Annapolis Alum Pens Acclaimed Book on the Semicolon

January 27, 2020 | By Les Poling

Cecelia Watson (A01)

No punctuation mark has courted controversy like the semicolon. In the 19th century, a debate over semicolon usage led two Parisian professors to settle their differences with a duel. In the early 1900s, a stray semicolon inadvertently suspended liquor service in Boston for six years. And approximately 15 years ago, an argument with her University of Chicago advisor over a semicolon in her dissertation inspired Cecelia Watson (A01) to embark on a more-than-ten-year journey that would end with her New York Times­-recommended 2019 book, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.

However, while Watson’s scholarly fascination with the semicolon began in graduate school, she fell in love with the written word far earlier. It was a lifelong passion that eventually led her to St. John’s College.

Watson first learned about St. John’s while perusing a college guidebook provided by a helpful uncle. “I think my uncle really hoped I would latch onto Williams,” she recalls, “but what stood out to me in that book was St. John’s. From the minute I read about it, I always was pretty much determined to go there.” Once she arrived on the Annapolis campus, she felt at home. “I always loved reading and books,” Watson says. “So [St. John’s] just seemed like it was a school designed for me.” She was surrounded by a community of intellectually curious individuals—people who, like her, happily spent their free time reading, writing, discussing, and thinking about the world. “There’s something wonderful about ending up there in your formative years, and realizing that there are other people out there like you.” She also had a life-changing experience in junior lab. “I was absolutely captivated by Faraday and by Maxwell,” she says. “Reading the sciences as something other than objective, unassailable fact—that was hugely significant and exciting and thrilling to me.”

The subversion of supposed objectivity would affect the rest of her career. After St. John’s, she earned a PhD in historical and conceptual studies of science, and the notion of questioning incontrovertibility is at the core of Semicolon. Watson’s book is much more than a history of a punctuation mark. It’s an exhilarating critique of the facetious idea that grammar—human-made and arbitrary by nature—is absolute truth.

At St. John’s, Watson was, in her words, “a punctuation fascist. I was one hundred percent the person who would correct your grammar in a really supercilious way, and think I had some kind of valid point by doing that.” By the time she wrote Semicolon, her view had shifted drastically. During her research, Watson discovered that many punctuation laws weren’t even written until the 1800s, and she had a realization: “Of course [grammar rules] haven’t existed since the dawn of time. And of course they’ve evolved over time. Once I started really looking at that history, I did have a moment of ‘oh my god, I have no justification for this assumption that the rules are the rules.’” That revelatory moment manifests itself throughout Semicolon. The book offers a witty critique of grammar as illegitimately appointed judge, jury, and executioner, providing an extraordinarily relevant exploration of the ways in which language and education are used to enforce power structures of class, gender, and race.

Semicolon first appeared as an academic article in Critical Inquiry—not exactly mainstream. But early on, Watson says, “I decided I wanted to write a trade book on this, not an academic book; something that people outside the ivory tower actually have on their radar.” That decision was a breath of fresh air. “I found it super motivating, in a way that wasn’t motivating as an academic writer,” Watson says. “Knowing that, if I did it well enough, I could speak to people who otherwise might not be interested or might not share [the book’s] message.” She adapted naturally to a more accessible style—“and I have to say,” she adds, “what really has helped me is continuing that St. John’s practice of reading extremely broadly, and reading as much as I can. Because the only way to become a better stylist and a more accessible stylist is to read writers you admire.”

Once published, Semicolon achieved instant, widespread acclaim. Mary Norris of The New Yorker called it “delightful.” In an article about style guides and the art of writing well, Vulture described the book as “enlightening.” The New York Times featured it in a list of new and recommended titles. And best of all, writer Estelle Tang named it one of Elle’s best books to read during summer 2019. “I had a moment of pure delight when I read that,” Watson says, “I thought, ‘this is exactly what I want.’”

So, what does Watson hope readers get out of her book—besides a relaxing afternoon on the beach? On one hand, she’s almost writing to her past self. She wants stringent grammarians to ask themselves ethical questions: How damaging is it to enforce grammar rules that have no real historical legitimacy? How do those rules enforce already existing inequalities? At the same time, she hopes her book can help people feel at ease with the written word. “For so many people, [writing] is incredibly stressful, and there isn’t that sense of experimentation and playfulness,” Watson says. “I would love for that to come back into the practice of writing—and the practice of teaching writing.”

“Language is a powerful tool to create a more open society, and more opportunities for more people,” she adds. “I just want people to have a sense of joy and freedom and fun in writing.”