Fascinating Rhythm: In Praise of Punctuation

Alice Lowe

Alice Lowe

My penchant for punctuation goes back to childhood. I’ve always heard punctuation when I read, struck by its versatility and musicality. My father and I—the music and linguistic enthusiasts in the family—used to watch Victor Borge whenever he appeared on the Ed Sullivan or Dean Martin show. He was a skilled pianist and a clever wit—a compelling combination—and along with his performance of a Hungarian Rhapsody or Chopin’s Minute Waltz, we looked forward to his “phonetic punctuation.” Borge invented sounds for each punctuation mark in order to heighten their impact: “pttt” and “fshh” and “tchk,” singly and in combination (a period followed by a comma make a semicolon). After a demonstration, he would read a passage of punctuated prose. Our shared affinity remained a bond between us over the years, a straw to grasp after we’d run out of things to say to each other.

Punctuation is the percussion of language, its syncopation. More subtle than Borge’s interjections, I hear punctuation as rhythm. The cadenced comma-like pulse of maracas or the thumping periods of the timpani. The explosive exclamation of the cymbal! What percussion is to music—without it Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would be colorless, “In the Mood” monotonous—punctuation is to prose and poetry. These marks, so miniscule yet so mighty, add color, command and nuance to the written word, but they must be used with skill and discretion: too little might sound flat, while a passage punctuated by too many dots and dashes—like a message in Morse Code—can be as jarring to the sensibilities as congas during an adagio.

I’m partial to the spirited animation of marimbas, the underlying complexity of snare drums, the timpani’s depth and authority. In the same way, my favorite punctuation marks heighten the effect of the words and sentences they complement. They’re a welcome sight to my eyes and ears. I hear them when I read, silently or aloud. They make me tap my feet, pay closer attention, pause and ponder.

*

I think in semicolons. My ruminations don’t come preformed in complete sentences with subjects, verbs and objects, beginning with capital letters and ending with full stops—as the English call periods—the hexagonal red symbols of written language. My contemplations appear in fragments; they start and pause and pick up again; they change directions and double back on themselves; sometimes they s-lo-w d-o-w-n and come to a near halt (as you may be inclined to do at a stop sign when no cars are in sight); and then plunge ahead.

Punctuation enthusiasts are not neutral about semicolons. George Orwell vilified them; Gertrude Stein called them pretentious—fancy commas with a “comma nature.” In Eats Shoots & Leaves (a book for punctuation pedants), punctuation is an art. Author Lynn Truss doesn’t find much creative impulse in the manipulation of apostrophes and commas; their use is dictated by rules. Semicolons, on the other hand, “waft over sentences to new altitudes, allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop.” Strunk and White agree in the indispensable Elements of Style, observing that the semicolon is “one of the most useful devices of composition.” With, I would add, its own quirky semicolon nature.

*

The dash—em-dash or M-dash—can be the perfect emphasis (M-phasis?). A dash is a visual accent, a welcome interruption—it’s a long boldly-colored scarf on a plain black tunic, plum lipstick on a pale face. But it also can convey subtlety. Take this poem by Emily Dickinson, who uses dashes to great effect:

I wonder if it hurts to live,

and if they have to try,

And whether—could they choose between—

it would not be to die.

 

Her dashes add visual pizzazz to the page; they make you stop and think about the phrase they contain. Now read it aloud—the poignant pause, the sharp intake of breath—you can hear those dashes.

Dashes in pairs, as in Dickinson’s poem and my observation that follows it, could be replaced by parentheses or a pair of commas, as here, but it wouldn’t sound the same. It wouldn’t reverberate. A dash may be used in place of a semicolon—in many instances (like this one) they accomplish the same thing, but the dash arouses a more vivid sensation. The dash is—how else can I say it—dashing. “Dashing,” meaning stylish, striking, making a bold statement.

I read an essay about aging by Doris Grumbach. She observes that punctuation changes as we get older, that we lose fervor, and with it, exclamation marks. But like personality, she says, dashes remain—they assert our individuality. With dashes we can be reflective or dramatic; we can equivocate. “I believe thus-and-thus—but on the other hand …”

*

Ah, the ellipsis…! It tends to be overlooked outside of its conventional usage, that of denoting an incomplete sentence or a partial quotation—“how do I love thee…”—but it says so much more. Ellipses are the “yadda yadda,” the “et cetera” of written language. They’re compelling forms of expression in their open-endedness. And you can hear them. When a sentence, complete or incomplete, audibly trails off, dot dot dot, that’s an ellipsis.

Ellipses leave readers wanting more, a “to be continued” that makes the pulse quicken: “When he caught sight of her, she was poised on the edge of the cliff….” Ford Madox Ford, who liked ellipses, included one in the title of his novel Some Do Not…. What is not said may be as poignant as what is said. Virginia Woolf seasons her work liberally with ellipses—as literal spaces and signs, to denote the passage of time, as communication without words. She invokes them directly, referring to “those dots.” Dots that mark the spot, a gulf or precipice, of which she says: “I have been sitting on my side of it wondering whether it is any use to try to speak across it.” With ellipses you’re saying that you could go on and on, but you’ll stop here for now….

*

I didn’t start writing until after retirement, and when it took hold, I became excited about my newfound power to assert my voice, have my say. My writing life coincided with my fascination with the aging process, having no choice but to observe it firsthand. Doris Grumwold’s ideas about aging and punctuation resonate. There’s a commonality among the punctuation marks I’ve come to favor—semicolon, dash, and ellipsis—and it’s saying something about me at this time in my life. These marks seem to insist: “Hey, I’m not finished here—I’m still going strong….

*

I’m a Virginia Woolf admirer and non-academic scholar; her voice captivated me twenty years ago and hasn’t stopped doing so. I’ve studied and admired the way she used punctuation for rhythm, intensity, pacing, fluidity, nuance, whimsy, mood, proportion. Her tendency to pepper her prose thusly has been praised by some, while others find it erratic, idiosyncratic, even pathological. Academic Woolfians—always keen to gnaw on a bone of contention—have scrutinized and picked over it. In a volume of conference proceedings, I found a paper entitled “Semicolons and Safety Pins.” It hypothesized a relationship between her use of the semicolon—interpreted as a stop/start signal—and the childhood sexual abuse that is widely thought to have stultified her sexuality. As a semicolon enthusiast, the assertion got my attention, but I dismissed any personal implications and wrote it off as an example of academese. Ursula LeGuin analyzes passages from Jane Austen, noting the rhythm established by the length of sentences and the placement of commas, dashes and colons: in Pride and Prejudice, “a kind of dancing gait;” in the more mature Persuasion, a “brief, strong, quiet cadence.” (I hear snare drums.) LeGuin contrasts her own style of language with Ernest Hemingway’s. He had many guns, several spouses, and a beard. He wrote short sentences. They ended with periods. Whereas she—without weapons, wives or whiskers—takes pride in full, flowing sentences and syntax. She doesn’t think Hem had much use for syntax or semicolons, whereas “I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now.”

Punctuation serves as psychological fodder to examine fictional characters as well as their authors. A paper at a George Eliot assembly explored how punctuation demonstrates Maggie Tolliver’s emotional stability in Mill on the Floss. When she is beset by temptation and doubt—in the form of Stephen Guest—her speech is erratic, agitated, punctuated by dashes. As her more rational self, she speaks in an orderly manner, smoother, with periods, colons and semicolons. The percussion is subdued, legato.

*

Starting at age seven, I devoted much of my youth to serious piano study. I recall how empowered I felt when I discovered the versatility and expressiveness of the pedals and mastered their variations—muffled for somber effects here, brittle and choppy there. I didn’t equate them to punctuation then, but it’s obvious to me now. I quit the piano at thirteen, to my father’s dismay; his influence over me had waned by then. He told me I would regret it, and of course I did, years later. Little remains of my childhood aptitude, but I still have a piano, a small spinet that sits across the room from my desk in patient quietude, awaiting my sporadic attentions. As I think about punctuation and percussion, about drums and dashes, I turn from my computer and roll my chair over to that other keyboard. My fingers become drumsticks; I see and hear and feel the percussive progression of keys and hammers.

Consider Chopin—I’m still able to play three preludes and one waltz from a book, “14 of his Easiest Piano Selections”—how he punctuated his compositions, using every tool at his disposal with the exacting eye of a surgeon and an artist’s flowing creativity. Listen to the etudes, the interweaving of staccato and legato phrasing, his pedaling and timing, his virtuosic evocation of passion and power, mourning and meditation.

It’s the same with language. I turn to Woolf again. On the first page of To the Lighthouse, she uses eleven commas to create a smooth 100-word sentence; she follows it with one consisting of five words before a full stop: “It was fringed with joy.” And then 105 words, paced and spaced by fourteen commas and one dash. With symmetry and authority, her dashes and semicolons and ellipses and parentheses (even parentheses within parentheses and mid-sentence exclamation marks!) dance through paragraphs and pages, they skip and leap and weave.

I watch a few Victor Borge clips on YouTube; they’re still fresh and funny. In my search I find an update of sorts, “Punctuation” by rapper LL Cool J for the reincarnated Electric Company in 2010. He intones that “when you see a punctuation mark you have to know what to do.” There’s no melody, just a driving tempo: “Fascinating rhythm, you’ve got me on the go; fascinating rhythm, I’m all a-quiver…”

6 Comments

  1. De-light-ful!

  2. Hallelujah!! Vindicated, at last…

  3. I can never tire of such quirky prose. Well done, and quite to the ‘point.’

  4. A fascinating post. A keeper. Words sing and punctuation gives them rhythm. I belong to the camp of full, flowing sentences and syntax. Also love semi-colons.

  5. Entertaining and erudite — now there’s a compelling combination. Thanks for the read and for the accolades for ellipses … my current favorite, as well.

  6. This was awesome. Your prose is so pretty and emotional. Thank you for writing this, Ms. Lowe.

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