Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Art of Phrasing

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon expounds on phrasing, "one of writing's most ingenious tools."

We writers face a daunting challenge whenever we try to lasso life and pin it on the page: how can our skinny string of words convey the truth that life is gazillions of simultaneous events exploding in the headlong rush of expanding time?

One strategy is purely visual. We write our sentences word-by-word, yet they get printed, not in continuous tickertape strands, but on pages of close parallel lines, just as here. We follow the word sequence when we read, yet our eyes also skip ahead, bounce back, and see words on neighboring lines. Vladimir Nabokov laments the problem in Lolita: "I have to put the impact of an instantaneous vision into a sequence of words; their physical accumulation on the page impairs the actual flash, the sharp unity of the impression." Yet, as a reader, I find the staccato images that follow Nabokov's complaint so closely packed on the page—

Rug-heap, car, old man-doll, Miss O.'s nurse running with a rustle, a half-empty tumbler in her hand, back to the screened porch— where the propped-up, imprisoned lady herself may be imagined screeching, but not loud enough to drown the rhythmical yaps of the Junk setter walking from group to group—from a bunch of neighbors already collected on the sidewalk, near the bit of checked stuff, and back to the car which he had finally run to earth, and then to another group on the lawn, consisting of Leslie, two policemen and a sturdy man with tortoise shell glasses.

—that I see them all at once, just as did Humbert Humbert, Nabokov's narrator, when he rushed out of his house to find the wife he hates killed by a car.

Another strategy is phrasing, one of writing's most ingenious tools. To see how phrasing works let's look into the structure of a single sentence.

One sentence's complete thought, says my grammar book, "may contain any number of constituent thoughts," each a group of words within the sentence. Grammarians call such a subgroup a phrase; some phrases, depending on many factors, are called clauses. Here is a simple sentence:


Adding a phrase, in this case a subordinate clause set off by commas, makes a complex sentence:


The phrase's three words convey a new thought, and its two pauses add to the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables:


The first pause marks a shift to a new tone of voice, the second a return to the original tone. "John...fed Fido" is a confident statement that spans the whole sentence; "thinking of Betty" is an inserted comment. The shift in tone matches the shift in the writer's point of view from eyesight to insight: the primary phrase reports what the writer sees; the subordinate phrase expresses what he thinks is going on invisibly inside John's mind.

The effect of phrasing is that of an actor whispering a stage aside, of a mother turning from chatting with a neighbor to hush her child. Their pauses and shifts of tone convince us that the action we are watching is going forward on several levels at once; likewise, the phrasing of our sentence lets us know that John was feeding Fido and thinking of Betty at the same time.

Grammar includes countless phrasing devices, each shaping or turning, but never breaking, the onward flow of a sentence. "On one hand...on the other hand" balances two phrases; "either...or" contrasts two. "If...then" outlines an imaginary event in one phrase and posits a possible result in a second. "But" adds a phrase that takes off at an oblique angle from the first: "John fed Fido, but Fido wasn't hungry."

A descriptive phrase paints a picture: "John, a sandy haired fellow with glasses..."; a parenthetical phrase publishes what the writer privately thinks: "(and an utter fool in my humble opinion)." Since each phrase has its own tone and point of view, a sentence with many phrases becomes a thought presented in counterpoint by many voices from crisscross perspectives. I count seven pauses, ten phrases, and five points of view—Don Quixote's, Sancho Panza's, Dulcinea's, and those of the curate and the barber who are speaking—in this gorgeously phrased sentence by Cervantes:

If his master should ask him, as he was bound to do, if he had delivered the letter to Dulcinea, Sancho was to say that, not being able to read and write, she had replied by word of mouth, her message being that her lover was to come to her at once, under pain of her displeasure if he failed to do so. —Don Quixote

When grammarians diagram complex sentences, they show its phrases branching off from a central trunk. If we turn the diagram vertical, we emphasize its treelike form:

As written, however, the words in a complex sentence still follow in linear sequence just like the words in a simple sentence. Phrases don't really branch off, they go in a straight line:


Yet the grammarian's diagram makes sense because the pauses and tonal shifts create the illusion of simultaneity. The words "John, thinking of Betty, fed Fido" may walk in single file, but we experience them in parallel—

      JOHN,                      FED FIDO

—because the phrasing lets us know the two actions happened in parallel.

Thus, while adding to writing's melodic lilt, phrasing gives the art the means to leap the limit of word sequence. The words still follow one-by-one, but the images they generate happen together in our minds just as events happen in life.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 8th 2009, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Peter E.
A simple melodic explanation
Thursday October 8th 2009, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
I once read that Frank Sinatra was such a brilliant singer because he was 'a master of the art of phrasing'. Like two thoughts running parallel in a sentence, in a song music and words are running parallel. So I assume, just as the two thoughts can be assimilated 'as one' by the writer's art of phrasing, Sinatra's mastery of phrasing meant he knew how to balance the interplay of music and words so that we hear both distinctly and yet 'as one'.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 7:57 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
I like this and understand it.
Use of this sentence structure information will improve my written communication ability. And, hopefully, make what I write more interesting that thought provoking to the reader.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Jen M. (Spicewood, TX)
Sr. Sebastian was fond setting us fifth graders to the task of diagramming sentences. She even had us keep a special notebook and several different colors of pens for the job. As a result, sentence structure brought even the more linear thinkers into the fold as lovers of the language. I hope kids still learn this craft in schools today.

Mr. Lydon, nice job of describing what's going on when we read complex sentences. I have never seen that process put into quite such quantifiable terms.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
I think the following is related to your article, Michael. Anyway, your article made me remember it!

Peter Hall, the radical Shakespearean producer of the 1960s, compares reciting Shakespearean pentameters to singing a jazz song.

An iambic pentameter has five stresses, but when the 'phrasing' naturally elicits four instead, then the actor has to employ syncopation to marry his four stresses with the pentameters five iambs - just like Sinatra marries his phrased words to the beating bars of music. Spoken as everyday speech, Shakespeare's most quoted pentameter has four stresses:

To BE or NOT to be, THAT is the QUEStion.

So a good actor will say

'dee DUM dee DUM dee dee, DUM dee dee DUM (dee)'

but *all the time aware* of the underlying rhythm beating out

'dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM'

An actor might stress the second 'be' for effect, but that still wouldn't match the basic pattern. Finally, one *could* match the pattern and say 'to Be or NOT to BE, that IS the QUEStion' but even then there's the comma's pause to negotiate, plus the 11th syllable 'tion' which threatens to mess up the start of the next line! But Peter Hall's point is that matching the pattern in every line would result in doggerel, and so Shakespeare himself played jazz as he wrote and would expect nothing less from actors saying the lines.

It sounds like patting the stomach with one hand while rubbing the head with the other, and I'm full of admiration for Sinatra, Olivier, Ella, and other master 'phrasers'.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
As a musician and writer as well, I'm enjoying this article and everyone's comments. I know that whenever I've been fairly happy with my writing, it's because there a harmony exists between the meaning and the music of the line, paragraph, or post.

Thanks for an enlightening read.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
(Woops, please disregard the "there" there.)
Thursday October 8th 2009, 10:29 AM
Comment by: paul D. (n myrtle beach, SC)
I have been studying English grammar for a while, over a year, averaging three to four hours a day, yet I haven't scraped the bottom, I truly admire when I see someone writing flawlessly, it's like music to my ears,
or better said: to my eyes.My goal is to continue, relentlessly, until I will lose that fear and be capable of
expressing myself in words, using all parts of speech,as well as can be done, towards a perfect essay.

Paul Depontes
Thursday October 8th 2009, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Audrey T. (Sacramento, CA)
I've been trying to write a book, a memoir for my grandchildren,and didn't really understand why some parts of it are more interesting than others (of course,that might be because some parts of my life have been more interesting than others).But this is the first time I've been exposed to the concept of phrasing and I experienced an "ahah!" moment. I'm hoping that, by keeping these concepts in mind, I'll become a much better writer. Thank you so much Audrey Tsuruda
Thursday October 8th 2009, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
It is a fascinating subject.

'Good' phrasing is surely linked to breathing. Apparently, when we read in our heads, our larynx is still slightly active, though since we aren't voicing the words, no breath is rushing through. But I think it's possible we are also conscious (subconsciously) of the pattern of breathing demanded by the text, even though we aren't producing it.

Although an overly long sentence wouldn't in reality make us breathless, we experience the same feeling of desperation and exasperation as our *figurative* breath runs out. That's why writers are advised to read their drafts out loud, to test 'the breath of the text' that their readers will be silently breathing.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Daniela (Roldan Argentina)
It is undoubtedly a fascinating subject and so is your comment Geoff A.
Thank you for providing such a detailed explanation and your brilliant comments.
Friday October 9th 2009, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Your comment is appreciated and beautifully readable! Your first sentence has five stresses and the second, four - followed by a half (two!). I wonder if we dare to say that the 'perfect' English sentence is made up of multiples of 4 (and halves) or 5 stresses? It would be fun to research that - maybe there's a PhD thesis in there somewhere.
Friday October 9th 2009, 4:03 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments on my piece. Particularly interesting to me are the comments connecting written phrasing to musical phrasing--including breath! Music and writing are twins, not identical, but closer than close!
Saturday October 10th 2009, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Karen M.
Beautifully written essay. As a technical writer, I don't write for beauty, but phrasing can also affect the smoothness and readability of, say, a procedural step. It's pretty cool to see how much a small change in phrasing can mean the difference between reading the step four times to get the gist and reading the step just once for fully confident comprehension.
Thursday October 22nd 2009, 12:02 PM
Comment by: Tom P. (Bowling Green, KY)
I appreciate access to your thoughts and believe that you have hit upon an illusive quality for many, many writers. What is so impressive to me is the fact that you can approach it with great intentionality. I believe that a burgenoning writer will have to guard against the opposite of the essence happening to them when they first approach phrasing.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 6:34 PM
Comment by: Kate (Chicago, IL)
Thank you. Bravo. I am changed. This is the most wonderful article, across a range of topics, that I have read in the past 6 months. I am too lightly skilled as a writer to quite grasp all of it, but I can recognize the elegance of thought and prose. I just joined this website last night in order to improve my writing.

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