This post will likely offend many of my writing colleagues and friends who use this technique, but I cannot hold it in any longer. There is a stylistic technique in vogue these days that bothers me to no end. I see it in novels. I see it in articles. I see it in blog posts. I see it on Facebook. It is the breaking up of dramatic sentences into a series of one-word sentences. Consider this: I. Can’t.Take.It.Anymore. Does that sentence read as badly to you as it does to me?

Writers know they are not supposed to use incomplete sentences or sentence fragments, but they also realize that’s a rule they can break from time to time. “The one-word sentence, or more generally the incomplete sentence, is a tool you can use for emphasis,” author and blogger Christine Amsden writes. “Like this. It’s short, to the point, and easily digestible. It calls attention to itself and its brief content, making that content stand out. When done correctly, it is a way to shamelessly exploit a reader’s emotions. Bam! Right there.”

As Amsden points out there is a time and a place for incomplete or one-word sentences, but what I am seeing again and again is very different. It is taking a complete sentence and breaking it up into a series of one-word sentences.

I believe writers use this technique to ratchet up the drama by giving the reader a dramatic signal. Wait for it. Wait for it. Okay, here is comes. The sentence broken up into a series of one-word sentences. You might as well add the words, “This is really important, reader.” For me it has the opposite effect. It’s like the sort of faux drama you see on reality television.

It is akin to the overuse of exclamation points. The legendary Elmore Leonard wrote that a writer gets to use about three exclamation points for every 100,000 words. Why? The words themselves should convey the emotion intended by the writer. The.Same.Applies.To.One-word.Sentences.

If I were to write this post and put a period after every word, how annoying would you find that?

I’m truly sorry if I have insulted my writer friends. Many of you who do this are much better writers than I will ever be. And, having gotten this off my chest, I am willing to admit I could be completely wrong about this.

What about you? How do you feel about this technique? Am I completely wrong?



Filed under Uncategorized

27 responses to “Please.Stop.Doing.This.

  1. Patrick J. Lee

    Great rant, Chris. I do see this in internet posts, but that’s an arena where the bar is not very high. I can’t say I’ve seen its widespread use in fiction.

    Have to disagree with you on sentence fragments, however. Born in the fifties, I grew up under the iron regime of the grammar police and used to be didactic on the subject myself. But the world is different now, and better for it. The noun-verb-object rule is well suited to rhetorical writing and certainly did not hamper Jane Austen. But throw out all sentence fragments and there goes the best of Tom Wolfe and many others.

    The syntax of film changed the way people see things, and thus inevitably changed writing & language. If writing had not responded, it would have lost relevance. The sentence fragment is the analogue of the jarring edit in a film sequence.

    When I’m writing, my only rule for style is: does it enhance the reader’s appreciation of the image? I use sentence fragments, for example, to convey the sense of a mass of competing thoughts in a character’s mind. Or as a caustic aside in internal dialog. Internal dialogue does not occur in correct compound sentences. Not even in words sometimes 😉

    But I agree that we should all stop.doing. this.

  2. Thanks, Patrick. Just to be clear, my criticism was limited to these one word sentences. There are times, as Christine points out, when it is appropriate to use sentence fragments. I do it myself all the time. What bothers me is stuff like this. A protagonist is frustrated with her lover: He.Just.Doesn’t.Get.Me. It is so overused and hackneyed. Find an original way to say it. Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. I use it on Facebook and sometimes on my blog, but rarely, to never, in fiction. I had one scene in my first book that had it with an overly dramatic teenage girl, and that’s it. Anymore than that would be far too much. My next book doesn’t have it at all.

    I’ve been finding double punctation in fiction and that KILLS me. (I specifically mean when people as a question and also put an exclamation point. Like this?!) I use it on a blog post and Facebook, but NOT FICTION. Grief. There’s a line!

    • Kate, thanks for your comment. I have seen it in traditionally published fiction-more than once. I couldn’t recall what books and, even if I could, I would not want to pick on other writers. Each writer has his or her own style, but that technique really bothers me. I hesitated to even write this post because I knew it would offend writers I admire. I think this technique has become so pervasive that writers don’t even give it a second thought when they use it. Am I being too nitpicky?

    • Oh and don’t get me started on double punctuation!!

  4. Tina Goodman

    The single-word-then-period style doesn’t bother me yet. I think the first time I saw it was on a movie disc cover for LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. (Best. Vampire. Movie. Ever.)
    Perhaps when this current phase is over people will write like this:
    in Chicago stop lovely weather stop home soon full stop

    • That is very clever, Tina. I saw it again just today in a blog post. It really gets under my skin. I guess every writer has certain pet peeves. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I think you’re right– that reality show analogy is right on. I believe the rise of this technique is tied to reality TV and other over-the-top expressions of reality– they are born of the same short-expression friendly technology, the same soundbite system of information, the same push-it-down-your-throat salesmanship of our world. The faux jaded stance we are supposed to effect demands sudden, extreme shocks to our systems, if we are to notice anything at all.

    I watched an action movie the other night, the newest Clancy film- Shadow Recruit– and was surprised and quite refreshed to note that their were no CGI crumbling skyscrapers, no overly fast Kung-Fu scenes, etc. It was a tight script and very well done, fast-paced but not painful to look at, as so many actions films these days are; which to me is the same sort of approach to filmmaking as the One. Shocking! Word. sentence is to writing.

    Fragments are fine, used judiciously, and to set up a character’s voice. One word sentences, you get two of per century, max.

    • Ha! I love that. I’d settle for two per decade. I believe writers who use it are trying to achieve the dramatic pause in dialogue, i.e., I’m. Just. Not. Into. You., the woman says in a firm tone as she breaks up with her boyfriend. it comes across to me as a reader as phony. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

  6. I have to agree with you. It’s ugly. There are better ways to emphasize things – italics, all caps.

    Better still, use the position of the sentence: at the end of a paragraph. At the beginning.

    On a single line by itself.

    I suppose it’s okay if you’re trying to look as if you were texting (except that it’s hard to do in texting) or writing online without bothering to use punctuation. In other words, to give a character a bit of ‘youth’ or ‘with-it-ness.’

    The format doesn’t add anything – and it annoys some readers. Reason enough to avoid it.

    • Alicia, you are a very intelligent practitioner of the craft. I’m pleased you agree. I saw that technique again just today in a blog post. It seems the trendy thing to do, but I cringe each time I read it.

  7. I can see where you’re coming from. It’s certainly a butchering of the rules of punctuation. We all have our pet peeves (e.g. “orientate” makes me want to pull my hair out).

    But since a period indicates a longer pause when reading, I read it as exaggerated pauses between the words, the way people actually do sometimes nowadays for emphasis (often accompanied by increased volume). That said, it should be used sparingly, like exclamation marks.

    • R.E., thanks for your comment. Most of the time I read it the impression I get is what you said-the writer is trying to express a dramatic pause. But there are other ways to do that. I see it used on a daily basis and not by amateurs, but by accomplished writers. It really annoys me, as you can tell. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Okay – you are going to think I am picking on you and I SWEAR.I.AM.Not! -because I think you are cool as hell – anyway – I hate the phrase: daily basis. I don’t know why – monthly basis, weekly basis — why not just say I I see it used daily . . . .” –

        So, see my last comment — yeah, if we all stopped doing what other writers hated — dot dot dot 😀

      • That’s one of those cases where you just don’t need the extra words, i.e., “I read the comics on a daily basis.” Better: I read the comics daily.

      • We have things that bug us and that’s what makes us, well, us. Sometimes the things that bug me are stupid *laugh*

  8. Laughing! — I don’t think I’ve ever done it in a novel – not that I recall – doesn’t seem like something I’ve done, but who knows. I like it, sometimes. Or so I thought, until I read one of your examples and it discombobulated my head to read it. Dang. Now you’ve messed it up for me. Thanks.a.lot.C.G.B.


    • Like I said, I didn’t mean to offend anyone. Right after I posted that, I read a blog post about 14 things overweight women should keep in mind (not sure why but I digress). #11: Hot Guys Date Fat Girls..All.The.Time. Oh how I wish I was an editor of that site.

  9. Ps – doesn’t meant I’ll stop – if everyone stopped doing what annoyed another writer, well – there’d be lots of blank spots in the books – 😀

  10. Agreed. If it works for you, do it. I rarely write posts that criticize writing techniques. Maybe the summer heat made me do it. 🙂

  11. In stories and novels, I like the technique when it’s used sparingly and in the right place. Mostly I expect it in dialog, where the writer wants to be clear that the character is emphasizing every word. I don’t see it as much in narration. If it’s not overused (multiple times in one book), then it’s fine.

    In blogs and social media, I see variations of it more often and in those cases I’m forgiving. Social media has it’s own language, in a sense, with hashtags and all kinds of linguistic oddities, so I just accept it as part of the medium.

    • Andrea, thanks for your comment. I agree social media language is a little more informal, but it still bothers me wherever I see it. And it is so overused, like the phrase “at the end of the day” a few years back. It shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. When researching this post, I searched for anything I could find on the internet that might validate its usage. I found nothing. I suspect it was a case of one or two prominent writers started using it and then it caught on. I don’t usually criticize other writers or their techniques. This is a real pet peeve for me. Thank you for your comment.

  12. Tina Goodman

    One of my pet peeves is that people use ‘i.e.’ when I think it would be more accurate to use ‘e.g.’. Another pet peeve is that the definitions of ‘loosen’ and ‘unloosen’ are the same definition!

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