‘There was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated “properly”. It’s important to come to grips with this historical fact, because it influences how we act in the present’.
So begins Cecelia Watson’s whistle-stop tour around the history of a remarkably wide swathe of grammar and punctuation, with focus, of course, on the semicolon. Make no mistake, this is no grammar manual. Rather, we are provoked to think about how we use language, and the beauty and mystery of how it works.
The descriptions of the development of grammar guides over the last three centuries give us a great insight into something most people involved in editorial endeavours know very well – that ‘rules’ in our field are incredibly hard to pin down and maintain. Moreover, who says we should even try to? As Watson notes: ‘The history of punctuation shows that rules can’t be taken for granted as necessary elements of language. For a start, when we consider rules, we have to ask: whose rules?’
The application of these rules though, as well as causing rancour among grammarians, can have more far-reaching consequences, and as such cannot be dismissed lightly as stuff and nonsense bluster. This is well illustrated in the chapters on how semicolons have played significant parts in interpretation and application of legal judgments, most shockingly in some capital murder cases.
It’s the constantly evolving nature of language that makes it so compelling, and such a joy to work with and immerse yourself in every day. It’s easy to see too how it can polarise opinion and cause such great debate.
Embracing this fluidity and using grammar to help us create great writing rather than as a rigid and confining framework from which we must not deviate is a mindset we would all be well served to adopt. Because, in Watson’s words, ‘hanging on to the old story about grammar – the mythical story – limits our relationship with language. It keeps us from seeing, describing, and creating beauty in language that rules can’t comprehend.’
Semicolon: How a misunderstood punctuation mark can improve your writing, enrich your reading and even change your life by Cecelia Watson (4th Estate, 2019)