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The Fascinating History of the Controversial Semicolon

8 facts that will surprise and delight you

The maligned and mischievous semicolon

A full-length book about it, aptly titled, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson was published in July 2019 by Ecco Press. The volume received glowing reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, The New Yorker, Booklist, The Boston Globe, The New York Times. Parul Sehgal of The New York Times says that Watson’s “lively” book

“…tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy.”

Get your head around that. A punctuation mark can be controversial and interesting enough that a traditional press bought and published a book about it. It’s been read by thousands of people, reviewed by the best, sold in bookstores around the world, and is now joyfully dispersing interesting facts about the mischievous, misunderstood semicolon.

1) The semicolon is a 500-year-old, loose lady of literature, born in Italy

The semicolon was first conceived of and used in 1494 by an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius. Manutius was born in a city not far from Rome, but then migrated to Venice and opened his print shop. He became the foremost printer of the Renaissance, pioneering four important facets of printing:

  • First, he perfected the printing of Greek script, enabling the publication of educational texts.

  • Secondly, he designed ITALIC fonts. (If you’ve ever wondered about the derivation of the word “italics,” now you know that it “pertains to ancient Italy,” and is applied to that slanting set of text designed by the Venetian printer who created it.

  • Thirdly, Manutius created the Octavio, a portable document. He increased the number of people who would read what his press printed by changing the format of manuscripts, taking the traditional large, flat pages, folding them in half, folding them again, and then again, creating the first portable “paperback.”

  • Finally, this savvy printer introduced the semicolon. He knew that if people could read faster, he could get more work printing texts, so he standardized punctuation, including the use of the comma and the colon, developing the semicolon, a stop between the comma and the colon.

The semicolon was first used in Manutius’ printing of Cardinal Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, an account of climbing Mt. Etna. It separated a long list of items.

2) The first Englishman to use the vampy semicolon was Ben Jonson

The semicolon has been around for more than 500 years, and for much of that time, it had no clearly defined purpose. It was “loose,” inserted whenever a writer or printer felt like it. No rules existed for her behavior, and she began to be shoved into murky pauses and pushed into questionable interludes. Even her appearance was bohemian, a conglomeration of her cohorts, the comma and the colon.

But good old Ben Jonson made her a respectable woman. He defined the semicolon as

‘a distinction of an imperfect sentence, wherein with somewhat a longer breath, the sentence following is included’.

Thanks to Ben Jonson, a prominent writer, poet, and critic around 1600, the loose nature of the semicolon changed. Jonson often used the semicolon. It began to mean a “full stop.” Because of Jonson’s reputation, the questionable punctuation mark was popularized and accepted into the British lexicon.

3) The reputation of the semicolon has led to violence and unrest

It’s true. The semicolon, that mistress of meaning, evokes powerful emotions.

  • In 1837, two law professors in Paris were so incensed over the usage of semicolons that they fought it out in a duel.

  • In 1927, two men accused of the same crime in a New Jersey murder trial received different verdicts because of haphazard semicolon use. Salvatore Rannelli got life in prison; Salvatore Merra got the death sentence.

  • Alcohol service in Boston was suspended for SIX years because an errant semicolon placed in a legal statute made the meaning of the law ambiguous.

  • When a semicolon was placed in the definition of War Crimes in 1945, the prosecution of Nazis was nearly suspended because the meaning was obfuscated.

4) Lots of authors HATE them

“The most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented.” — James J. Kilpatrick, grammarian

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., admonished:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

In today’s copywriting world with an emphasis on brevity, clarity, and conciseness, semicolons are rarely used, possibly because we’re no longer as interested in the subtleties and causalities of emotion. We’re interested in straight-forward, facts. Semicolons are often perceived as antiquated, a literary device that links emotions together instead of separating and punctuating them. Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway were among the semicolon haters, and they are not alone.

June Casagrande, writing in The L.A. Times, echoes Vonnegut, suggesting that semicolons are only used by writers who are trying to show off:

“They’re favored by writers who are so proud they know how to use semicolons that they’ll happily shortchange readers to show off their knowledge. They’re also a popular crutch among writers who don’t know how to manage all the information they want to convey, so they use semicolons to cobble it all into a single monstrous sentence.”

5) Mark Twain fibbed

Mark Twain was a supposed “hater.” He quoted Donald Barthelme’s remark:

“Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. I pinch them out of my prose.”

But he didn’t practice what he preached. In The Gutenberg’s Project electronic edition of Huckleberry Finn, there are 1,562 semicolons.

6) Lots of authors LOVE them

Other writers love semicolons. Consider Virginia Woolfe, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William James, to name a few. They love them because they illustrate relationships between two thoughts. Putting a period in the sentence below would not show the connection between these two ideas propounded by Tolstoy:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

And Herman Melville. Oh my! In her book on the semicolon, Cecelia Watson estimates that there are more than four thousand semicolons in Moby Dick, one for every fifty-two words.

“Clumsy as nineteenth-century punctuation may seem to a modern reader, Melville’s semicolons, act like ‘sturdy little nails,’ holding his wide-ranging narrative together.”

7) Semicolons are like cherry-pitters

cherry picker with cup of cherries
Semicolon as literary cherry-picker

Many great writers find that the semicolon is a literary tool that adds an element of sophistication to phrasing, a specialized implement pulled out only on special occasions. An eloquent assessment of the semicolon is made by Ben Dolnick:

“The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table. So it’s been with considerable surprise, these past few years, that I’ve found myself becoming something of a cherry-pitting maniac.. . I’ve come to love the awkward things, and to depend on them for easing me through a complex thought.”

The semicolon has been often slandered, sometimes forgotten, neglected, or ostracized, but she should never be extinguished. Parul Sehgal notes in her review of Watson’s book,

“Semicolons are not your workaday periods and commas. They belong to the family of trills and volutes; they exist for the sake of complexity, beauty, subtle connections…Semicolons allow sentiments to flow together — to jostle and harmonize — in one sentence the way they would in one mind.”

8) Writing improves with the occasional, well-chosen semicolon

Not everybody understands semicolons. You do. Not everyone uses them. You can. Be daring. Be different. Hone your craft on the whetstone of a literary widget: the loose-lady-made-respectable, pinnacle-of-punctuation-style, the semicolon.

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