Watson is a lively guide to all this, and reads literary semicolons – most of the best of them non-standard – with especial verve. She has much good to say about the Martin Luther King of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (“The finest deployment of semicolons I’ve ever come across”) and about Herman Melville (one semicolon every fifty-two words in Moby-Dick: “it’s not really that Melville uses the semicolon to stretch out the difference between a capital letter and a full stop; instead, the semicolons are in the service of carrying you slowly, gently, pleasurably away from whatever it was you thought you were reading about – the process of decapitating a whale, or how to assess winds, or cannibalism”). She also has much bad to say about late Henry James (“Sentences puffed out in this way become difficult even to comprehend”); and you’ll find an excellent reading of the semicolons in two different sentences of Raymond Chandler – one in which it creates a steady rhythm, and another in which it reins in a first clause before letting the rest of the sentence gallop out.
This isn’t something that can be summed up in a simple rule, and those who have tried over the past 200 years to find rules governing punctuation have failed miserably, as Cecelia Watson shows in the opening chapters of her insightful book... The power of the book lies in its leisurely literary illustrations of the way writers have used semicolons to great effect, including Irvine Welsh, Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and brilliantly in Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ — a moving sequence of semicolon-separated plaints that build to one of the most powerful climaxes I have ever read... This is no pedestrian account of how semicolons work, with boring sentences taken out of context and their marks defined in an abstract way. The author wants us to appreciate the ‘beauty in language that rules can’t comprehend’... Some people will hate her for even trying to make us appreciate semicolons, but not me. As I say, I loved this book; I really did.
Because she spent so long researching and writing, Watson has been able to make her book wondrously short. She has hunted down the very finest examples of semicolons in use, in order to prove how poorly rules serve us... Watson’s book gets cross with the people who get cross about punctuation. The semicolon is not snobbish, but the rules hysterics are... The aim of Semicolon is admirable; its effect on me has been counterproductive. Everything I read I now scan for any sign of this little punctuation mark. Far from helping me connect to meaning, my eyes are so peeled for a sighting of a semicolon I’m barely taking in any meaning at all.
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.”... Watson covers impressive ground in this short book, skittering back and forth like a sandpiper at the shores of language’s Great Debates. There are fascinating forays into how grammarians “created a market for their rules,” the strange history of diagramming sentences and the racial politics of so-called standard English. Watson is sharpest when acting a bit like a semicolon herself, perceiving subtle connections and burrowing into an argument. Whatever her subject, her targets are always pedants, those acolytes of “actually,” all those who profess to love language but seek only to control it.