To illustrate my point, I use a sentence from Shelby Foote’s Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, a selection from his larger work The Civil War: A Narrative:
In mid-May with the laurels still green on his brow for the repulse of Samuel Du Pont’s ironclad fleet the month before, he unfolded in a letter to the regional commander, Joseph E. Johnston—with whom he had shared the triumph of Manassas, back in the first glad summer of the war, and to whom, under pressure from Richmond, he had just dispatched 8000 of his men—a plan so sweeping in its concept that the delivery of the Gibraltar of the West, whose plight had started him thinking along these lines, was finally no more than an incidental facet of a design for sudden and absolute victory over all the combinations whereby the North intended to subjugate the South.
At the heart if it, the key to reading Foote is to take it slow and let the punctuation guide you. He groups phrases and ideas together using commas and dashes, which establish relationships between those groups of words. As a result, his sentences hold together like small, artfully crafted monographs, with the punctuation showing you the way. Everything unfolds—especially the story. It is writing meant to be savored.
However, if punctuation serves as the signposts that tell our readers how to read our pieces, take a look at what William Faulkner does in this oft-excerpted selection from his novel Intruder in the Dust. He’s talking about Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. . . .
That is one long-ass run-on sentence, and I’d slap a freshman’s knuckles with a ruler like a Catholic school nun if he or she wrote a sentence like that in my classes.
However, consider what Faulkner’s doing in this sentence. He’s writing about the way Southern boys often get swept up in their own imaginations and carried away, not only back in time but on to wilder possibilities and fantasies. And doesn’t the sentence, too, get swept away? The writing is doing what it’s describing.
For instance, look closer at this stretch, where Faulkner withholds commas in order to build momentum even though, grammatically, there should be at least five:
. . . the guns are laid and ready in the woods, and the furled flags are already loosened to break out, and Pickett himself, with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill, waiting for Longstreet to give the word, and it’s all in the balance . . .
A few lines later, he withholds commas again to achieve a similar speeding up. Elsewhere, he inserts commas to slow momentum and emphasize a point, a shift, a reconsideration:
. . . it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun . . .
And then he speeds up again, once more withholding his commas to let the momentum build.
This is an example of someone knowing the rules so he can manipulate them, bend them, and stretch them to create an intentional effect. You have to know the rules first—my focus in the first-year writing classes I teach—before you can do that, though.
As Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”