Cecelia Watson: “Points of Contention”

In late November of 1900, a spat broke out in Fall River, Massachusetts. “It was an unimportant, picayune sort of a personal quarrel,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “but it has had results of the greatest and most widespread importance.” The events were as follows: a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts walked into a hotel at 11:10 PM and ordered a drink. The hotel owner, aware that the man had been patronizing a rival hotel, decided to spite him by refusing him his drink, even though other patrons were being served. Thus denied, the man threatened to sue for discrimination; and on the following day he made good on his promise, retaining the services of a lawyer, who looked up the statute on liquor sales, which read:
“That no sale of spirituous or intoxicating liquor shall be made between the hours of 11 at night and 6 in the morning; nor during the Lord’s day, except that if the licensee is also licensed as an Innholder he may supply such liquor to guests who have resorted to his house for food and lodging.”

Based on this statute, the lawyer filed an injunction against the Fall River hotel owner, to prevent him from selling to anyone between 11 PM and 6 AM. A local judge granted the injunction, whereupon the hotel owner appealed the decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Before the supreme court justices, the hotel owner’s attorney argued that the semicolon “was meant to be and should be construed, as a matter of fact, of being a comma.” In support of this claim, he noted that the law as originally passed in 1875 had contained a comma where the semicolon now intervened. The comma in the 1875 law was changed to a semicolon during “consolidation” of Massachusetts statutes in 1880. These consolidated statutes were presented to the legislature in 1881 and enacted with the semicolon in place. But because the 1875 parchment original of the law showed a comma, the whole debacle was an error of transcription, claimed the innkeeper’s attorney.

Find out who won, the comma or the semicolon, in faculty member Cecelia Watson’s forthcoming piece, “Points of Contention: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Punctuation”>>