For a start, when we consider rules, we have to ask: whose rules?
That’s Cecelia Watson writing about punctuation and grammar in the fabulous little book I read last night called Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. It is excellent and you should go read it but Watson’s argument can be summarized like this: good grammar — and how to use a semicolon in particular — shouldn’t be seen as a holy edict that we must adhere to but rather a tool for a specific kind of job instead; creating emphasis; expanding and contracting space itself; elaborating on an idea over a longer stretch of time than you might otherwise give it; letting your mind wonder a little bit.
Watson argues that a good semicolon can do magical things but the rules around grammar are extremely dumb, often racist, and get in our way if we hope to communicate clearly or write beautiful things. Although I must say that this bit certainly hurt reading:
...the dash nowadays is the Punctuation Mark of First Resort, able to take the place of commas, colons, semicolons, and periods. We now live in the Era of the Dash. Dashes are dashed off right and left...
Oof — I’ve been thinking lately about how I lean too hard on the em dash. It’s almost too easy to throw into a sentence — barely much thought is required to connect two thoughts together. It’s important to note that Watson’s argument against the use of the dash here isn’t that it’s aGaInST tHe RuLEs man but instead because it’s a tool that we use too often and now has less effect than perhaps it once did.
The semicolon though? That’s a thing with real, untapped power:
The semicolon represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think; it measures time more meditatively than the catchall dash, and it can’t be chucked thoughtlessly into just any sentence in place of just any other mark.
But Cecelia doesn’t like rules when it comes to punctuation and consistently pokes holes in stuffy remarks about grammar:
Even if you accept everything I’ve said in this book about rules, you might still feel, deep down, a love for the idea of grammar rules. But when it comes down to it, I’d wager that the object of your love lies elsewhere. That love is really for the English language, or for orderliness and organization, or for tradition. None of these things is a foolish thing to love. But if we really love English, or if we love the sense of structure that grammar provides, or if we love traditions and a sense of shared linguistic practices across generations, we have to look somewhere else to celebrate that devotion; rules will be, just as they always have been, inadequate to form a protective fence around English. We will never find the rules, unshiftable, unchangeable and incorruptible. There are no such things.
I remember in an old English class a professor once lost it and shouted at me that I didn’t know how to use the semicolon correctly; now I’m gonna throw it in everywhere just to haunt him. We made these rules up! They’re maleable! Just as Watson says, there has never been a proper English, and anyone who says otherwise is masking darker, deeper, racist opinions about who is white and is not. I’ll repeat this, but louder:
...when we consider rules, we have to ask: whose rules?
One example Watson gives is of David Foster Wallace; he believed that there is the one and true and proper way to communicate, even if you don’t like it. He used his classrooms to pitch a certain kind of grammar, a certain kind of thinking that treated punctuation like a prison; these are the boxes to think inside of; this is how you must speak; this is who you must sound like or otherwise be cast out of society. But language and punctuation and grammar, Watson argues over and over again in her book, should be a liberator. David Foster Wallace was wrong.
So anyway, Watson’s book reminds me that folks who are sticklers for proper punctuation are my mortal enemies.
And I was sent from hell to ruin their lives.