Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Using punctuation to pace

Ernest Hemingway is famous for his use of short sentences to build tension, as in this example from A Farewell to Arms, describing Catherine Barkley’s childbirth:

She won’t die. She’s just having a bad time. The initial labor is usually protracted. She’s only having a bad time. 

The staccato style of the sentences builds a hold-your-breath tension. 

Other writers pack everything into a single breathless exhale. One of my favorite examples is from Brian Doyle’s essay “His Last Game,” writing about a drive with his brother: 

We drove through the arboretum checking on the groves of ash and oak and willow trees, which were still where they were last time we looked, and then we checked on the wood duck boxes in the pond, which still seemed sturdy and did not feature ravenous weasels that we noticed, …

Punctuation-wise, most of us fall between these two extremes. We are neither staccato nor breathless.
That’s just the first half of the sentence.

Punctuation-wise, most of us fall between these two extremes. We are neither staccato nor breathless. Instead, we use punctuation to establish a comfortable pace for readers by grouping and emphasizing certain chunks of information. And as we edit our own work, from first to final draft, we see how small differences in punctuation come together to create larger effects.

Here are two versions of a paragraph from the opening chapter of my book Sorry About That. The section describes the encounter between Oprah Winfrey and writer James Frey after the deceptions in Frey’s A Million Little Pieces had come to light. Oprah had defended Frye at first, felt betrayed as the facts of the deception came to light, and angrily led him through his lies on her program. She later felt bad and invited him back for an on-air apology. The paragraph begins with the assertion that we share some traits with Oprah and James Frey.

We are all a bit like Oprah and James Frey: we make mistakes, misspeak, mislead, and misbehave. We can be inconsiderate, rude, and even offensive. Some of us lie and cheat and steal, and some people kill or commit historic crimes.

We are all a bit like Oprah and James Frey. We make mistakes. We misspeak, mislead, and misbehave. We can be inconsiderate, rude, and even offensive. Some of us lie and cheat and steal. And some people kill or commit historic crimes.

Do you have a preference? 

I preferred the second version. In the first, mistakes, misspeaking, misleading and misbehaving are all clumped together and the colon seems to attribute all of them to Oprah and Frey. In the second, the comparison is more focused: we are like Orpah and James Frey because we all make mistakes. In the first paragraph too, lying, cheating, stealing, killing and historic crimes are all in the same sentence. In the second paragraph, the most serious offenses are separated from less serious ones, and the punctuation maps the severity of the offenses. 

Here is another, less complicated, punctuation choice:

When we face our transgressions, we often feel the need (or are called upon) to apologize. 

When we face our transgressions, we often feel the need—or are called upon—to apologize.

The contrast is between parentheses and dashes. In the first, the parentheses make the phrase “or are called upon”a whisper to the reader, a confidential aside. In the second, the dashes emphasize those words—signaling the contrast between feeling the need to apologize and being called upon to do so. Commas would have been a middle-of-the-road choice, but that option would have left the intention less specific—neither an aside nor an emphatic.

Finally, consider this pair:

Some of us apologize well and use language to repair relationships and restore respect; others apologize poorly and our insincerity leaves transgressions unresolved or even causes new harm.

Some of us apologize well and use language to repair relationships and restore respect. Others apologize poorly and our insincerity leaves transgressions unresolved or even causes new harm.

These differ only in that the first has a semicolon while the second uses a period. What’s the difference? The first can be read as imputing a closer connection to the two clauses—perhaps even a silent however. The second treats the sentences as standing on their own, which affords the last clause a bit more emphasis. As you revise and edit your work, think about the choices that punctuation affords for the pace of paragraphs and sentences. 

But don’t overdo it. There is a story about the famous prose stylist Joseph Conrad that goes like this: When Conrad emerged from his study after a morning of writing, his wife asked what he had done. He said, “I took out a comma.” The story is most likely apocryphal—or at least I hope it is.

Featured image credit: Black and White Typewriter by Matt Williams. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Continue reading . . . […]

  2. Lionl Burman

    Punctuation is sometimes a contentious issue.. Consider the controversy over Wordsworth’s punctuation, or the problems of converting Blake’s usage to contemporary norms. I get lost in Proust’s long paragraphs and have to re-read them to get the sense.
    Currently reading Jane Austen’s last novels I noticed her frequent use of parenthasis.

  3. Laura Cameron

    Excellent article. As a copyeditor myself, I know well the drama that tinkering with someone else’s punctuation can produce. More vexing are the changes I make simply to appease the SEO gods that rate websites by readability and down-vote complex, compound sentences. (To say nothing of the quarrels between AP and CMoS devotees…)

    By the way, I’d not heard the comma story attributed to Conrad before, but rather to Henry James. It made me curious who else it had been attributed to and found a deep dive at the Quote Investigator (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/10/25/comma/) that puts it in the mouth of — of all people — Oscar Wilde.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *