Transcript: An Interview with Cecelia Watson

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Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Cecelia Watson, author of a new book I absolutely loved called “Semicolon: The Past, Present,  and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.” Cecelia also teaches writing and humanities at Bard College in New York. We talked about how grammar writers in the 1800s became fabulously wealthy, struggled to create rules, and had vicious arguments; and we talked about how researching the book changed her approach to teaching writing and a whole bunch more. Here’s the interview.

MIGNON: Hi, Cecilia. Thanks for being here with me today.

CECELIA: Hi, Mignon. Thank you so much for having me. I'm a huge fan of the podcast, so I'm thrilled.

MIGNON: Oh, wonderful. Well, I am now a huge fan of your book, so I can't wait to hear more about it.


MIGNON: So first of all, you know, you wrote a book called "Semicolon," and it's about one punctuation mark. So I'd love to hear when it occurred to you that you could write a whole book about this one punctuation mark.

CECELIA: Well, you know, I think a might could have written a five volume set, to be honest. I spent so many years looking into the history of this one punctuation mark and and chasing down both the history of that mark, but also the rules that relate to it and all these sort of socio cultural phenomena that surround grammar rules. And the deeper I went into it, the more I found myself transformed by that research. I used to be super pedantic about grammar. I would say I mean, really a kind of rule monger. And I loved the rules. I thought that they were ironclad. I kept the Chicago manual of style on my bed stand like it was the Bible. And the more that I looked into the history of rules, the more I thought, actually, I have completely the wrong idea about about rules, about language.

CECELIA: What I found as I was looking into the history of grammar rules was that, first of all, the first thing that really shocked me was how recent they are as a concept. If you were using English, if you were a student of English in any way before the very late 1700s, you wouldn't have had a grammar rule book. You might have had an occasional language tip that you would have found in an etiquette manual of all things, but it would have been a sort of general kind of rhetorical guideline. It would never be "This is where you put a semicolon." We get those rules so late. And that was the first kind of lightbulb moment for me of "Wait a second. So that actually means that grammar rules aren't somehow in language. They're not inherent in it. And and there is no basis really for saying they're fundamentally correct." If we have people like Shakespeare writing with absolutely no rules, then then what does that mean? And the more that I looked into the history of grammar rules, the more that I found that they were constructed for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do really with teaching or using English better. In a lot of cases, grammarians, the original grammarians, were after some money. Grammar rules were a huge money maker. They they were the best selling books in the world. Believe it or not. Which, you know, I wish you and I, you did write a bestseller, but I wish we could go back to the 1800s because we would be selling like I mean, just I can't even imagine what palace I would be living in. But.

MIGNON: Yeah, you know, actually, I went after I read your book, I started wondering what happened to Lindley Murray's fortune.

CECELIA: Oh, yeah.

MIGNON: I mean, he was extraordinarily wealthy, and I tried to find out and I couldn't find anything. So if any listeners know what Lindley Murray or his family did with the fortune that he made selling his books, I'd love to know. So please write in.

CECELIA: I'd love to do that, too. I mean, especially we need some good news about fortunes building institutions after the Sackler debacle that we're ever hearing all about. I'd love to know that grammar built something really great

MIGNON: I know. I hope he funded libraries or something.

CECELIA: Right. So, yeah, these guys were they were making a fortune off being able to sell books, and they were also exercising a kind of control. And that was really what interested me was that these elite white men were basically building fences, and they were getting to determine whose speech counted and whose speech didn't count. And when you look at public education in that time period and you see that for the first time, poor people or people of color and women were getting access to education in ways they hadn't before, that really made me start to think, "Okay, what does it actually mean to have this discipline of rules that was invented by this very narrow, specific demographic and which can be used to credit or discredit certain types of speech?" And that made me think in a much broader way about the ethics of language in general. So I was kind of having all of those realizations right around the time we had our election in the U.S. a couple of years ago and thinking about walls and fences, both literal and metaphorical. And that really made me think, "OK, I'd love to write a book that maybe speaks to some of the people who are purists like I once was." I know one of the things I like about your book is that you're clear in the beginning this is not for purists in some senses. My book is for purists because I understand that perspective.

MIGNON: Yeah, well, one thing I loved is that even back in the 19th century, it seemed like people were wringing their hands about how to reconcile the rules with their own personal tastes. I mean, it reminded me so much of the debates you hear today.

CECELIA: Yes, absolutely. And I always kind of thought that you could just automatically classify grammarians as prescriptivist or descriptivist. And it's so wonderful to read these books from the starting moments of grammar where individual grammarians are acknowledging "Look, it's really, really hard to make rules that are going to apply in every case. But we really want to do that because that's I mean, that's what what what readers want, and that's also what we're going to be able to sell." And they admit, you know, this is really hard and you see them struggle with it in a way that you don't see, I think, in most style books today. If I think about something like Strunk and White or the Chicago Manual of Style, it's in their interest, of course, to look definitive and omniscient in a lot of ways. Strunk and White, obviously, you see authors on the front, but the Chicago Manual of Style, you have to really dig around to figure out who wrote it.

MIGNON: Right. And yeah, I've noticed over the years that prescriptive books always sell way better than books that take a more nuanced approach to language people, people, and I mean that's one reason people come to me, they want rules. It's so hard when you're writing, you just want someone to tell you "Should I use a semicolon here or not?"

CECELIA: Absolutely.

MIGNON: People want it and I understand why they want it and and sometimes they need it. So, you know, we do that. But then we also try to talk about, you know, what are the more nuanced parts, too. And that reminds me, one of the things I loved also about your book is there was a fascinating section about how punctuation marks go in and out of style,

CECELIA: Mm hmm.

MIGNON: Just like fashion. You know, today people might say, "Oh, I overuse dashes."


MIGNON: But back then there was a time when people overused semicolons.

CECELIA: Most definitely.

MIGNON: Or was it colons?

CECELIA: No semicolons, actually, and because the semicolon was so popular in the late 1800s, you have grammarians actually complaining and saying, "Oh my god, the colon is going to go extinct. It's very, very tragic for the colon because nobody cares anything about it. They just put a semicolon anywhere that are colon would usually go." So things like that and the parentheses, parenthesis, parentheses and the pair would were at one point hugely unpopular. And you have all of these marks

MIGNON: Oh, unpopular?

CECELIA: Unpopular. Yes. So there was one one grammar book I was reading that said that the parenthesis is now generally exploded as a deformity. So strong words were uttered against the parenthesis.

MIGNON: Oh, and it's hilarious. I mean, people did, they had strong opinions about different punctuation marks.

CECELIA: Oh, yes. Very strong opinions. And that's true today, too. One of the...when I started working on this topic, I was a PhD student still, and I was finishing this project up right around the same time I was finishing my dissertation, which was completely unrelated, and I was giving academic talks on this subject. And what fascinated me was the type of comments that people would make in those talks. They were really intimate in a way, usually at an academic talk everybody is taking care to kind of perform the clinical, you know, highly technical, very serious scholar role. But at these talks, people would tell me stories about some traumatic childhood event with a grammar teacher, you know, who got onto them about semicolon usage. They come up to me and tell me how anxious they were about where in the world to put a semicolon. They would confess desires like "I wish I could put two colons in one sentence that would be so great." And every people people have told me stories about falling in love with someone based on a conversation about mutual love of the semicolon. It was fantastic to hear all of those things, and I was surprised at how much passion and personal investment there really is, negative or positive.

MIGNON: Right. Yeah, I know. I also hear from people who were traumatized by early experiences, you know, getting a page full of red comments on their writing. Has writing the book changed how you teach in the classroom?

CECELIA: Oh, most definitely. Absolutely. When I was first starting out as an instructor, I was teaching writing specifically even though my my discipline is history and philosophy of science. But before I ever taught courses in that specific area, I was teaching academic and professional writing. And I found out very quickly that going through a paper and just marking it up with all of the little spelling and punctuation and grammar corrections, all it did was mean that the student could revise that one paper, and often it made students feel like they weren't being listened to. And as I struggle to teach more effective use of language, I found that rules weren't so much helping me do that. Some people respond incredibly well to them and some rules they're certainly more creative and memorable than others, which I think is one of the many things that's great about this podcast is they're actually guidelines that stick with you. But but most style books are not like that and so I started to think a lot, both about how I could teach language more effectively and and also about what it even meant to be enforcing a certain type of dialect of English in the classroom, and whether that was cutting certain students out of conversations or making them feel like they weren't...their voices weren't necessarily welcome in the classroom. So that was on my mind a lot. And I found that, you know, I mean, one of the things that I say in the book, and you and I could probably have an interesting argument about this maybe is that I I find there are very few shortcuts to really becoming an effective stylist. So if what we want to know and be able to do when we write is communicate properly in any given context or situation, so that when I write an email to my friend, it it conveys what I want it to convey. And it sounds completely different than the email that I write to my boss asking for a raise.

MIGNON: Uh huh.

CECELIA: It's really, really hard to have a set of rules that help you do both. You really just have to study language in a kind of my new ad and very slow way, which I love. I love being able to read very closely and reflect on what a particular punctuation mark is doing for a text, what kind of poetry does it have? So I try to bring some of that now to the classroom.

MIGNON: That sounds great. So how do you balance that with also making sure your students know like the standard rules for using a semicolon? I mean, that's sort of the kind of I struggled with this when I was teaching too because I didn't teach writing. I taught mostly social, social media and entrepreneurship. So writing wasn't the primary focus of what I was teaching. But I wanted to correct errors. But in a positive way, and it was always a balance. So how do you do? How do you do that?

CECELIA: Yeah. So I tell my students straight off that when they get papers back from me, I'm not going to be correcting grammar and spelling unless they ask me specifically for it. And I'm perfectly happy to do it. If they do, ask specifically for it, I certainly understand the desire to learn more of that kind of standard academic English we could we could call it, but it's just not where I focus my energy. I feel what I want to do is look more broadly at argument to look in a kind of more expansive way at style, and frequently I've found unless a student asks for that kind of response, they can get defeated by it. They can start to think, "Oh, my God, no one can understand a word that I'm saying or a point that I'm making because I'm so bad at these technical aspects of language." And that's actually not true at all if people listen and pay attention. It's remarkable how much sense we can make of of language that really isn't standard, so to speak. 

MIGNON: OK, we're going to take a quick break for our advertisers, and when we come back, I want to talk about a pivotal role that a semicolon played in a legal dispute about drinking in, I think it was Boston. So we'll be right back.

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MIGNON: OK. Welcome back. So, Cecilia, there's this amazing anecdote in your book about a semicolon dispute that came up over I think it was drinking laws in Boston. Can you tell me more about that?

CECELIA: Yes, I love this story. I mean, it's it's so amazing for so many different reasons. So in November of 1900, a guy goes into a bar outside of Boston in a suburb, and he sees everybody in the bar is drinking and he orders a drink. And for whatever reason, the bartender decided he wasn't going to serve him in this this hotel bar. So instead of just letting it go or going to another bar, the guy's like, I'm going to sue you. And he does. He goes and gets a lawyer to take up this injustice of not having been served a cocktail. So the lawyer takes to the task. He goes and he looks at the statutes about drinking laws in, in Massachusetts, and he discovers that there is a law that appears to prohibit any kind of hotel from serving alcohol after 11:00 p.m. and, and on Sundays. And the law looks that way because it has a semicolon stuck in the middle of it. Further research is done and the lawyer discovers that originally the law had a comma instead of a semicolon. And with the comma in the law, you can actually just keep serving. So the semicolon divides the legal language in such a way that it renders the meaning of the law. Bad news for hotel owners and bars. I can actually would it be helpful if I read this, the text of the statute? I can do that.

MIGNON: Sure. Yeah. If it's not too long.

CECELIA: No, I think it's okay. Okay. So. So the lawyer discovers a law that reads this way: "That no sale of spirituous or intoxicating liquor shall be made between the hours of 11:00 at night and 6:00 in the morning semicolon, nor during the Lord's day, except that if the licensee is also licensed as an inn holder, he may supply such liquor to guests who have resorted to his house for food and lodging." Originally, it turns out that law had a comma where the semicolon now intervenes.

CECELIA: And if you put a comma there, then it could be the case that the exception that if the person, the guest who's ordering a drink, is staying with you or wants to order food, then you can just go on serving him all night. There are no hourly restrictions, but with the semicolon then the exception only appears to apply on Sundays. So what this means for bar owners and innkeepers in Boston is that all of a sudden when this case gets brought up in court, it turns out you can't serve any alcohol between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., period. So the case actually moves up through the court system all the way to the the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court decides that even though the law was mistranscribed, the semicolon was just stuck in years after the law was originally passed, they think it stands because the law had been reenacted repeatedly with the semicolon. So, yeah, Boston gets its bars shut down and people just go nuts. All of a sudden, everybody is desperate for a drink at exactly 11:00 p.m., you know, human nature being what it is that gets consistent even back even back then. Commentators were saying...

MIGNON: If you can't have it, you want it.

CECELIA: Exactly. Exactly. Everybody wants that. They can't have. And Bostonians devise all of these inventive ways to try to get around the law. So you might go into a restaurant at 6:00 p.m. and just order a stock of booze that you think would take you straight through the night and then sit there and drink it. And this led to all kinds of moral debates about the status of alcohol and what it was doing. And, oh, God, if we if we bring back the drinking hours, women will just become wild and loose. And, you know, you can't you can't trust them with liquor. So this actually goes on--debates over this for six years. And it was nationwide news. Every paper was covering it. And finally, finally, finally, the legislature decides to change the law and and put the comma back in. And of course...

MIGNON: Oh my gosh.

CECELIA: Commentators noted that, you know, after that happened, nobody actually took advantage of the new law. All of a sudden, people were perfectly happy to stop drinking at a reasonable hour. But it's it's a fantastic story, not just because it's it's it's inherently funny, I think, but also because it points out how tricky punctuation was for the law, because when that original case went up through the court system, there were two opposing precedents that the court could refer to. One said punctuation has absolutely no part in a statute. And this actually comes from English law. And I realized recently that English law is still enacted without punctuation. So this comes from our kind of like American inheritance of that legal system. This notion that punctuation is actually you just can't count it. It could have come from anywhere, and it's not standardized what it means. But there were also court cases that the courts could reach for that said, "Absolutely. Punctuation should be a guide to meaning of the statute. It has the same status as a word does." And that's...

MIGNON: Yeah, I think in modern times it definitely is important and weighed when people are trying to figure out what's what a law or statute means.

CECELIA: And that's such a tricky principle because you think about how often rule books contradict themselves. And anyway, would you be looking at rules as a guide to the intent of someone who wrote the law? Because as we know, a lot of times usage differs from whatever is being dictated as as the rule. So it's an extremely slippery principle. And in some cases...

MIGNON: Right.

CECELIA: ...you do get these wonderful funny stories from it. In other cases, I found you get horrible, very dark stories about it. There are numerous cases in which someone has been executed and an execution has gone through because of a punctuation mark. So. Yeah.

MIGNON: Wow, who knew punctuation can be so intense and important?

CECELIA: Life for life or death. Truly in some situations.

MIGNON: Wow. Wow. And so, gosh, let's move to a happier topic. So when you were doing research for the book, what what was the...what struck your fancy the most? What was I know you love this Boston spirits story; was there anything else that they that really delighted you?

CECELIA: I think one thing that I find fun doing any research that involves the 19th century is how how how brutal scholars and professionals were in their writing about each other. I mean, it's it's it's nasty...

MIGNON: Oh, right.

CECELIA: But funny to read. So you get these kind of mudslinging grammarians who are just openly insulting each other. We would consider it highly unprofessional nowadays. But this was just part and parcel of how you spoke and what you did. So to that that really go at each other.

MIGNON: Do you have an example?

CECELIA: Oh, yeah. So one of one of my favorite grammarians is a guy named Gould Brown who wrote this absolute brick of a book called "The Grammar of English Grammars," as in which he went through and he surveyed about 600 grammar books, which was just a small selection of what was on the market and selling back then. This is like early...


CECELIA: 1800s. He revises it several times because there's a big demand for his survey of grammars, and he has a nemesis. And that nemesis is a grammarian named Samuel Kirkham. And Kirkham was the bestselling author in the world for a period of a bit over a decade with his grammar book, and Gould Brown just thought Kirkham was an absolute hack and a mercenary. And he he goes at him. There must be maybe 40 or 50 pages in in Gould Brown's grammar survey devoted to just trashing Kirkham. He accuses him of plagiarism. He accuses him of not writing his own book and paying his ghostwriter very poorly. He says he's just chasing profits. And of course, Kirkham comes right back at him and says, you know, how can you call my book useless when I'm selling way more copies than you ever will? And they just they they keep coming at each other. I actually found during the process of of doing the initial research for the book, before it was a book, it was a really tiny short academic article for a journal called "Critical Inquiry." And "Critical Inquiry" fact checks all of its sources, which is great if you're an author. You have this reassurance that that you have not accidentally misquoted something. So they wanted me...

MIGNON: That is great.

CECELIA: They wanted me to verify one of my quotations from Kirkham's grammar book. And I happened to be at Columbia University at the time. And so I thought, well, I'll just go up to their special collections and get their copy of Kirkham's Grammar. And it turned out that it was Gould Brown's copy. And he had gone through Kirkham and just scratched things out and written "idiot" in the margin. And it was hilarious. You know, he was correcting all of Kirkland's propositions. So that was that was a really fun surprise.

MIGNON: Oh, what a find; that is delicious.

MIGNON: Ha! Did you take pictures?

CECELIA: I did. I did. I have them somewhere I need to rustled those up. They're pretty great. So I sent I did send the photos to the copy editor at "Critical Inquiry" and said, you know, this is...I'm...your request has been more entertaining for me than I thought.

MIGNON: Well, if you can find those, if you send me one, I'll put it on the website to go with this podcast. That'd be great. Oh, well, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. I've really enjoyed hearing about your stories about the book. And if people want to buy the book again is called "Semicolon" by Cecilia Watson, and it's available where all fine books are sold. Cecilia, why do you tell people where they can find you online? Mmm. Yes. So I'm on Twitter as Cecelia Watson. The only thing you have to watch out for is my first name is spelled a little oddly. So it's C-E-C-E-L-I-A and then Watson, W-A-T-S-O-N.. And you can also just Google me, and my web page will pop up. And I always love hearing people's stories about the semicolon, so please inundate me with them.

MIGNON: Wonderful. Thanks again.

CECELIA: Thank you so much.

MIGNON: I hope you enjoyed that! I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find all my articles at QuickAndDirtyTips.com. That’s all. Thanks for listening.