Semicolon

I recently read a book that was a delight for me, a lifelong fan of a certain bit of punctuation.

It covers a lot of territory, efficiently: the origins of the semicolon; historical debates about the “rules” of grammar and whether such rules even make sense; snobbery in punctuation, and snobbery in general; the critical difference made by a semicolon, or its absence, in the interpretation of certain laws. And that’s just getting started.

The author hears language as a kind of music, rather than seeing it as something made or perfected by rules; and she describes how punctuation sets the tone, pace, and meaning of the music.

Several great authors make their appearance in this book, including old favorites like Mark Twain, who could have written an iconoclastic, caustic book about punctuation himself.

The best use of the semicolon that the author has seen turns out to be a searing passage from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And for my money, the highlight of the book is a short extended treatment of “Moby-Dick.” As the author puts it, the 4,000-odd semicolons in that book “are Moby-Dick’s joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes.”

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