Sentence punctuation to indicate slowed speech rate

« previous post | next post »

Here's an experiment in creative use of the Comments feature. I want Language Log readers to help me try and find the earliest print occurrence of something that is just about impossible to search for. Here is our question: When was the first use in print of the device of punctuating the words or phrases in a sentence as separate sentences to show dramatically reduced speech rate? I. mean. Like. This. You can see a good example in the third panel of this PartiallyClips strip by Rob Balder. (Notice how hard it would be to find that using Google.) When did the use of this device start? I know it has been mentioned on Language Log, a year or so back, but I can't find the post and remember little about it except that finding the earliest occurrence was not mentioned.

Here's how we work: I start things off by giving a citation I just found from ten years ago. On page 28 of Robert Harris's novel Archangel (Hutchinson, London, 1998, hardback edition), a character who was tortured for a long time to get information out of him says with pride, "Not a word, boy. You listening? They did not get. One. Single. Word." That's the usage I'm talking about. So it's at least ten years old. Now, if you can find an occurrence that is earlier than that, and earlier than all the ones above yours in the list of comments below (if there are any yet), kindly supply the details. If this works right, we should get a list of successively older occurrences, each older than 1998 and older than all the ones preceding it. There should be no random chat about other interesting things about punctuation, or speculations about how they do this in Japanese, or reports about someone's pet parrot being able to read the newspaper, or any other irrelevant stuff. Just steadily older and older citations of uses of this typographical device. Got it? This will make the comments feature a really useful research tool, as opposed to being a sort of electronic toilet stall wall with free magic markers. That's. What. I. Want.


  1. andy said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 6:47 am

    1988: here's a quote from the book _Linebacker II a view From the rock_:

    We flew straight and level. "How far out from the target are we, Radar?" "We're ten seconds out. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. BOMBS AWAY! "

    found via google books

  2. David Denison said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 7:23 am

    Hi, Geoff. FWIW, I don't find any examples in the Helsinki Corpus or ARCHER (quick searches for two consecutive words each beginning with a capital letter and followed immediately by a full stop).

    You'll easily find examples of one-word sentence fragments, like Miss Flite's in Bleak House: "Yes, my dear, as I was saying, I expect
    a Judgment. Shortly. Then I shall release my birds, you know, and
    confer estates." But that's not what Mr Demanding wants.

  3. Sili said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 8:08 am

    21 September 1997
    I'm sure I'm not the only one to associate this trope with the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

    But from what I can find at The Simpsons Archive, their standard spelling employs capitals rather than full stop, i.e. "Worst Episode Ever".

    Earliest use from a quick search 09-Feb-97 The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show: – that typed summary is dated September '97.

    This may well not be Patient Zero, but I'd venture a bet that it's the primary vector.

  4. Nick Lamb said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    At the risk of slightly deviating from the stated rules

    I'd look for attempts to transcribe Captain Kirk's dialog from Star Trek. It looks like the writers themselves didn't use such punctuation (I have just flipped through an online version of a 1966 Harlan Ellison script) so it might have to be fan transcriptions and particularly those making fun of Shatner's delivery. Maybe the Usenet group or similar?

  5. Andrew Smith said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    p304 of The Southern Literary Messenger of 1851 reports:

    "We once saw a beautiful hand writing so distinct that it could be read as easily as print which possessed the remarkable peculiarity of having a full stop after every word. We have often thought there was some analogy between it and Mr Randolph's style of speaking as it presented itself to our observation in the Convention. He was not contented with making you understand the general meaning of a sentence, he made you remark every word that composed it with as much clearness as though he meant to speak that one word and no other"

  6. David Feil said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    Though examples might not be easily found in a google search, if you had an electronic corpus available or had a hunch that there might be an example in some piece of text, you could easily scan it using a regular expression. The pattern can be described as a series of period-then-spaces separated by non-white-space characters. I believe the expression would look something like:
    That would find a sequence of three one-word sentences as in your example above.

    Also, I doubt this counts but…. I had a successful search for the above pattern in Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons (1914):

    "Alas a doubt in case of more go to say what it is cress. What is it. Mean. Potato. Loaves."

  7. Chris said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    1940s: I had a hunch this punctuation device was used very early on in superhero comic books, so I Googled “classic comic superheros” image search, and started searching for images of superheros in stressful situations (the likeliest use of this device). After some effort, I found a blog devoted to a comic book artist named Don Rico who started off in the 1930s. Here's a jpeg image of a comic that's called either "Adventures into terror" or "The Torture Room." (I'm not sure if one is the subtitle of the other). I don't have a definitive date, but c. 1950 is probably close.
    "WHA – WHAT … WILL … THEY … DO … TO … ME .. ?

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    The Language Log post(s) in question are here and here.

    The Wikipedia page for Comic Book Guy says:

    Comic Book Guy's catch phrase is said to be mocking certain Simpsons fans who will race to the Internet to criticize the producers and writers of an episode they have just finished viewing and declare such episode to be the "Worst Episode Ever." Simpsons fans started this sometime in 1992 on the USENET newsgroup, and later on the Web, leading to an on-air reference to "alt.nerd.obsessive".

    However, the 1992 use was NOT in the capitals-and-periods style. Perhaps some enterprising researcher can find the first example of "Worst. Episode. Ever." (or "Evar") in that newsgroup — it's plausible that it was before 1998, but maybe not.

    In any case, other comments in this thread make it clear that even if played a role in popularizing the technique, it didn't originate it.

  9. Richard Schwarting said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    I downloaded Gutenberg's .zip releases from 90-97 from one of its mirrors and did regex searchs on the packed .txt files. I haven't found any sentences proper that were punctuated like that, but I did find lists of things, which I don't think really counts.

    I would try the rest, but to-day is warm and the beaches are wet.

  10. Peter Metcalfe said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    "I am the Cheese" by Robert Cormier (1977) had "She. Was. Dead." when the protagonist sees his mother's corpse.

  11. Soap said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    I remember a book called "Life. Is. Not. Fair." from middle school. Amazon lists it as "Baby-Preschool" but that just goes to show they dont always know what theyre talking about. It looks like it was published in 1981.

  12. Charles Belov said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    I would probably modify the regular expression to:


    which would get cases of 3 words or more at the risk of missing cases where somebody phrased 2 words in the middle without intervening punctuation.

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

    See also my post from last year, "Exhausted grammar," which covers the Shatnerian delivery alluded to by Nick Lamb above.

  14. John Cowan said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 2:52 am

    I remember seeing "I, will, see, you, damned, first!" as an example of eccentric punctuation in a usage book. I had thought it was Follett's, but Google Books says no.

  15. Chris Lance said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 4:12 am


    (Thomas Thorpe, 1609)

    …or isn't that quite the sort of thing you had in mind?

  16. Chris Henrich said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    In the comic strip _Pogo_, in Oct. 21, 1950, is a talk balloon containing:


    This was reprinted in /Pogo/, by Walt Kelly, volume 4, Fantagraphics Books, 1995, ISBN 1-56097-190-6.

  17. Briony Welshmerts said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    Not to interrupt your project, but I'm a bit worried that we haven't had a proper post from Mark Liberman since last Saturday morning. Does everybody think he's all right, or should we start being concerned? I know he sent something in here, but that doesn't really count, anyone could have done that. Should one of us call Penn and find out if he's got flu, or something?

  18. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

    "Mo! Ther! Fucker!"

    (from Malcolm Braly's 1967 novel On the Yard. A character has been hiding a forbidden lit cigarette in his pocket and has burned his hand.)

  19. maf said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    The idiom was very common in British poster and print advertising in the 80s, although I can't think of a good example. It got used often enough to be an annoying ad cliche.

  20. Nicholas Waller said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    This is also not quite what you had in mind, but similar to and predating the Shakespeare sonnets is the style of Roman inscription as here:

    RVDERIBVS . IN . THEATRO . POMPE and all, with the dots in a hyphen position.

  21. Stewart Haddock said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    There is a old 'Life in Hell' comic by Matt Groening where one frame shows a man playing a video game saying, "MUST! KILL! CATERPILLAR!" I think it was from 'Big Book of Hell' which was published October 31, 1990, but the individual comics would have been published much early.

    Alas, I do not have a copy of this book.

  22. John O'Toole said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

    There is this passage in Joyce's masterpiece (published 1922) that could be considered an early example of the device. Stephen Dedalus, speaking to himself at one point in the National Library episode, thinks "I, I and I. I." then goes on, "A. E. I. O. U."

    A. E. is the nickname of another character in the episode and given that Stephen owes money to a number of people at this point in his life, he is of course joking by way of a pun on the vowels, the common expression I. O. U. and the idea of "I" and "you." Since Joyce also uses the device of running words together in the novel (e.g., "smackwarm" or on the same page as this passage "softcreakfooted"), the punctuation is probably no accident (he could have, for instance, slipped in a comma between "E." and "I." and the sentence would have made just as much sense). I've heard the passage read aloud at various Bloomsdays and if the reader is good, emphasizing each letter, and you know how the joke is constructed, the effect is very funny.

  23. Jay Livingston said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    Not print and not as early as Cormier, but rootlesscosmo's comment above reminded me of a line from Hill Street Blues in the early 80s. J.D is tempted to get involved with an underage girl (played, as I recall, by Ally Sheedy) who is infatuated with him. His partner and moral restraint, Washington, says something like, "I got just three words for you, J.D.: Statue. Tory. Rape."

  24. Nate Dorward said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 6:59 am

    There's the line "Poor. Old. Tired. Horse." in Robert Creeley's "Please" (haven't got the collected poems to hand so can't date it immediately but it's from the 1950s, collected in For Love). It was evidently a sufficiently striking use of punctuation that Ian Hamilton Finlay used the phrase as the title of his 1960s avant-garde poetry magazine.

  25. Will Fitzgerald said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 7:31 am

    I just happened to notice another similar use: punctuation with exclamation points to indicate shouting (?) in Natalia Cecire's weblog (a LL reader, by the way):

    I am not, by the way, against the use of computational methods in the humanities. In fact, I find what I've learned about them interesting and would like to learn more. I am, on the other hand, thoroughly against bullshit articles with heroic narratives about computational methods valiantly revealing the truth that hundreds of doddering old professors refuse! to! see!

  26. Florine said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    I'm not sure if you're interested in a Dutch example, but I immediately thought of the famous book Max Havelaar (1860) by Multatuli.
    There is a sort of running gag with one character (the "resident") who speaks very slowly. He never gets to finish his sentences without interruptions:

    (from Chapter 7)
    `Meneer. Havelaar. Heeft. Gezegd.'
    `Welzeker, Verbrugge, waarom niet? Die dame kan bij ons blijven. Ik zou niet gaarne …'
    `Dat. Het. Goed. Was.' sleepte de resident er met veel moeite bij.

  27. Andrew Joscelyne said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 8:25 am

    Veni. Vidi. Vici.

    Suetonius, a couple of millennia ago?

  28. sleepnothavingness said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    Alan Garner's 1967 children's book, "The Owl Service":

    'It is not opening,' said Huw. 'That is a beauty padlock, see.'

    'Yes,' said Clive. 'We: want: the: key.'

  29. Harry Gilonis said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    The Shakespeare typography is mimicking the style in the Roman inscription; that epigraphic convention has nothing to do with punctuation, it indicates word-breaks – you can't really do kerning on a stone block with a chisel.

    Not 100% on-message, but there's an 1871/72 poem by Rimbaud:

    Boit :
    Voit :

    Choit !

    Tombe :

    Saigne :
    – Clame !

    – and, of course, the one-word poems of Ian Hamilton Finlay (and Aram Saroyan).

  30. Bill Crandall said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    Try Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night for the use of elipses in this way. I recall using periods this way in the late 1960's and feeling I was doing something sort of vogue rather than original.

    Mannheim's translation is 1960's or 1970's, but Celine's French is late 1920's or 1930's. The form becomes insistent in his later works.

    My students do this frequently and have no idea they're doing anything nonstandard at all.

  31. Jim said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    It's undoubtedly not going to be original to comics, but many pop culture things like the Simpson's reference almost certainly stem from Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" (1985), with the phrasing "Mustn't. Black. Out." (Which seems to capture the intent really well.)

    A Google search on the phrase shows that phrase quoted in some UseNet .sigs back in 1986.

RSS feed for comments on this post