A Dash of Style: The Period, Part 4

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

In last month's excerpt from my book, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, we discussed a few of the dangers of underuse of the period, as well as the role that context plays in punctuation. In this, the final installment, we'll continue examining the pivotal role of context, and take a look at what your usage of the period might reveal about you.

In the hands of a master like Shakespeare, the context of period placement and sentence length takes on layers of meanings--indeed, is taken to a whole new level. Let's look, for instance, at Macbeth. In a portion of Macbeth's soliloquy at the end of Act I, he debates with himself over whether he should murder his king:

He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murtherer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

As Macbeth takes a journey, so does his speech and its punctuation. Note the increasingly long sentences as Macbeth delves deeper into the horror and chaos of the contemplated deed. The first complete sentence is nearly five lines. The next sentence is over nine lines. And if, for the purpose of analyzing this speech, we consider the semicolons and colons to serve the same purpose as periods (which they could, depending on the actor), then we see even more clearly the escalation of sentence length. While Macbeth begins with a simple five-word phrase ("He's here in double trust") he culminates with a 36-word sentence (ending with "drown the wind.").

The sentence length mimics the chaotic mind of a would-be murderer. As a result of the period placement alone, we can feel Macbeth's momentum build, with the longest sentence bringing us to the very heart of murder. Indeed, that long sentence is the turning point. When it's over, Macbeth comes to the conclusion that he has "no spur / To prick the sides of my intent." He's realized it would be wrong to kill his king. And that final sentence wouldn't be "long" if a shorter sentence hadn't preceded it.

One must also consider the line breaks here. The line break in poetry is the invisible pause, might be considered stronger than a comma, yet not quite as strong as a semicolon. Sometimes poets play against this pause, breaking a line where seemingly there should be no break--but even in such a case it is deliberate. The line break is an amazingly subtle device, suggesting a pause instead of demanding one. In the hands of the right poet, the line break can help to emphasize a word or idea at the end of one line before rushing to the next; it can offer a moment of reflection. Sometimes that moment will be great, while at others it will suggest only the slightest of pauses.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote mostly in iambic pentameter, so for him the line breaks took on extra significance; some Shakespeare scholars insist that line breaks are also clues for actors, demanding they take a beat.

For Shakespeare, sentence length was not about a single thought: it was about the context of the paragraph (or stanza), the context of the moment in the play, the context of the scene, and the context of the thought process of the character. (Keep in mind, though, that analyzing Shakespeare's punctuation is problematic: it is, at best, a guess. While this example comes from the authoritative Riverside edition, there is no definitive source that proves Shakespeare's original punctuation.)

What Your Use of the Period Reveals about You

Often it's hard for writers to take a step back and gain true objectivity on their own work. Punctuation, though, never lies. Whether you like it or not, punctuation reveals the writer. Analyzing your punctuation forces you to take a step back, to gain a bird's-eye view of your own writing. It reveals a tremendous amount about your style, and about your approach to writing.
Let's take a step back now and gain that bird's-eye view. We will listen to the punctuation--not the content--and let it tell us its story. It always has a good story to tell.

The writer who overuses the period (creating consistently short sentences) tends to be action-oriented. He is fast-paced and keeps readers in mind, as he strives to grab their attention and to keep the work moving. This is to his credit. Unfortunately, he is also likely to have not yet developed a good ear for language, for the subtleties of sentence length, style, rhythm, and pitch. This writer is impatient; he is too desperate to grab the reader, and resorts to a quick-paced style to do so, rather than crafting content which is inherently dramatic. He needs confidence, and is probably young in his career. He will more likely be a commercial writer, more interested in plot than characterization, and might hail from a journalistic background, or at least be an avid reader of newspapers and magazines.

The writer who underuses the period (creating consistently long sentences) fall into two categories: either he is an amateur who thinks in an uncensored, chaotic manner, or he is a seasoned writer who crafts too-long sentences deliberately. If the latter, he is likely to be literary, to take chances and aspire to create rich prose. This bodes well. Unfortunately, though, he is also too focused on word craft, probably at the expense of pacing and plot. He writes more for himself than for readers, which can lead to self-indulgence. He is likely to be too stylized, even to lean towards pretentiousness. He is also likely to use advanced words for their own sake, and to rely too heavily on colons and semicolons.

It seems there is as much to unlearn from the great writers as there is to learn. James Joyce disliked the quotation mark, and opted for dashes instead. E. E. Cummings disliked capital letters and printed everything in lower case. Emily Dickinson used an abundance of dashes. George Bernard Shaw used an abundance of colons; Virginia Woolf, an abundance of semicolons. Melville used semicolons questionably. Gertrude Stein and Cormac McCarthy avoided commas. And Shakespeare did anything he wanted.

What can we take away from all of this? It is important to break the rules, especially when they can be as nebulous as they are in the punctuation world. Indeed, breaking the rules will enable breakthroughs in your writing, in your voice, your style, rhythm, viewpoint. Experiment as much as you can. But at the end of the day, only keep what works for the text, what best reflects the content. Breaking the rules only works when a writer has great respect for the rules he breaks.

Once you gain a good handle on the punctuation marks a creative writer needs, then the work begins. Then you must see if you can make them all work together in one grand symphony of punctuation. It will be time to put your knowledge to the test, and take a giant, first step into the world of punctuation.
As you do, remember to keep in mind two important principles. The first is that there is great merit to punctuating scarcely, only when you absolutely must. Just as word economy should be strived for, so should punctuation economy.

The second is to let your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save--it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will co-exist seamlessly, and you will never have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having such a struggle, re-examine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. In the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don't even know it's there.

Punctuating masterfully is an ongoing struggle, and the destination will always be somewhere off on the horizon. But it is a journey worthwhile. If you cultivate awareness and are willing to learn, punctuation will perpetually teach you something new about yourself. As we learned throughout the book, punctuation reveals the writer, and revelation is the first step toward self-awareness. If you are willing to listen to what the page is telling you about yourself, and humble enough to change, you will become a better writer.

Punctuation is here to point the way.


* Choose a paragraph where all of the sentences are of drastically varying length. Adjust the sentences (by either shortening or lengthening) to make them all of uniform length. How does it read now? What do you gain by this? What do you lose? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* Choose a paragraph where all of the sentences are of uniform length. Adjust the sentences (by either shortening or lengthening) to make the sentence lengths radically contrast with one another. How does it read now? What do you gain by this? What do you lose? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* Take all the principles you've just learned, and apply them to any page in your manuscript. First read it aloud, focusing on how the sentences read individually and on whether any feel too long or short. Use the principles you've learned to identify sentences which will need shortening or lengthening. If you can fix them by simply using a period, great. If you'll also need to employ a comma, semicolon, colon, or other marks, you'll find lengthy discussions of these in the book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.

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