September 16, 2022

If we live long enough, each one of us may become known to friends and loved ones for a catchphrase, words that define our character in some special way.

My dad, who rarely used profanity, had his own substitute: “I’ve got two words for you, buddy, and they’re not happy birthday!” My mom, the more vocal parent, had a bunch of catchphrases. If you told her that her lasagna was good, she’d reply, “What’s in it to be bad?”

This works, no doubt, at the professional level. “Writing is not magic,” said writing coach Donald Murray, time and again. “It’s a process.”

I learned “Get the name of the dog,” an imperative to collect key details from my first city editor, Mike Foley, who, I have heard, learned it from his editor Jack Alexander.

My legacy may well be one reporting strategy and one favorite sentence from William Shakespeare.

I often share the idea that it is the writer’s job not just to find the best words, but to deliver them in the best order. My favorite example comes from Shakespeare in Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth dies offstage, there is a scream, and then the delivery of the news to her ambitious husband: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

I think it is OK to express some gentle humor after the passing of a great figure who dies at the age of 96, surrounded by loved ones. On that note, seven different pals sent me that identical message to deliver the news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

In honor of the queen, I feel it is only right to use the moment to share a writing tool that would have been well appreciated, I guess, by the first Queen Elizabeth and then by King James, both fans of Shakespeare’s work.

My best rendition of this tool is in my book “The Art of X-ray Reading.” I am repeating a condensed version here in which I appreciate the language in Macbeth.

(Let me add, before I begin my analysis, that there might not be two women more different than Lady M and Queen E, but they did have two things in common. Both were played numerous times on stage and screen by an interesting variety of actors. And, both, by coincidence, died in Scotland.)

Here we go

Although we do not know the exact day Shakespeare was born, we celebrate his birthday on April 23. As of this writing, the Bard is more than 450 years old. Because many of us will not be residents of this “distracted globe” when Will’s big 500 comes around, we should do our best to praise him now and as often as we can for as long as we can. There is no one like him.

Those of you who have read my books or attended my classes know that I have a favorite Shakespeare sentence. It comes from Macbeth — or, as superstitious thespians refer to it, the Scottish Play. Lady Macbeth dies offstage. When we last had seen her, she was crazed, washing the blood from her hands over and over, even when there wasn’t a “damned spot” left. Later, one of Macbeth’s attendants approaches him with the news: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Before I explain how this sentence forever changed my writing and teaching, a bit of backstory is in order. Several years ago, my daughter Alison Clark performed in the Georgia Shakespeare production of Macbeth on Halloween weekend. Alison played one of the three witches, named the Weird Sisters. In Shakespeare’s time, weird had a different meaning from the modern sense of “super-crazy” and “unusual.” Back then it meant “fated” or “destined,” and it will be the prophecies of the Weird Sisters that seal Macbeth’s fate.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest plays. When the Macbeths slaughter the king in their own castle, they have committed three of the gravest sins as understood within the Elizabethan and Jacobean moral order: They kill a king (regicide), they kill a kinsman (patricide), and they violate the covenants of hospitality. Hosts are responsible for their guests’ safety while they reside within the hosts’ walls. At the end, Macbeth gets what he deserves. He is killed in battle offstage, an opportunity for one final shock, as his conqueror walks on the stage with Macbeth’s bloody head in his hand.

This is perfect Halloween stuff, and it was a joy to see Alison cavorting with her two very weird Weird Sisters, one played by a beefy gentleman. We watched two performances, and I then returned home to reread the play. Somehow, I got hooked on the sentence, “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Emphatic word order

My obsession with this sentence grew from the realization that Shakespeare did not have to write the sentence that way. He had at least two, if not three, other choices:

  • The Queen is dead, my lord.
  • My lord, the Queen is dead.
  • And if the messenger had been Yoda of Star Wars fame, Macbeth may have had to deal with “Dead the Queen is, my lord.”

As you examine those three alternatives, recognize that there is nothing “wrong” with them. All four versions stand up to the rigors of Standard English, even though Yoda’s version seems eccentric. In all four sentences, the six words are the same. But in each, the words roll out in a different order.

To honor Shakespeare, I profess that his version is the best — the best words in the best order. But such preferences cannot be just declared, they must be argued. Here, then, I make my case through an X-ray reading of “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

  • A momentous announcement, the death of a queen, is made public in six quick words.
  • Each word is one syllable long.
  • The sentence has a clear beginning, middle, and ending — praise be to commas!
  • The subject of the sentence — “The Queen” — appears immediately. Any sentence with such a beginning carries weight.
  • The least significant element in the sentence, “my lord,” appears in the middle, the position of least emphasis.
  • The slight delay between subject and verb holds a nanosecond of suspense — a gift to a good actor.
  • The most important phrase, “is dead,” appears at the end, the point of greatest emphasis.

This rhetorical strategy — placing the most emphatic word in a sentence at the end — is more than 2,000 years old, but it felt new to me until Shakespeare’s words slapped me good and hard. It has become for me weightier than a strategy, more like a theory of reading and writing, the fact that any phrase that appears near the end of a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter will receive special attention.

What we call a period, Queen Elizabeth II and all the Brits would call a full stop — a better name, a rhetorical name, because it focuses our attention on the effects of an ended sentence. All humor and most oratory is marked by the repetition of this single strategy.

Got something good, kid? Make sure it’s not hiding in the middle. Put it at the end.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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