A Dash of Style: The Period

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

In celebration of the paperback release of Noah Lukeman's seminal guide to punctuation, A Dash of Style, The Writers Store is pleased to present a four part series of excerpts from the book.

Some authors, like Camus, Carver and Ernest Hemingway, used the period frequently. Others, like Faulkner, were sparing. Why? What possible difference can the placement of a period make? Does punctuation, in general, really have enough of an impact to warrant the toil of master authors? The answer is yes. And any discussion of punctuation must begin with a discussion of the period.

The period is the stop sign of the punctuation world. By providing a boundary, a period delineates a thought. Its presence divides and its absence connects. To employ it is to make a statement; to leave it out, equally so. All other punctuation marks exist only to modify what lies between two periods--they are always restrained by it, and must act in the context of it. To realize its power, simply imagine a book without any periods. Or one with a period after every word. As such, the period also sets the tone for style and pacing.

How to use it

Although short sentences (created by frequent period usage) tend to be dismissed as amateur or juvenile, there are times when short sentences work well, when a work can even demand such a style. In some instances, to achieve a certain effect, it is more natural for a period to be used heavily. A few:

* The beginning or ending of a chapter or book. A short sentence can be used to hook a reader and to add a heightened sense of drama. Consider the opening of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

Or of Patrick Quinlan's novel Slow Burn:

Earlier that night a man's brains had been blownout.

Or of Phyllis Moore's short story "The Things They Married":

First, she married herself.

Beginnings and endings allow room for dramatic license, and for breaks in style.

* Short sentences can deliver a "bang" which long sentences cannot. They also help emphasize a point that might get glossed over in a longer sentence, and help create contrast by breaking up a series of longer sentences. The short sentence in the following example achieves all three of these effects:

Charlotte knew the time had come to tell her boss how she really felt, to let him know that she wouldn't take it a second longer. She slammed open her door and marched down the hall, past the unbelieving faces of the secretaries, and right into her boss's office. She looked into his eyes, summoned all of her courage and took a deep breath.
She couldn't speak.

Or consider this example from Ralph Ellison's short story "Battle Royal":

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive.

The final sentence in this example would not have the same impact if it were as long as the sentences that preceded it.

* Short sentences can work well in the midst of dialogue exchanges, helping to move the action at a fast clip. Consider this example from Raymond Carver's short story "Night School":

My marriage had just fallen apart. I couldn't find a job. I had another girl. But she wasn't in town. So I was at a bar having a glass of beer, and two women were sitting a few stools down, and one of them began to talk to me.
"You have a car?"
"I do, but it's not here," I said.
My wife had the car. I was staying at my parents' place. I used their car sometimes. But tonight I was walking.

Carver was master of the short sentence, and his talents are on display here. Notice how he also uses short sentences preceding and following the dialogue exchange. At first glance these four-word sentences might seem juvenile; but they achieve the desired effect, each hammering home a significant point, and doing so in rapid succession.

* Short sentences can be used to keep the pace moving at a fast clip in general. This might be necessary, for example, in an action sequence:

He turned the corner and sprinted down the alley. They were getting closer, fifty feet behind him. He kicked at the door. It wasn't giving. He put his shoulder to it. It gave with a groan and he stumbled inside. Stairs went up and down. He could hear them coming. He had to choose.

* On a more sophisticated level, short sentences can be used to complement the overall intention of the text. Consider this example from Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Lame Shall Enter First":

Sheppard kept his intense blue eyes fixed on him. The boy's future was written in his face. He would be a banker. No, worse. He would operate a small loan company.

The short sentences capture the feeling of Sheppard's thought process. Each stop represents another twist in his thoughts, his reaching another conclusion. We actually feel him thinking as he goes, each period hammering it home. The time it allows us between thoughts is crucial, since Sheppard's conclusions change with every thought: we need time to digest. Without the periods, the observations would blur, and we wouldn't feel the thought process. Because of them, we feel he's thinking long and hard about the boy.
Camus also uses short sentences to great effect in the opening of his work The Stranger:

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours." That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

The short sentences here serve many purposes. To begin with, these are the opening lines of the book and help to draw readers in; they establish what will be the overall tone and style of the entire book; and on the more sophisticated level (which a master like Camus would have had in mind) they complement the overall meaning and intention of the text. The feeling evoked is clipped, matter-of-fact. Throughout The Stranger the narrator is also matter-of-fact about his mother's death, which turns out to be the crux of the story, and even the unnamed reason he is put to death. To further his intention, Camus immediately quotes a telegram, in which the short sentences mimic the short sentences of the narrator. (Keep in mind, though, that the above example is a translation from the French; quoting literature in translation--such as The Stranger--is inherently problematic, since numerous translators punctuate to their own fancy. That said, translators can only change a text so much, and the writer's intention remains.)

Hemingway was another master of the short sentence. Consider this example from his short story "Soldier's Home":

He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without any consequences. Because he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that. It was all right to pose as though you had to have a girl. Nearly everybody did that. But it wasn't true. You did not need a girl. That was the funny thing.

With an author like Hemingway, the period is never used heavily for its own sake, but always because it serves a greater purpose. In this case, each period hammers home a thought in the soldier's head, and does so in such a way as to suggest his being deeply affected by the war, even shell shocked. The repetition of the content ("consequences" used three times in the first three sentences) also helps to achieve this effect.

Rick Moody is a gifted modern author known for his bold experimentation with prose and style. His book Purple America, for instance, begins with a sentence that stretches for pages before reaching a period. Consider the example below from his novel The Ice Storm which, ironically, displays his abundant use of the period:

No answering machines. And no call waiting. No Caller I.D. No compact disc recorders or laser discs or holography or cable television or MTV. No multiplex cinemas or word processors or laser printers or modems. No virtual reality.

He could have chosen to separate these thoughts with merely a comma, or even a semicolon. By choosing periods, he allows each to sink in, more effectively cutting us off from the modern world.


Following are a few exercises, which I offer throughout the book, to enable you to experiment with sentence construction. What you are really experimenting with is different approaches to writing, which in turn will spark different ways of thinking. The ramifications should lead far beyond the sentence itself.

* Start a new story, and let the opening sentence run for at least one page. Where does this lead you? How did you compensate? Did you find a new narration style? Did it allow you more creative freedom? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?

* Start a new story, and don't let any sentence run for more than six words. Where does this lead you? How did you compensate? Did you find a new narration style? Did it allow you more creative freedom? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?

* Imagine a character who thinks in long sentences. Who would this be? Why would such a character think in this way? Capture his or her viewpoint on the page, using long sentences. Do the long sentences help bring out who the character is? Do they make the text feel one and the same with the character? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?

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