I am currently reading a very interesting paper on the history of the semicolon [Cecilia Watson’s 2012 paper “Points of Contention; Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Punctuation", Critical Inquiry, 38, pp. 649-672] and it says something very interesting fact about the historical development of English Grammar: that as the written English language developed its autonomy from speech, the way grammarians conceived of its rules – in particular, its rules of punctuation – also changed from:
- telling us how different aspects of the written language corresponded to aspects of speech
- describing the actual way people write
- telling us how better to use the written language to enhance communication
Thus, for example, the semicolon used to be at first explained as corresponding to a pause (longer than the comma, but shorter than the point) that is, as corresponding to an element of speech. Then, it became something writers used for several different purposes, while new we conceive of the semicolon as a resource of the written language that has a proper rule-governed function and that we can use to better get our message across. In particular, rules of punctuation no longer merely marks pauses in speech, but serve "to make the structural attributes of the sentence clear" (Watson 2012, 658).
The particular case of the semicolon is not important in itself, but what it tells us about rule, in general, I think is very profound. It tells us a lot about the roles rules play in practices and how these roles change as the practice matures and becomes autonomous (or not). So we can hypothesise that as practices mature, the roles rules play in them change accordingly:
- First. they tell us how aspects of the practice relate or correspond to analogous aspects in other, more entrenched, similar, practices. This makes sense at the beginning, when practices are new, and people need to familiarise with them.
- Then, as more people engage in the practice and a normal common way of engaging in it emerges, rules are conceived as describing what people actually do.
- And finally, as the practice becomes more mature and autonomous, rules are conceived as revealing the practice’s underlying logic, i.e., how different aspects of it contribute to its accomplishing its goals in a rational way (or, even better, how practitioners can exploit different features of the practice in order to reach their goals in a more efficient and efficacious way). [Thanks to Ian Cross for calling my attention to this last point].