Cecelia Watson, Semicolon

Okay, sure, coronavirus, but also: punctuation, what's up with that, anyway, am I right?

In theory, there'll still be a world whenever the heck we're done with COVID-19. In that world, we'll need to behave ethically, and we'll need to be able to communicate. To do those two crucial things, goddamn it we're going to need semicolons.

To be clear, Cecelia Watson's fascinating 2019 book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark wasn't presaging the global pandemic. But Watson's is a history with something of a utopian politics, imagining a better world being build on the shattered remains of a hide-bound former system that was failing all of us, and I'm ready to read more of that:
We could not (and maybe we would not want to) go back to a time before there were no punctuation rules. But maybe we can think beyond them now, to develop a new, more functional, more ethical philosophy of punctuation: one that would support a richer way of learning, teaching, using, and loving language. (pp.182-183)
Let me explain.... No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

To quote Watson again, "The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494" (p.13). It, and we, enjoyed a few hundred years of volatility, sometimes flamboyance, and remarkable flexibility; until the Golden Age of Grammarians began ratcheting back our freedoms, and it is past time for that freedom to be reclaimed.

Now, that's an Illegal Semicolon in the above paragraph, and I circle that every time it shows up in my students' work, because it's not conventional. (The current convention says that they belong only between independent clauses, or between lengthy or punctuated items in a list.) But if you're not a rule-follower, doesn't it feel good? Even now that you and I both clearly know the rule being broken, doesn't it feel, dare I say it, a little bit right? It's not conventional, sure, but if you're not trying to write conventionally, convention rather loses its sham lustre.

There was a time that punctuation wasn't held to be properly part of grammar at all, but of prosody. It had to do with rhythm, more or less, with how a piece of writing struck the ear. When we speak, we use words; with a pause, of varying length, our only punctuation mark. In this anarchic state of nature, we understand each other very well; when we face the 37 rules for comma use laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style, we're bereft, crushed, frozen. (Sadly, that's an Incorrect Comma, since those aren't synonyms but items in a list.) An unhelpful punctuation mark wasn't ungrammatical, even if it'd get you a reprimand or an eye-roll.

Watson's point, and it's the point made by so many writers about and fans of various Englishes, including racialized Englishes here in Canada, is that the value of punctuation marks is in each one's usefulness and expressiveness. A rule is a thing you measure with, not a thing you communicate with.

And of course we use punctuation rules against each other, as weapons in public discourse and as cover for private biases, especially racism and classism. Watson's isn't a new perspective on this, but I've rarely felt as smitten by an explanation of it: "a grammar attack is quite simply an ad hominem attack that looks more legitimate because it's dressed up in a cap and gown" (p. 180).

As Watson notes about her experience in speaking publicly about punctuation, "At times I've felt less like a punctuation theorist and more like a punctuation therapist" (p.174). Me, I've had this same experience so often as a teacher that I guarantee my students at the beginning of every term that I'll be deprogramming some of them, and that we'll be trying to remember specifically whose punctuation advice is preventing them from relaxing into their writing process.

I just can't remember enjoying so much a book about the minutiae of writing, not even John McPhee's  Draft No. 4. Am I using semicolons with panache and disregard for convention? No, because I'm a hidebound Prufrock. (Okay, fine, because I've spent decades finely honing my sense of grammatical convention as a way to remedy and obscure my rural working-class roots; and it turns out I'm unable to drop the act.) Am I sure just what it'll mean for my teaching in September, whether it's online or in person or a hybrid of the two? Absolutely not.

But I'll still be thinking about the issues Watson's raising here. And I think, I hope, it'll make me a better teacher.


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