The Virtues of the Semicolon; or, Rebellious Punctuation

Cecelia Watson in Literary Hub:

In 1906, Dutch writer Maarten Maartens—acclaimed in his lifetime but now mostly forgotten—published a surreal, satirical novel called The Healers. The book centers on one Professor Lisse, who has conjured up a potential bioweapon: the Semicolon Bacillus, an “especial variety of the Comma.” The doctor has killed hundreds of rabbits demonstrating the Semicolon’s toxicity, but, at the beginning of the novel, he hasn’t yet succeeded in getting his punctuation past the human immune system, which destroys Semicolons instantly as soon as they enter the mouth.

Maartens wrote at a time when the semicolon was still an exceptionally popular punctuation mark—so popular that grammarians forecast the extinction of the colon, which 19th-century writers had abandoned in favor of semicolons. “The colon is now so seldom used by good writers,” an 1843 grammar pronounced, “that rules for its use are unnecessary.”

Not everyone was so sanguine about the trendy semicolon shouldering colons off the page; one of the 19th-century’s most accomplished grammarians, Goold Brown, tried to rescue the colon by urging writers that their beloved semicolons depended on the colon for sense.

More here.