Throwing Out the Commas

Stunning Sentences

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I felt as if she’d scooped me up and placed me in her imagined world. On my second read, I was enveloped again, but this time, I was aware of the plethora of commas, semicolons, dashes and parentheses, and how effectively they not only knit her sentences together, but pinned me to the page, propelling me deeper into the character’s mind.

Punctuation. So easy to neglect, so necessary to create style. Some of our most famous writers have strong opinions about punctuation. Gertrude Stein said of the comma, it’s “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” José Saramago refuses to douse his prose with punctuation: “Punctuation is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.”

Punctuation—or the lack of it—can create its own meaning and emotion. Here’s Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway using punctuation to create the emotional experience of Big Ben’s startling ring: “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

With the assurance of years of practice, writers eventually find courage to revolt against their English teachers and take liberties with punctuation. Such is the case with Meredith Alling in her short story collection Sing the Song. In the story “Scooter,” she omits punctuation, beautifully mimicking the machinations of the mind.

I saw a man holding a gun to a dog’s head and another man taking their picture so I stepped back and assessed like number one what is going on number two do I want to see it if this man blows this dog’s head off number three what is the other possibility here.

The obvious missing punctuation is the comma. (Stein would approve). As a result, the sentence becomes an urgent, panicky rush. The narrator’s emotional state does not include pauses for contemplation or reflection. She looked out the window and witnessed something perhaps shocking, and her mind frantically wrestles with whether the unconscionable could possibly be true.

Alling could have used at least three periods to break up this sentence. But a period would slow her down, introduce time to breathe and reflect. Instead, this 54 word sentence generates anxiety.

Alling invokes other style techniques to help create anxiety, omitting the conjunction “and” before “number two” and “number three.” This narrator is too rattled, too upset to think in complete, logical sentences. Diction, too, is doing double-duty. As the narrator attempts to understand what she is seeing, a more reasonable emotional state enters with the word “assessed,” but Alling quickly undercuts it with that little word “like.” And now we are in a more oral, raw, emotional state. We, too, are anxious—what is going on out there with the dog?

“There was a lack of punctuation from the start with this story,” said Alling. “I like to mess around with form and punctuation when I write, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

In addition to creating a sense of urgency with the punctuation, Alling said, “I also hoped to capture the way the mind works when it comes to rationalizing or normalizing situations that threaten our sense of safety. I was once in a situation where I felt afraid, but I ignored my instincts because I didn’t want to believe that I was in any kind of danger, and my instincts ended up being correct. I was in danger. While in the case of this story everything turns out fine—though not in the way the narrator predicted—I wanted to do something with that idea of rationalization.”

I asked Alling to pick a favorite sentence from her debut collection. She chose one from the story “Lady Legs.”

The mushy knees clenched and released.

“I like this sentence for a lot of reasons,” she said. “I like conjuring an image of a knee as mushy—as a squishy, puffy body part rather than a hard, boney one. And ‘clenched and released’—most people can translate this motion; they’ve done it. In the context of this sentence, it’s a quick and sharp movement—it’s one clench, one release—and because of that there’s an energy to it that when paired with this fleshy body part takes on a density that feels both full and light.”

It’s also a fresh, unexpected image, and though it’s a short sentence, it lingers in the reader’s mind, like the stories in Alling’s new collection.

Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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