How do grammar and punctuation affect style?

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Writers can use their understanding of grammar rules and sentence syntax to shape their stylistic choices. As discussed in a previous post, when writers make “accurate, effective, and helpful punctuation choices,” this adds to their competency and authority as a writers, asserts Martha Kolln in Rhetorical Grammar (84).

While grammar handbooks and in-house style guides promote a particular, often prescriptive choice, a writer’s selection makes the reader pay attention to the prose and to the desired effect and meaning.

For instance, in our discussion of the serial or Oxford comma, we saw how the decision to use a serial comma or not generates controversy, with claims on both sides that its presence or absence can create ambiguity. Yet, unless a writer has to follow in-house style rules dictated by a place of business or publication, the serial comma choice is a matter of style.

Marie Buckley in her blog A Lawyer’s Guide to Writing, argues for the use of the serial comma in legal writing, but not in creative writing. She urges writers to be aware that the serial comma compromises the pacing of a sentence, offering as an example the famous line in the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

When we add a serial comma, she believes that the stately and majestic pacing of this line is lost:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.”

Interestingly, there is a mini-controversy over whether Frost intended to use or to omit the serial comma in this line, fueled by various editions of his poetry that contain different versions, some with, some without, the serial comma. Buckley cites a widely circulated story that says that Frost’s publisher made the unforgivable mistake of inserting that serial comma when the poem was first published—and that Frost made the publisher reprint the book to remove the offending comma.

Kolln goes further in her discussion of rhetorical choices when she illustrates several different options for presenting items in a series, differences that Kolln says are subtle but meaningful.

The first example presents three verb phrases in a series connected with two ands and no commas:

You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking and whistling and wearing your hair.”

This pattern puts emphasis on each element of the series with a fairly equal beat:

­­­­__________ and ­­­­­­__________ and _________.

It also slows us down and can add a sense of formality, as noted by Arthur Quinn in his book Figures of Speech (qtd in Koln 216).

This same sentence with a series of verb phrases can be written using the Oxford comma, the usual punctuation for comma in a series (two commas and only one and):

You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking, whistling, and wearing your hair.”

But it can also be written with only the commas:

You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking, whistling, wearing your hair.”

This format tends to speed up the prose and the reader, and also suggests that the list is open-ended:  “I could go on and on; I could tell you much more.” (Kolln 210)

Kolln provides an example from Winston Churchill in his writing on Stonewall Jackson:

His character was stern, his manner reserved and unusually forbidding, his temper Calvinistic, his mode of life strict, frugal, austere.” (Note that Churchill has embedded one series within another.)

Not using the conjunctions contributes to the strictness and frugality of style that echo the words themselves. With the conjunctions, the sentence would lose that echo:

His mode of life was strict and frugal and austere.”

Kolln provides a similar construction by Margaret Atwood who is describing a woman’s feelings, which evokes a same kind of austerity—in this case, the feeling of being caged in an ever-shrinking space:

She feels caged, in this country, in this city, in this room.”

Using the construction with the conjunction and would add space. (Kolln 216-17)

Likewise, some writers commit an error called a comma splice (discussed in an earlier post) when they are tempted to leave out conjunction like and to join two independent clauses because they feel it causes a “certain flabbiness” (Kolln 48). However, sometimes a comma is omitted in creative writing as a matter of style and rhythm: The rain beat down and the wind howled. Here we have an example of an “error” made on purpose, for rhetorical effect.

This deviation from traditional rules of standard usage has been remarked in several posts dealing with the difference in errors made by professional and student writers, such as the ones on verbiage and structural ambiguity. Except for comma splice errors (which students make at 5 times the rate of professional writers, both make about the same amount of other comma errors. But professional writers made more than twice as many fragment errors, though these may be a result of style, rather than grammar.

As discussed on the post on sentence structures, writers use fragments for different rhetorical effects, such as to echo the rhythms of speech.

Grammar and composition expert Richard Norquist, quoting Fulwiler and Hayakawa (The Blair Handbook [Prentice Hall, 2003]) says, avoiding fragments in formal writing makes good sense, but “[i]n both fiction and nonfiction, the sentence fragment may be used deliberately to create a variety of powerful effects.”

For instance, the opening paragraphs of Dickens’ Bleak House contain a series of fragments, a list accumulating to build detail and create the mood of bleak lives in a bleak city in bleak weather (ill temper, mud, smoke, fog, black drizzle, implacable November). In addition, sentence fragments can represent disjointed thought caused by severe psychological experiences, such as shock.

Choices in sentence structure and punctuation usage can affect the rhythm and pace and effect of a composition. Writers need to know the traditional rules, as well as variations in usage and structures, in order to communicate their meanings and create intended rhetorical effects.

(Resources: Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Marie Buckley; Nordquist)

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