Few sentences suffer from the abuse of periods

Periods

The only reason the English language has punctuation marks is to give clarity to the written word.

Clarity is the watchword of good writing.

Take this sentence. “Being a woman, he knew she would like perfume.”

Wrong? Right?

Wrong.

“Because he knew she was a woman he thought she would like perfume.”

That is just an example of a misplaced modifier.

But if we throw out examples of dangling participles and such, we still have to deal with the tried and true bedrock mark of punctuation: the period.

A period is nothing more than a full stop.

Most writing would benefit from more full stops.

The period’s cousin, the comma, is an altogether different beast.

The comma is an all purpose mark that is best understood as a pause, a place in a sentence to catch one’s breath.

An exclamation point is a demon from hell.

As I have written on other occasions, I hate exclamation points.  I see absolutely no use for them in good writing.  If an author wants me to understand that something in a story is urgent, he should do that with words, not by sneaking in exclamation points as a way of cheating.

As a matter of fact, when I encounter an exclamation point in someone’s writing, I quit reading.

Back to the period.

Some writers assume that the power of periods means they should use them often, after every few words they write.

That’s not what I am talking about.

A long sentence can be as good as or better than a short one.

The power of periods comes from knowing where to end a thought.

That’s easier said than done.

If a writer is describing a scene, he may find himself stringing word after word together, avoiding a nasty period, as if the quality of the sentence is graded by the number of words.

Again, let me say that it is not the number of words before a period that determines the quality of it.  It is the clarity of the sentence that counts.

A small number of writers can retain a sentence’s clarity through many words.

Most of us have a better chance of making our writing clear if we use periods liberally.

“That’s makes for choppy writing,” you say.

Not really.

A fifteen word sentence that comes to a full stop is hardly choppy.  If the author is one who believes no really good sentence has less than twenty-five words, she may feel like a fifteen-worder is abrupt.

I doubt her readers would share her view.

Readers don’t want to have a diagram a sentence in order to understand it.  They can endure an occasional run of words, but not a steady diet of dense prose that leaves no white space on the page.

Plus, if an author knows when to call it quits in a sentence, he can use his economy of words to prepare the reader for a blast of verbiage when the time is right.

The period is the key to rhythm in writing.  It provides the percussion that underlies the melody.

 

, , , ,

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Great post, Stephen. What you have presented is the foundation of good, crisp, quality writing. Readers want authors to tell a story. Quick and simple. Some writers merely want to show off and throw out the kinds of sentences that are Faulkner in length. The difference is this: Faulkner knew what he was doing and could get away with it. Wading through long, unwieldy sentences is like fighting your way through quicksand. Writing with short, clean sentences and a lot of periods allows readers to run through the story.

  • Sentence length – and punctuation – are all part of pacing, a difficult art to teach because it is part of the whole, rather than of individual sentences. A sense of slowing down and speeding up makes the writing more effective at telling a story – that’s how oral storytellers do it.

    Another reason for doing a lot of reading – to pick up how other authors do it, and whether it is working.

    I don’t think exclamation points – or dashes, ellipses, colons, and semicolons – are the spawn of the devil. But I do think they are easy to misuse, and a mark of lazy writing in many cases. Exclamation points should be VERY rare – but they still have their uses. (Now you have me going back to my own writing to see if I use any.)

    • Alicia,
      Elmore Leonard in his ten rules of writing actually lists exclamation mark abuse. He said one should not use more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. I think that is two or three too many. (lol)

      • Promise – I’ll evaluate every one. I think I have some as speech markers for forced or perky dialogue. Some people speak like that.

        But I’ll check every single one. Do NOT want to irritate readers who care.

        Now, about MY pet peeves…

  • jack43

    My first editor and publisher complained that I wrote like a lawyer. Well, what did he expect? I was trained to be a lawyer. Though I never practiced law, I practiced arguing, a lot of arguing. I could write page-long sentences (even some that spanned multiple pages) without a period anywhere in site. Yes, they were grammatically correct and communicated accurately (if you had the endurance to parse them for yourself). But, that’s the job of a writer, isn’t it? To parse the story into bit-sized pieces?

    I’m more generous with periods these days. I no longer write like a lawyer. That was beaten out of me. However, I still abuse semi-colons. My wife is beating that bad habit out of me.

    • Jack,
      The best description I have heard of punctuation marks was from a professor whose lectures about writing great sentences I listened to on a long road trip. He said it was all about the length of the pause. A period is a full stop, a colon is next longest, a semi-colon is shorter than those two but longer than a comma. I think he is probably right about that, but whenever I consider adding a semi-colon I cringe because I know I am about to screw it up. If you see a semi-colon in my writing, it is because someone else much braver than I dropped it in during an edit. Once it’s in, I dare not mess with it.

      • jack43

        I wish I lived in your world. It seems so simple. Unfortunately, my use of punctuation is arbitrated by stricter rules [ http://bit.ly/1clFPD7 ] and my wife is my judge, jury, and executioner. Thus, if I abuse punctuation, blame her.

        • But just look at it this way. At least you don’t have to take a long trip to get your rear end kicked.

Related Posts