Bewildering Stories Discusses
In a postscript to an enthusiastic review of Tamara Podella’s “Nightmare Jack,” a member of the Review Board points out an unusual bit of punctuation:
This is one terrific piece of fiction. I never felt I was being told a story. I found myself in it. It’s such a horrific tale of dysfunction and violence and yet I kept seeing myself inside the plot and never felt the author’s hand. She created some terrific characters and let them carry on.
Punctuation question:With every move came the same morbid smell. Of mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
Should there be a period after “smell”? i would phrase it differently, but that doesn’t mean this is wrong.
As you say, the period is unorthodox but not exactly “wrong.” Let’s see how it works.
The story begins with the narrator’s opening a door and being brought up short by a stench; and it’s a familiar one: "the same morbid smell." But there’s more: the author doesn’t simply suggest an odor and leave it vague, she tells us what it is.
Basically we have four possibiities:
Orthodox punctuation discourages sentence fragments and forbids separating the qualifiers from the word “smell.” In that mode, the sentence would read:
—> With every move came the same morbid smell of mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
The syntax is formally correct, but it does not fit the scene. The sentence becomes long and flat; it de-emphasizes the word “morbid.” The result is dispassionately analytical and does not match the narrator’s reaction to the smell.
Here’s another possibility; use a colon:
—> With every move came the same morbid smell: mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
The colon has its uses but, I think, not there. The colon is very strong and is supposed to call attention to itself. It implies “emphasis forward.” The result is punctuational overkill that displaces the emphasis from “morbid” to the phrase modifying “smell.” Rather, the sentence states first an effect and then its cause. A colon won’t do, because causes are normally subordinated to effects.
A semicolon is also possible:
—> With every move came the same morbid smell; it was one of mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
The semicolon impies “emphasis backward,” which fits the purpose of the sentence. But a semicolon must be followed by an independent clause, and the result is wordy.
Or maybe an em-dash:
—> With every move came the same morbid smell — of mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
A dash could be used here, although it normally occurs in bracketed pairs. However, the dash falls in between the colon and semicolon; it means “no emphasis either way.” And that defeats the purpose of a full stop after “morbid smell.” The narrator pauses as though to think, “Phew! What”s that smell?” and then tells the reader what it is.
In my opinion, the period is the simplest solution: it brings the sentence, like the narrator in the scene, to a full stop. The description of the smell is appended in a sentence fragment, which constitutes an afterthought. The author thus uses punctuation in an unorthodox manner to express relative emphasis in an action scene.
A word of caution: please don’t let this discussion give you any wrong ideas. What have we been talking about: punctuation? Not primarily: the subject is the content. Punctuation is made for content, not content for punctuation. The role of punctuation is to serve the content without distracting the reader.
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