not believe that I ever misuse the punctuation mark, but I’m aware that forestalling periods just for the sake of rhythm asks a lot of the reader’s short-term memory. So, on the semicolon edit, I often take out five or six, replacing them with full stops.

Even so, it seems nothing less than barbaric to be asking, Who needs semicolons? As, apparently, some do. 

Cecilia Watson has just published a dandy book that has both a semicolon and a colon in its title, even if neither of them is visible as punctuation. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark is one of those wee books that used to be stacked at bookstore counters, when there were bookstores, and I hope that it will be the object of many impulse purchases. Although the history, use, and abuse of semicolons is more than adequately addressed in its pages, Watson’s book has the more general aim of explaining why rules, though a good thing, are not the thing. “To write well,” she observes, “you have to read a lot, and you have to read with attention…” (103), a nice way of saying that anyone who does read a lot, and with attention, has little or no need for rules. Anyone willing to take the trouble to write more than a couple of tweets will be too eager to establish communication not to be a born imitator. If you have any ideas at all, you don’t have to worry about sounding just like everybody else; on the contrary, you ought to be taking pains to be sure that you do, more or less, sound like everybody else. And I find — with all due respect for humility — that if you read well, you will not have to carefully avoid split infinitives or worry that everyone has their own way of understanding language. Such problems don’t come up, because the good writers who murmur in one’s ear have made a practice of avoiding occasions of error. 

A good writer cannot be thinking about rules. A good writer has to dwell upon saying interesting things, while listening, with a sleeping mother’s alertness to the cry of her child, to the cadence of sentences as they pass from mind to pen. Uncertainty about whether to use a colon or a semicolon means nothing, really — except that it’s possibly time to go back to fourth grade. This is not to say that a good writer will in an almost unconscious manner produce syntax that everyone will approve as absolutely correct, but it can be said, I think, that good readers will allow and perhaps even approve the occasional irregularity. 

Rules, as Watson might have made just a tiny bit clearer, are a byproduct of that widespread nineteenth-century malady, by which all intelligent minds appear to have been infected (with the exception of those belonging to poets), physics envy. The magical allure of modern science was predictability: IF, THEN

God said, let NEWTON be, and all was light. (Pope)

It was an intoxication from which we are still recovering, miserable and disoriented from the poison of treating human affairs as a branch of mechanical engineering. Earlier guides to the rules of grammar had a less noxious purpose: like all the manuals of manners that proliferated in early modern times, they promised to help turn the bumpkin into a beau. The steam engine, however, with its tiny, unforgiving tolerances, inspired a more fervent, not to say religious, obedience to the regulations that industrial publishers could discern. As Watson writes, 

Fear, worry, confusion — even if we did manage to agree on one set of rules to follow, we wouldn’t be relieved of our anxieties about punctuation. (174) 

But I think that we have been, relieved. Those who must write correctly or else have taken up the profession of writing code.

The upshot is that, while I objected to a lot of what Watson had to say about things other than punctuation — Melville and James, David Foster Wallace and SNOOTs, the plural of gin-and-tonic (note the hyphen) — Semicolon excited a response that I can only call affectionate.  

PS The asides that Watson plants in her many footnotes read like the interruptions of a mind even brainier than her own. On page 38, the reader is presented with an extract from the book in which “diagramming” sentences was introduced, with nothing less than The Beatitudes presented as a puzzle to solve. 

Comments are closed.