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The History Of The Semicolon (And ... How To Use It)

"Semicolon," by Cecelia Watson. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)
"Semicolon," by Cecelia Watson. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Love or detest it, the semicolon is the most divisive punctuation mark of the modern era. Should we even care?


Cecelia Watson, author of “Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.” Historian and philosopher of science. Faculty member in Bard College’s Language and Thinking program. (@ceceliawatson)

Notable Uses Of The Semicolon, According To Cecelia Watson

From “Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James (1881)

“His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.”

From the forward to “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987)

“In any case, I had been part-time for a while, coming into the publishing house one day a week to do the correspondence-telephoning-meetings that were part of the job; editing manuscripts at home.”

From The Atlantic article “Oscar Night in Hollywood” by Raymond Chandler (1948)

“They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity of production) than to judge literature by last week’s bestsellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Semicolon” by Cecelia Watson

The Big Pause

When we first meet private detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, he is thirty-eight years old and has already seen it all. Marlowe is the consummate noir detective, so hard-boiled that even Diogenes the Cynic might have told him to chill out. In the seven novels and handful of short stories that Chandler wrote featuring Marlowe, semicolons are rare. Often, the world as Marlowe describes it tumbles forth with barely any punctuation at all: “I shaved and showered and dressed and got my raincoat out and went downstairs and looked out of the front door.” Forget the semicolon, we’re not even getting commas.

A semicolon requires effort and thought to deploy, and as we’ve seen, some writers avoid them entirely. So you might think, Maybe Chandler just didn’t like the semicolon, or maybe he didn’t know how to use one. But Chandler’s essays, sparkling yet far less well-known than the Marlowe novels for which he’s famous, show otherwise; the essays positively bristle with well-used semicolons. Moreover, Chandler was persnickety about syntax in general, and he wasn’t afraid to growl at copyeditors who trod too close to what he considered his territory. Sitting at his typewriter in January 1947, peering through his horn-rimmed glasses and puffing on his pipe—at least, this is how I picture the scene, because you rarely see a photo of Chandler without a pipe jammed between his lips and a glint in his eye—he fired off a salty letter to his editor at The Atlantic, Edward Weeks. “By the way,” Chandler spat at the end of the letter,

would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

The Atlantic’s proofreader, Margaret Mutch, got Chandler’s message and wrote him a letter back. This time Chandler responded with a poem, “Lines to a Lady with an Unsplit Infinitive,” in which he imagines confronting Mutch over her correctives. The poem culminates in Mutch murdering Chandler with a crutch:

His face was white with sudden fright,

And his syntax lily-livered.


“O dear Miss Mutch, leave down your crutch!”

He cried in thoughtless terror.


Short shrift she gave. Above his grave:


“Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon,” exhorts Chandler in one line of his impish little poem. And Chandler certainly knew how to let semicolons roll. The Atlantic article that prompted his letter and poem was a piece called “Oscar Night in Hollywood.” There are semicolons aplenty in it, and it has two examples of one of Chandler’s most characteristic uses of the semicolon: he loved to pound out a paragraph in which he dressed down someone or something in a series of clauses with more or less identical grammatical form.

If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, “In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived”; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn’t good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong, because this sort of vulgarity is part of its inevitable price.

The semicolon can be very effective in a paragraph-long sentence like this, where it can highlight and amplify parallel structure. All those clauses in Chandler’s list, which begin in the same way (“if you . . .”), sound like the authoritative repetition of a judge in a courtroom, the semicolon slamming down like a gavel between each indictment and its successor. Here Chandler created a steadiness of rhythm in his prose so that its structure and the words within it work seamlessly to create meaning.

Rhythm is everything for Chandler. Consider one of his other uses of the semicolon in the same “Oscar Night” essay:

They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity of production) than to judge literature by last week’s best-sellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits.

Punctuation can let a sentence run or it can hold it in check. Either way the effect can be thrilling. Watch the videos of the great racehorse Secretariat competing for the Triple Crown in 1973. In the Belmont Stakes you see him set free to run seemingly unchecked by his jockey: almost from the first moment of the race it is just Secretariat, Secretariat, Secretariat. He accelerates and accelerates, pulling away until there is only him in the frame when he crosses the finish line. But in the Kentucky Derby, he is held back for most of the race. For a long while he barely figures in the race caller’s list of positions. Then suddenly he is let go and is away so quickly and effortlessly he appears to float. Chandler’s sentence just quoted is Kentucky Derby–style Secretariat: Chandler reins in that first clause nice and tight and short; and then he lets it go leaping forward, surging with energy and passion felt all the more keenly for the compactness of that first clause. There is a moment of transition between restraint and license to run, and that moment is made and marked by the semicolon.

Reading Chandler’s essays, there can be no doubt that he knew how to use a semicolon and relished using them, given their relative frequency in his nonfiction. So why is it that his fiction might contain one or two semicolons, if any at all? The key, as I hinted at the start of this section, lies in Marlowe’s character. Marlowe rarely allows himself either the kind of reflective pause or the uncertainty that a semicolon permits. Marlowe knows what’s what. He meets a person and within moments has usually drawn a bead on their innermost self. He’s good at chess; he can see clearly ahead several moves. He is unmoved by the blond hair and sweet smiles of countless femmes fatales. If he makes a mistake, he doesn’t spend much (if any) time on self-castigation. And perhaps most Marlowe of all is the practice of keeping his cards close to his chest. He is forever getting the players in his investigations drunk and confessional, while confessing nothing himself. Certainly a lot goes on in Marlowe’s mind, but Marlowe’s mind is quicksilver, all action, few pauses—often there’s not even enough time for a comma.

So it is a surprise when Marlowe has a moment of vulnerability midway through The Big Sleep.

I didn’t mind what she called me, what anybody called me. But this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were they had all my memories.

It is a poignant moment. Marlowe reflects on how tenuous is his sense of having any kind of home whatsoever. What takes the place of a family is “not much” and a short silence. The semicolon reads as Marlowe having to stop to think, perhaps being made to stop to think by his sense of loss. For once he seems unguarded. That semicolon could have been a colon or a full stop, but Chandler chose this moment to drop in one of the Marlowe books’ rare semicolons.

Both this vulnerable semicolon and the racehorse semicolon we looked at prior to it are “illegal.” A semicolon, The Chicago Manual of Style opines, is to be used either when the items in a list are lengthy and have their own internal punctuation, or when separating two independent or coordinating clauses. Neither criterion applies here. “Which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity of production) than to judge literature by last week’s best-sellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits” is not an independent clause. Nor does it contain so elaborate a series of punctuation of its own that it could not have been cordoned off with another punctuation mark. The same is true of “a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that.”

If you think of Chandler’s deployment of these semicolons as “breaking the rules”; if your first reaction is “Where the hell is the rest of the sentence?”; if you want to take out your red pen and start correcting; then you have missed the opportunity to feel something more meaningful than irritation. I remember watching those videos of Secretariat’s races for the first time as a child. My father had given me a copy of William Nack’s book Secretariat, and I wanted to see for myself the greatness described in its pages. In the Derby, when Secretariat was at last set free in the final stretch, I leapt to my feet and shouted. Watching the Belmont Stakes, a chill passed through my body to see such sublime athleticism let loose. Even though those races were run six years before I was born, I had the sense of something alive and unfolding, of momentum and power masterfully reserved and then unfurled, and my reaction to watching them again today, some thirty years later, is the same. Good punctuation, whether it reins in or lets go, can produce the same kinds of exhilarating effects if we aren’t unwisely reined in ourselves by a sense that language is somehow obliged to a set of rules.

Lynne Truss, our wittiest contemporary rule advocate, cheekily warns that “weak-charactered writers will be encouraged to ignore the rule that only full sentences should be joined by the semicolon.” Were Truss able to tease Chandler about his “weak-charactered” writing, I’d like to see what poetry might result from a face-off between the midcentury master of syntax and the modern maven of rules. But Chandler died in 1959. Beneath his name and the dates of his life, his gravestone in San Diego’s Mount Hope Cemetery says nothing about a printer’s error. It reads, simply, “Author.”

From the book SEMICOLON: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF A MISUNDERSTOOD MARK by Cecelia Watson. Copyright © 2019 by Cecelia Watson published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

The New Yorker: “Sympathy for the Semicolon” — “Among my fellow punctuation nerds, I have a reputation as someone who has no use for semicolons. I don’t hate semicolons; I hate writing about semicolons. Fortunately, now I don’t have to, because Cecelia Watson, a self-identified ‘punctuation theorist’ who teaches at Bard College, has written a whole book about them: ‘Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.’

“At first, I thought Watson was doing with the semicolon what Simon Griffin did with the apostrophe in ‘Fucking Apostrophes’ (2015). Both are slim volumes about an element of language that gives people endless grief. But whereas Griffin, an adman, provides straightforward rules, albeit with a bushel of exceptions (and a running joke: every use of the word ‘apostrophe’ is preceded by a profanity), Watson, a historian and philosopher of science and a teacher of writing and the humanities—in other words, a Renaissance woman—gives us a deceptively playful-looking book that turns out to be a scholarly treatise on a sophisticated device that has contributed eloquence and mystery to Western civilization.

“The semicolon itself was a Renaissance invention. It first appeared in 1494, in a book published in Venice by Aldus Manutius. ‘De Aetna,’ Watson explains, was ‘an essay, written in dialogue form,’ about climbing Mt. Etna. Its author, Pietro Bembo, is best known today not for his book but for the typeface, designed by Francesco Griffo, in which the first semicolon was displayed: Bembo. The mark was a hybrid between a comma and a colon, and its purpose was to prolong a pause or create a more distinct separation between parts of a sentence. In her delightful history, Watson brings the Bembo semicolon alive, describing ‘its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it.’ Designers, she explains, have since given the mark a ‘relaxed and fuzzy’ look (Poliphilus), rendered it ‘aggressive’ (Garamond), and otherwise adapted it for the modern age: ‘Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party.’ ”

Wall Street Journal: “‘Semicolon’ Review: Between a Pause and a Hard Stop” — “Most English-speakers who write for a living have some appreciation for the semicolon, but a few dislike it or avoid it altogether. ‘Do not use semicolons,’ Kurt Vonnegut wrote. ‘They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’ Of course, you could say the same thing about the word ‘hermaphrodite.’ I am fond of the semicolon; so much so, indeed, that the books editor of this newspaper once asked me if I buy my semicolons individually or by the boxful.

“The semicolon can be overused, and there are contexts and genres in which it’s out of place. But the language needs a punctuation mark, as the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage neatly puts it, that ‘tells the reader “Slow down, but don’t stop.” ‘

“As Cecelia Watson explains in ‘Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark,’ the mark was born in the Italian Renaissance. European printers in the 15th and 16th centuries invented many such typographical signifiers—squiggles, dashes, curlicues of all sorts; now mostly forgotten. Why did the semicolon catch on and almost all the others fade away? ‘Probably because it was useful,’ Ms. Watson writes. ‘Readers, writers, and printers found that the semicolon was worth the trouble to insert.’ ”

The New York Times: “‘Semicolon’ Is the Story of a Small Mark That Can Carry Big Ideas” — “Writers have their pet themes, favorite words, stubborn obsessions. But their signature, the essence of their style, is felt someplace deeper — at the level of pulse. Style is first felt in rhythm and cadence, from how sentences build and bend, sag or snap. Style, I’d argue, is 90 percent punctuation.

“‘Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.’ ‘For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ ‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.’

“Every sentence is a performance, or should be, and punctuation sets the stage. It signals the rise and fall of the curtain, provides the special effects, etches out the grain in the voices we recognize above as Camus, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison — even inducting us into the themes and tone of the novels. See those ironic commas in Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ sequestering ‘to his mind’ or the opening lines of Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ with one sentence sliced so suddenly, jaggedly into two.

“In ‘Semicolon,’ Cecelia Watson reveals punctuation, as we practice it, to be a relatively young and uneasy art. Her lively ‘biography’ tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy. ‘The semicolon is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class and education are concentrated,’ she writes. ‘In this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.’ ”

Sydney Wertheim produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on

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