A Defense of the Semicolon and Other Adventures in the English Language


The American Fight Over the English Language
By Peter Martin

Martin’s account of the dictionary feuds of the 19th century is as lively and entertaining as the battle itself. In one corner was Noah Webster; in the other, Joseph Emerson Worcester. Both seasoned lexicographers, they realized that Americans were coining new words, using old ones in new ways and preserving usages the British had dropped. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary, even updated, wouldn’t do. America needed its own dictionary. But who would write it?

The battle was drawn in 1828 and lasted for decades, as a succession of dictionaries by Webster and Worcester fought it out in the marketplace. Everyone took sides: journalists, politicians, literary lions, even universities (Yale for Webster, Harvard for Worcester). The contest effectively ended in 1864, when George and Charles Merriam triumphantly published a “Webster’s” celebrated by all. Worcester died the following year, and his dictionaries faded away. So Noah Webster won, right? Wrong.

Martin, whose books include biographies of Johnson and James Boswell, portrays Webster as a crank and an embarrassingly flawed lexicographer. Worcester, on the other hand, was a solid, meticulous scholar familiar with the latest advances in etymology and philology. His reputation grew as Webster’s waned. After Webster died in 1843, the shrewd Merriams kept the brand alive only by “taking Webster out of Webster.” Over the next two decades, they essentially Worcesterized the dictionary that bore Webster’s name. In the end, neither had the last word.
358 pp. Princeton University. $29.95.

A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language
By Amanda Montell

It’s not news that the changing landscape of gender is sweeping language along with it — pronouns and more. What’s new about Montell’s book is that it takes us down some of this landscape’s less traveled paths. Women, for example, can be just as vulgar and one-upping as men. Insults are essential, but they need to be less gender-oriented (try scatology instead). And Montell has lots to say about “queer language”: why there’s so much gay male slang and so little lesbian slang; why some gay men speak with a “gay voice,” though there’s no lesbian equivalent.

A feminist linguist and self-described “word geek,” Montell reminds us of much that we already know. Words like “scientist” and “surgeon” are assumed to refer to men by default. Insults for women far outnumber those for men. In conversation, women and men behave very differently, and men tend to be the piggy ones. In language, as in so much else, women get the short end of the stick. But Montell goes beyond generalities to cite hard evidence, and the numbers are eye-popping: Even female Supreme Court justices can’t speak without being interrupted.

Her delivery is light and humorous: “I proudly identify as nasty, a bitch and a slut.” But some of the breeziness is overdone (“It wasn’t until that crazy William the Conqueror busted onto the English-speaking scene”), and she overuses “dude” as a synonym for “man.” But the lesson is serious and cannot be overstated: In countless ways, gender affects how we talk and how others hear us.
291 pp. Harper Wave. $26.99.

The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
By Cecelia Watson

Pity the poor semicolon, punctuation’s wallflower, wrongfully maligned and too seldom asked to dance. Fortunately, this modest little powerhouse has found its defender. Watson sweeps away the myths that have sidelined the semicolon — it’s not snooty, not rulebound — and demonstrates what impressive chops it has.

A historian and a philosopher of science, she is a witty, elegant writer with no nonsense about her. Forget the “rules,” she says; just listen. In example after example — from the majesty of Melville to the brutal Glasgow slang of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” — the semicolon is a miracle of prosody. It can create rhythm and structure; can be weighty or breathless; can hold a sentence back or flick it forward “like a stone skipping across water.” A semicolon can be like a sigh. In a stunning passage from “The Big Sleep,” Raymond Chandler’s semicolon is a small hiccup of heartbreak.

Great writers, Watson says, break the rules that would dole out semicolons as if they were “a controlled substance.” Her message is that punctuation is not about limits; it’s about making language richer.
213 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. $19.99.

How to Bring People Over to Your Side
By Trish Hall

The most sobering truth in this book is that truth is not persuasive, because beliefs are impervious to facts. “It’s not realistic to think that if only people knew the truth, they would do the right thing,” Hall says. And no, this state of affairs did not arrive with the present administration. Hall, a former editor of The Times’s Op-Ed page, convincingly demonstrates that beliefs always outweigh facts, whether the believers are educated or uneducated, liberal or conservative “or something else altogether.” That’s the human condition. So what’s an opinion writer — or anybody, for that matter — to do?

Hall is a skilled and insightful writer who knows how persuasion happens. Many of her pointers involve knowing, respecting and finding common ground with your audience — then playing on their feelings. But her book isn’t just about writing; it’s about influencing anyone at all, whether in writing or in life. (In one anecdote, she describes an argument with her husband and tells us why she blew it.)

Along the way, a few mysteries are unraveled: why lies on Twitter are more popular than facts; why Republicans are better persuaders than Democrats. Hall also explains how things work at Op-Ed (so called because it’s opposite the editorial page), and shares some inside baseball about memorable essays by the rich, the famous and the neither. (Putin’s piece was a nail-biter.)206 pp. Liveright. $26.95.


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