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Using punctuation to pace

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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. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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