Few sentences suffer from the abuse of periods
December 3, 2013
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.”
“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.
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.