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Transcript: A New Interview with Cecelia Watson

This is a machine-generated transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Cecelia Watson on April 16, 2020. You can listen to the interview here.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty.

Before we start, I’m going to ask you for a quick favor. From now until April 30th, if you log into a site called Podchaser and leave a review for my show, Podchaser will make a donation to Meals on Wheels. It's a really good cause and super important right now. So please do a double good deed and go to Podchaser and leave a review for Grammar Girl and all your other favorite podcasts.

I’m here today today with Cecelia Watson, the author of a book called "Semicolon Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark," because when this show comes out, it will be World Semicolon Day. So yay! Welcome, Cecilia.

Cecelia: Thank you so much. And thank you very much for having me on for this important holiday.

Mignon: We have to celebrate everything we can these days.

Cecelia: Yeah. Yeah.

Mignon: Long-time listeners will remember we talked when your book first came out, which I think was about a year and a half ago. But we have some answers to questions that we had back then. And there's just always something to talk about when it comes to the semicolon.

Cecelia: I certainly agree with that.

Mignon: So is there anything new that you're thinking about the semicolon these days?

Cecelia: I am always kind of gathering new examples of really great semicolon usage and a couple of the authors that I've been reading since we last spoke. One of them was Toni Morrison. After after she passed away, I think a lot of people were rereading her work, and I had read her before, but never really noticed how fond she is of the semicolon and how well she uses it. And I also recently, for the very first time, it's embarrassing to admit it, but I had never read any Virginia Woolf before. And I've been teaching "Mrs. Dalloway" this term as part of one of the college courses that I teach. And the semicolon is absolutely crucial to her stream of consciousness method. And she uses it so beautifully as this kind of porous punctuation mark that both stops the flow of a thought, but also lets it kind of slip into the next thought as well so that there isn't really a clean boundary and you just bounce from a stream of conscious thought to the stream of conscious thought. And I was so astounded when reading for her, reading her for the first time that somehow nobody had kind of gotten in my face and said, you have to read Virginia Woolf. She's the expert on semicolons because she really is.

Mignon: That's amazing, because I think most people think of the semicolon as being sort of a stuffy sometimes spill, people even say self-important punctuation mark, and you're describing it more as a stream of consciousness slipstream kind of use. Do you feel like is that right? And do you feel like the semicolon is sometimes misunderstood that way?

Cecelia: I think well, I would say this. I think that the semicolon is marvelously flexible and that that is part of what's confusing about it to people, because you can't really say that it means one thing that it does one thing or that it establishes one type of tone in writing. So it opens up so many different possibilities. I do think that it can be emphatic and kind of formal and create these sorts of staccato rhythms in sentences. But equally, writers like Wolfe, I think, really show the way in which it can be a mark that facilitates flow instead of just being this kind of firm dam-like barrier. And I also think that. It because of those features, there is such tremendous artistry involved in using it. Which again, can be confusing for people. But it's amazing as well to think about the different types of criticisms that have been leveraged against the semicolon. Some people do say, look, it's this really academic, ridiculously formal show-offy mark. A lot of people have said that it's a really wishy-washy, indecisive mark, though, too. So it takes hits from both sides as well, as much as I want to praise it for doing all of those things. It's also been vulnerable to attacks for both attributes. And interestingly, the latter attacks are often sort of wrapped up in sort of misogynist adjectives being thrown at it like it's a bashful mark, it's a girly mark. It's really feminine. So people have accused it of all of those things as well.

Mignon: Oh, my gosh. It's the target of so much criticism. First for everything, it can't win, right?

Cecelia: Right. I know what. Why is it such an appealing object for people to dump all of these sort of meta anxieties about on? I'm not sure.

Mignon: That's amazing. So you also teach writing and humanities at Bard College in New York. Is that still correct?

Cecelia: That is correct.

Mignon: And so how do you find your students relating to, I guess, punctuation in general, really?

Mignon: You know, more specifically today, we can talk about the semicolon. But I'm wondering, what do you find that they struggle with the most?

Cecelia: I think what they struggle with the most is coming into college and being asked to do adult writing, but having in their tool kit a whole bunch of competing standards for what they've been told good writing is. So some of them come in and they think that an essay is five paragraphs and each paragraph has five sentences. Some of them come in with a completely different definition, but all of them have been told that these are sort of absolute standards that will carry them through. And then when they come to college, we ask them to do a sort of more mature type of writing that doesn't rely on a formula. And that can be extremely difficult to begin to look at writing in a way that lets you figure out what it's capable of doing instead of necessarily what it must do, which is how they've been taught to think of it, in part just because of the the ways in which writing necessarily has to be taught when you're younger. So that freedom can be extraordinarily daunting. And of course, the freedom is allotted in different degrees. So some instructors will still have very strong ideas about a format that students are expected to use and they walk out of that classroom and into the next classroom. And it's completely different. So most of what I do with them really is to get them to try to start thinking about having a reader, because that's a new concept when you've been taught that writing follows a formula and that you're just trying to please your instructor.

Cecelia: The idea of using writing to be flexible in responding to a reader and really being a persuasive tool that's capable of speaking to someone and persuading them instead of just meeting a checklist to get a grade that I think is exciting for them, but also really hard.

Mignon: Do they do you do peer reviews? Do they actually have other people besides you're reading their work in your classes?

Cecelia: Now, I usually do that this year. I actually haven't. But I think we are going to do our best to do that even in this digital world that we're living in now. I would like them to get accustomed both to being able to ask someone else to read their work, because honestly, we can never really fully see our writing. We need somebody else at the end of the day to say, look here, this part didn't work. Tell us how they're reacting. And also just to get them a little more independent and to give them a set of tools to go back through their own writing and to be able to make sense of sometimes cryptic comments that they'll get. So the number of students who tell me, you know, I've been told that I just summarize the text, but I don't actually know what that means and how to fix it. How do you turn that kind of comment into that kind of action list of "All right. Here's what I need to look for in my paper. And here's where I'm going to make changes to create an argument instead of just summary."

Mignon: Right. And you remind me, you know, you had to switch to teaching online very suddenly. Like so many other people did. And I'm curious, how is that going and maybe what have you learned that if you've any advice for other teachers out there had to switch or just observations that are kind of interesting for people to hear about?

Cecelia: Well, it has been so daunting and I think to me, one of the things that has struck me the most has just been how psychologically hard it's been for me as an instructor, not just living my own life, surrounded by the news we're getting and constantly being worried about people that I care for, even though I'm in a relatively safe and advantageous position right now. And I'm able to say to self-isolate. Even even if you're in a good position like that, the number of worries that you have, it's just tremendous. And even for me, as someone who is both deeply nerdy and has many, many years of experience applying myself to work in less than ideal contexts, it has been so hard. So that, in turn, has also meant that the thought of what my students must be going through constantly weighs on my mind and adds to that sense of anxiety as well, because I can't begin to imagine to be a young person in college who's really just learning how to learn in a lot of ways being put into this situation, having in some cases to return home to a situation that's not ideal. All of these things are so difficult and they're difficult to know how to deal with. As an instructor, when you you know that your students are spread across multiple time zones. So do you have a class where they meet all at the same time? What if some of your students don't have such great internet connections or access to other resources or they live in a house with multiple people working and they can't have quiet time? It really is overwhelming the way those sort of like little tree branches, spirit of anxiety all start sprouting out and kind of taking over. So I would say, though, that I tremendously admire the level of work that my students have been able to produce so far. They really are stepping up to the plate in a way that is inspiring and impressive.

Mignon: That's great. Yeah. When I was teaching, I worried about my students constantly. And I'm kind of in a...I can't imagine how worried I'd be about them now if I were still teaching, and even though I'm not teaching, I think about those things like the inequality is the vast range of situations the students are having to function in now that with different access to internet and as you said, different quiet time, different just safe space to study. It's just frightening to think about what some people are trying to deal with and the rest trying to teach a class when people have such a range of experiences going on, more so than, you know, there's always a range. But I feel like it's really heightened right now.

Cecelia: Absolutely. And it's this crisis is making visible all of those differences. I think that that sometimes get not necessarily obliterated in the classroom, but one can sort of hide there and and not so much in this context.

Mignon: Right. Yeah. Well, I think it's time to take a quick break for an ad message.

Mignon: And when we come back, we're gonna talk about Lindley Murray, one of the very famous grammar writers you may never have heard of, but one of the best selling authors of all time. And then Projects Semicolon: how the semicolon has become a symbol for suicide prevention of all things. So we'll be right back.

Mignon: So, Cecelia. Last time we were together, we talked about Lindley Murray. Can you can you bring listeners up to speed on again on who he is and why he was so important in the history of grammar?

Cecelia: Yes. So Lindley Murray was one of the first English grammarians in the United States. So his book, it was really based on a couple of previous author's work. However, Murray was a really fantastic promoter of his own work. So he actually managed to make his book, the bestselling book in the world for several years, which is really remarkable to think that grammar books were our absolute hottest sellers, but they really were. A lot of authors made a lot of money selling a lot of copies of these books. And Murray was really the king of that kind of ability to market his text and sell it to schools and to individuals. So he really took home a lot of money.

Mignon: Yeah, I found a stat. He sold more than 15 million copies of his books between 1800 and 1840. How many fewer people there were back then and few were literate people. That's an astonishing number.

Cecelia: Right. Yeah. I would love to know what the royalty structure.

Mignon: And I found Bryan Garner, who is also a currently well-known grammarian.

Mignon: He is a lawyer. And for the ABA Journal, that's from the American Bar Association, he wrote a profile of Lindley Murray that had all these great little details. He said that young Abraham Lincoln is said to have read Murray by firelight.

Cecelia: That is amazing.

Mignon: Yeah, they published more than 122 editions of his book just in America. There were 132 in Britain. So when we talked before, we you know, we've always heard that he made these vast, vast sums of money. And both of us wondered what he did with his fortune because, you know, we were hoping he did something wonderful. And a little while ago, Bryan Garner tweeted about Lindley Murray. I think it was his birthday or the anniversary of some important event in his life. And I said, "So Bryan, we've always wondered, do you know what happened to his fortune? Did he build libraries or something wonderful like that?" And it's even better. So Bryan Garner said that a lot of Lindley Murray's fortune went to helping slaves and former slaves because he was staunchly opposed to the slave trade. So he set up a trust to help slaves and former slaves. And it still operates in New York today.

Cecelia: That is incredible.

Mignon: Isn't that amazing?

Cecelia: Wow. And what what uplifting news. Yeah, I could never have imagined if you'd asked me to guess a wonderful thing that could come from a book, a very prescriptivist grammar rules. That would not have been...I'd delighted.

Mignon: Exactly. And he was. He actually ended his life in York, England. So he was opposed to the American Revolution. So he left New York and moved to England.

Mignon: And I'm not sure if he was a Quaker, but it says that he settled in a small Quaker community on the outskirts of York, England. So, yeah. What else? Oh, he said in a ABA Journal article, Brian said, think of him when you pass Bellevue Hospital in New York City, because that was once the site of his American estate, and he owned part of Manhattan and Murray Street in Manhattan, is named after Lindley Murray.

Cecelia: No way. Yeah. Oh, that is amazing. I have got to read this profile. I know some of Gardiner's work, of course, but I have not seen that particular piece of writing. Fantastic.

Mignon: I'll send you the link. And for the listeners, I'll put it in the show notes for this episode, too. So you'll be able to find it. Yeah, it was, um, you know, he was he was so famous in his time. But, you know, most modern people, unless you're hardcore into grammar, you probably haven't heard of Lindley Murray. But yeah, I mean, it's also funny for me to think about how someone who was so fabulously famous could be largely forgotten in the popular culture after only..he died in 1826..200 years. I guess that's a long time. I guess you could be forgotten. Even if you were famous.

Cecelia: It is funny, though, to think about whose names stick around, you know, and whose don't.

Mignon: Right.

Cecelia: I guess. I mean, I guess he survives in some of those later work like Strunk and White, but only implicitly so.

Mignon: Right. And I guess he was responsible for the prohibition against modifying absolutes. So Lindley Murray is the person who decided that we should never say something is "very unique," that one thing can't be more unique than something else. That was that was one of his rules that he came up with.

Mignon: What else do you have? Is there an interesting anecdote from your book that you'd like to share?

Cecelia: Actually, how about a kind of fun one that's in the U.K. edition, but not the American edition since we've just talked about only Murray goes from America to the UK. Similarly, my manuscript went from America to the UK afterwards, and I added some things to that version. Just looking at what grammar was like up there, and it was remarkably similar. You know, in substance, the history doesn't change much. But I did find some wonderful examples of books that didn't make it to the US, but were hits over there and a personal favorite, I was looking through this old now defunct London newspaper called "The Penny Satirist" and in spite of the name, this is not a newspaper filled with satire. It was it was actual news items, an actual book reviews, but I had a moment of pause thinking that this must basically be like an 1800s version of "The Onion" when I found a book review for a book by a guy named George Moody called "The Grammar of the English Language Truly Made Easy by the Invention of 300 Movable Parts of Speech."

Cecelia: And I thought, this has got to be a joke, right? There's no way anyone would invent 300 movable parts of speech and then say it made English grammar easy. So I just assumed this was a parody of all the kind of increasingly complex and in sets of rules that were being produced during that time.

Cecelia: But it turns out not he was it was absolutely a real book. Moody was extremely serious. And in typical style of that time period, he wrote an introduction to his method, talking a lot of trash about all the other grammarians and how inefficient they were. And here he was to rescue everyone with 300 movable parts of speech.

Mignon: What does that even mean?

Cecelia: You know, he actually had a system of cards and they were rearrangeable and it is complicated and not easy.

Mignon: That was one thing I loved about your book is is how you covered how the...they were so uncivil to each other, the grammarians, they were just always talking trash about each other.

Cecelia: Even if you're used to 19th century debates, which tend to be nastier than what we think of as formal or academic or intellectual debate, even in that context, grammarians were just really vicious and brutal. So it's always fun to read them and to read their prefaces talking about how superior they are.

Mignon: I think people probably think of these things as probably as dry. But you start reading them and they really aren't.

Cecelia: Yes, indeed.

Mignon: Wonderful. Well, I think to end today, there's the semicolon because it's Nationals Semicolon Day, there's a group called Project Semicolon that is sort of a suicide prevention group. And you may see people with a semicolon tattoos. I've seen a lot on the inside of someone's wrist. Or you might see them on the back of their neck. Really, like, anywhere. But if you can, do you want to explain more..I don't know if you've had an interaction with them or if you can tell us more about them?

Cecelia: Yeah, absolutely. And so the Semicolon Project originated when a woman who was a suicide survivor asked people to draw a semicolon on their wrists to increase awareness of suicide. And the idea was that if someone asked, you could explain that that an attempted suicide or serious thoughts of suicide that a person overcomes are in some ways very much like the semicolon, a pause where the writer or in this case the person decides to go on with the sentence or with their life. So pause, but not a stop. And this really grabbed people and resonated with them in such a way that those drawings that people had been doing on their wrist evolved into permanent tattoos in a lot of cases.

Cecelia: So it seems to have succinctly captured a really sort of meaningful way of of looking at the ability to to overcome that moment of deep despair and depression and and to just increase public awareness of what it's like for people to to suffer from those feelings. So.

Cecelia: Yeah. Unfortunately, the founder herself did eventually, from what I understand, I think a couple of years ago did commit suicide, which is terrible, but her work continues on in the form of this foundation. They publish stories from suicide survivors and they still use the really wonderful iconography of the semicolon to represent their work.

Cecelia: And it seems I mean, this is always an important topic. It seems especially timely to me right now to keep coming back to what we'd been talking about, about the crisis that we're going through right now and the kind of anxiety surrounding it. I think raising awareness of the mental health issues that will undoubtedly attend this this pandemic is super important.

Thinking back again to what I've now learned about Virginia Woolf, too. She was writing "Mrs. Dalloway" in the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic. And doctors back then had apparently observed that one of the consequences of living through the pandemic was depression. So I would be very surprised if we don't see the same thing and experienced the same thing ourselves. So I think it's a tremendously important organization and that its work is maybe even more necessary than usual at the moment.

Mignon: Yeah, and it's such a beautiful sentiment. Don't take a stop. Take a pause like the semicolon. And I love that they have the symbol. And if you go to their website, which is Project Semicolon, you can see pictures of other people's beautiful tattoos and you can read their stories. So it just seems like a really wonderful project.

Cecelia: So I think we'll end on that note and wish everyone well.

Mignon: Thanks again, Cecilia Watson, for taking time to talk to me today.

Cecelia: Thank you. It always flies by so fast. Thank you.

Mignon: I know you're I know you're so busy teaching online now. That's a lot of extra work. But the book is "Semicolon The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark." It's one of my favorite books from the last few years, so if you haven't read it yet and you're looking for something to read. Check it out. Get it from your local independent bookstore. Help keep them in business, too. I ordered a book today in my bookstore, mailed it an hour after I ordered it. So you might be faster, I think.

Cecelia: Oh, wow.

Mignon: Yeah, no, I was amazed. So that is all for today. Thanks again, Cecilia. Thanks so much.

Cecelia: Thank you.

Mignon: Thank you so much everyone for listening, and thanks to my producer Nathan Semes. You can find me on Twitter and Facebook as Grammar Girl, and don't forget to leave a review for the show on Podchaser.com to help Meals on Wheels. I'll put a link to my Podchaser listing in the show notes. That’s all. Thanks for listening.