Building a Sentence


THERE will always be an interest taken in the technique of any art; and, so long as we do not try to make a mystery of it or exalt it above its humble place, that is as it should be. I mention its humble place by way of reminder; for there is a tendency nowadays, especially in dramatic critiques, to place technique above inspiration; and if this custom spreads we shall have the diamond cutters of Amsterdam valuing their tools more highly than the diamonds, with the result that, so long as they cut them in accordance with the rules of their craft, they will cease to care whether they cut diamond or glass, and then soon cease to know.

Having given this necessary warning, I will proceed to write about a technique myself, or rather a very humble branch of the technique of prose, the little matter of punctuation. Now, although technique is not a thing about which to prate mysteriously, as though it were itself the art, yet it is a thing that every worker must have ready to hand. The carpenter does not lend his tools to the gardener. But go through the little store of commas and semicolons, and here and there a colon, with which a writer of prose has to fashion his sentence, and you will find that several of his commas have been borrowed by the printer. They have been borrowed to decorate the shrines of certain sacred words, which no printer ever permits to be jostled by the propinquity of any common word, but rails them off upon either side with commas. How these words became sacred I do not know, and to inquire into the reason for the sacredness of any sacred thing is usually to get lost in the mists of the past. It is like holly and mistletoe in England, or cows in India: they merely are sacred, and you must leave it at that.

The most sacred words to printers are Perhaps, Of course, Too, Indeed, and Moreover. None of these words ever appears without its little shrine of commas, unless a full stop or colon chance to take the place of one of them. Most adverbs are also sacred, but not so sacred as the five great words I have mentioned. Now the ritual of the printer would be no more the concern of the writer than the Hindu’s habit of decking his altars with marigolds, were it not for the fact that no sentence can have more than a certain number of commas. Three or four commas in a line become an eyesore, which means that the supply of them for each sentence is limited; so that when the printer takes a couple here and a couple there to decorate his sacred words, or protect them from vulgar contacts, he is borrowing from the author’s little store. If the Hindu takes marigolds from my garden, then his ritual does concern me.

Here is a sentence of English prose punctuated as I would punctuate it:

‘Moreover Jones, who, as indeed you probably know, is of course Welsh, is perhaps coming too, but unfortunately alone.’ And that is about as many commas as, I think, the sentence will stand. But by the rules of the printers it would be printed thus: ‘Moreover, Jones, who, as, indeed, you, probably, know, is, of course, Welsh, is, perhaps, coming, too, but, unfortunately, alone.’


Commas may also be likened to the timbers of a scaffolding from which to build a sentence; and, where anyone runs off with bits of it to put them to trivial uses, the building of the sentence must suffer.

The principal use of commas in this building seems to be, in my opinion, to mark off relative clauses, and clauses beginning with ‘if’ and ‘though,’ for which grammarians probably have a name, or indeed any clause that stands by itself; and the purpose of their use is clearness. For this reason I nearly always use commas in pairs. If two clauses, each contained by its pair of commas, come so close that only a word stands between them, that word will give to the eye, though not to the intellect, the appearance of being comma’d off; but the eye of the reader deserves a certain consideration, and this is an occasion in which the useful semicolon will often be found helpful. Here is the sort of sentence I mean: ‘Smith, who lately arrived, and, though not so certainly, Robinson. . . .’ The commas are there to surround those two clauses, but to the eye they appear to be designed to surround the word ‘and.’ It is a trifling matter, but the sentence looks better this way: ‘ Smith, who lately arrived; and, though not so certainly, Robinson. . . .’

Many will regard the semicolon as unnecessary here, and it is merely a matter of choice; but what cannot be doubted is that the semicolon is a great convenience, and most long sentences are the better for being divided by one at that point at which division is usually obvious; but, as many writers will mark it with only a comma, there is nothing to distinguish what may be called the watershed of the sentence from all the other little landmarks around it. The semicolon will be found to be particularly convenient if it be regarded as a kind of bigger and better comma. I know one newspaper in which you never saw semicolons at all, and I designed a little wreath of daisies, no larger than a dollar, to be laid on the grave of the last semicolon that had appeared in those columns; but I think my remark may have got round, for soon afterwards I saw semicolons once more, doing their useful work in that paper. Obviously the less one wastes one’s commas as trimmings for words like ‘indeed,’ the less strain one has to put on one’s semicolons.

For long I used to think that commas were wasted by being scattered amongst adjectives, wherever more than one adjective is used, but I did not like to go against what, seemed universal custom; until one day I noticed that Swinburne, in his line,

Out of the golden remote wild west where the sea without shore is,

uses not a single comma among all those adjectives. Then I saw that my opinion in this matter, instead of going against that of all other writers, had the support of one of the greatest of them, and I have never since wasted my commas where their use has always seemed to me to be unnecessary. I do not think any ambiguity can ever arise from not using commas there, though of course hyphens should be used in their proper places. People who never use hyphens will think, when I write of ‘a white thatched cottage,’that I mean that the thatch was white. Had I meant that, I should have written ’a white-thatched cottage.’ And an odd thing that would be.


As regards the colon, I am inclined to accept what I take to be the general use of it; that is to say, when a selfsupporting sentence, with a verb and noun of its own, has so close a connection with the sentence before it that they are separated by no full stop, then I think a colon is demanded. As for the invariable use of a colon before any remark in inverted commas, I see no objection to the custom: I think a comma does just as well, but it really does not matter; and, if I write commas and a printer prints colons, I leave them in the proofs just as he printed them. Sometimes he leaves some of my commas and puts in some of his colons: I leave them too, for the idol of consistency should not be overworshiped; and, where a thing does not matter, what is there to be consistent about? Lawrence of Arabia has expressed this view beautifully in a letter to his publisher which has been printed. He had given the English equivalent of certain Arabic words, but had several times spelt them differently. This had shocked his publisher, but Colonel Lawrence had stuck to his point. Now Colonel Lawrence was perfectly right. If there were an exact equivalent in English spelling of these Arabic words, he should have adhered to it; but spelling them differently each time shows us the truth that there is not an exact equivalent.

To return to colons and semicolons, there are men who have actually a hatred of one or the other. Either of these useful little things is an astonishing thing to detest, but the fact remains that people do detest them. There was once a publisher’s reader who went right through a book of mine, taking out every single colon. By the time I had put them all back in the proofs I had little time or energy for other corrections; and the book suffers from that to this day. Obviously if you banish either one or the other from your sentences the structure of these sentences must be weakened, and still more so if the commas have been wasted in the manner that I have mentioned.

No suggestion that I have made about punctuation must be taken as being intended to be a rule that is binding for anyone, even myself. It is rather against the tyranny of rules that I am writing. For rules, that are such valuable guides to us, can be, when they are silly ones, more harmfully obstructive than any living man can be.

One other use the builder of a sentence can put punctuation to; and this is contrary to every rule: he can, in case of great necessity, use it to mark rhythm. I have used it this way myself, though I cannot remember where, in cases in which the mere sense would make it certain that the sentence would be read in a way that was devoid of all rhythm, and I have used a comma or semicolon so as to give the sentence a chance of being read rightly. Why rhythm should be as important as sense, or perhaps more so, I am unable to tell you, for these things lie too deep.