The Oxford comma provokes spirited debate, and many people are passionately pro this piece of punctuation (as we discussed a few weeks ago). The semicolon is another mark that inspires strong emotions, but in this case reactions generally lean toward hatred or confusion. Kurt Vonnegut – “All they do is show you’ve been to college” – and George Orwell detested them. Historian and philosopher Cecelia Watson, though, loves semicolons so much that she has written a wonderful book about them, “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.”Semicolons, like most punctuation marks, were first used as a way to indicate pauses when reading aloud, like rests in music. A comma denoted the shortest pause, followed by the semicolon, colon, and period. This was one of the first things Mary Johnson explained in her popular guide to what all young women should know, “Every Young Woman’s Companion” (1770), even before she broached key issues like “Instructions for making of strong Gravies” and “preventing Servants from being easily imposed on by Tradesmen”: “At a Comma, rest only whilst you can say privately to yourself one; at a Semicolon, pause whilst you can say one, two, deliberately.”By the early 1800s, semicolons had… Read full this story
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