G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers: In a Jar by Deborah Marcero

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

On the surface, Cecelia Watson's Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark is a rollicking history of the punctuation mark that people love to hate. She places its initial use by Venetian scholar Aldus Manutius in the broader context of Italian humanism, when punctuation was still experimental. She considers its role in a debate over Massachusetts's liquor laws in the early 20th century, and the larger question of the impact of punctuation on judicial rulings. She outlines arguments used by the semicolon-bashers. She reviews historical attempts to define the proper use of the semicolon.

The book also examines the different ways in which five skilled writers--Raymond Chandler, Henry James, Herman Melville, Rebecca Solnit and Irving Welsh--use the semicolon in their work. Watson concludes that the semicolon "represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think." Alternatively, it can allow a writer to speed up the pace of her text. In short, the role of the semicolon is to measure time in the pursuit of meaning.

Watson's vision of the semicolon's purpose points toward a subversive argument that runs alongside her history of its journey from clarity to confusion. Watson argues that it is impossible to untangle the history of the semicolon from the history of grammar rules and guidebooks. Looking at grammar guidebooks through the lens of the slippery semicolon, she comes to the conclusion that the written rules of language are a barrier to communication rather than a support. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins