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Posted, May. 4, 2004
Updated, May. 4, 2004


QuickLink: A62972

Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says, "Look at me."

Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" advises the writer to "Place emphatic words in a sentence at the end," which offers an example of its own rule. The most emphatic word appears at "the end." Application of this tool –- an ancient rhetorical device –- will improve your prose in a flash.

In any sentence, the comma acts as a speed bump and the period as a stop sign. At the period, the thought of the sentence is completed. That slight pause in reading flow magnifies the final word. This effect is intensified at the end of a paragraph, where the final words often adjoin white space. In a column of type, the reader's eyes are drawn to the words next to the white space.

Emphatic word order helps the news writer solve the most difficult problems. Consider this news lead from The Philadelphia Inquirer. The writer must make sense of three powerful news elements: the death of a United States Senator, the collision of aircraft, and a tragedy at an elementary school:

A private plane carrying U.S. Sen. John Heinz collided with a helicopter in clear skies over Lower Merion Township yesterday, triggering a fiery, midair explosion that rained burning debris over an elementary school playground.

Seven people died: Heinz, four pilots, and two first-grade girls at play outside the school. At least five people on the ground were injured, three of them children, one of whom was in critical condition with burns.

Flaming and smoking wreckage tumbled to the earth around Merion Elementary School on Bowman Avenue at 12:19 p.m., but the gray stone building and its occupants were spared. Frightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others outside. Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes, house-coats. Most were rewarded with emotional reunions, amid the smell of acrid smoke.

On most days, any of the three news elements would lead the paper. Combined, they form an overpowering news tapestry, one that the reporter and editor must handle with care. What matters most in this story? The death of a senator? A spectacular crash? The death of children?

In the first paragraph, the writer chose to mention the crash and the senator upfront, and saved "elementary school playground" for the end. Throughout the passage, subjects and verbs come early -– like the locomotive and coal car of a railroad train –- saving other interesting words for the end –- like a caboose.

Consider, also, the order in which the writer lists the anxious parents, who arrive at the school in "jogging clothes, business suits, house-coats." Any other order weakens the sentence. Placing "house-coats" at the end builds the urgency of the situation, parents racing from their homes dressed as they are.

Putting strong stuff at the beginning and the end allows writers to hide weaker stuff in the middle. In the passage above, notice how the writer hides the less important news elements -– the who and the when ("Lower Merion Township yesterday") -– in the middle of the lead. This strategy also works for attributing quotations:

"It was one horrible thing to watch," said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. "It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured."

Begin with a good quote. Hide the attribution in the middle. End with a good quote.

These tools are as old as rhetoric itself. Near the end of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, a character announces to Macbeth: "The Queen, my Lord, is dead." 

This astonishing example of the power of emphatic word order is followed by one of the darkest passages in all of literature. Macbeth says:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

The poet has one great advantage over those of us who write prose. He knows where the line will end. He gets to emphasize a word at the end of a line, a sentence, a paragraph. We prose writers make do with the sentence and paragraph –- signifying something.

Workshop:

1. Read Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech to study the uses of emphatic word order.

2. With a pencil in hand, read an essay you admire. Circle the last words in each paragraph.

3. Do the same for recent examples of your own work. Look for opportunities to revise sentences so that more powerful or interesting words appear at the end.

4. Survey your friends to get the names of their dogs. Write these in alphabetical order. Imagine this list would appear in a story. Play with the order of names. Which could go first?  Which last?  Why?


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