I love new words. I always get really excited whenever I learn a new word, and I try to use it as often as is applicable in my daily life. Sometimes this is harder to do than I’d like. However, this is a writing blog, and the word I learned today is a writing word. Congratulations, you get to learn about enjambments.


Definition of Enjambment

The word enjambment comes from the French enjambement, which means to step over, or put legs across.

The term as a literary device refers to the practice of running lines of poetry from one to the next without using any kind of punctuation to indicate a stop (periods, commas, etc.).

Examples of Enjambment

You see this all the time with Shakespeare’s later plays and with other Elizabethan poets, and Homer used enjambment extensively as well.

Here’s a passage from Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tails that illustrates enjambment (see the second line):

Love will not be constrain’d by mastery.
When mast’ry comes, the god of love anon
Beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone.

Another example, this from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (notice the third and fourth lines):

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Enjambment forces the reader’s eye to the next line before they’ve completely processed the thought, creating tension between word and idea.

Usually when a writer makes use of enjambment, the purpose is to fool the reader. An idea is presented in the first line of the enjambment, only to be met with a conflicting or contrasting conclusion in the second line. Enjambments can also allow for a freer flow of ideas, or continued enforcement of the poem’s main idea without the encumbrance of punctuation that is often deemed optional in poetry anyway.

End-stopped: The Opposite of Enjambment

The opposite of enjambment is end-stopped, when a line in a poem ends with a period, comma, or other punctuation.

Here’s an example of end-stopping from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Note that enjambment is not the same thing as a run-on sentence. Enjambment is one thought split between two lines; a run-on sentence is multiple ideas in one sentence with no punctuation separating them.

Therefore, be judicious with your enjambments.

Have you ever written poetry with enjambment? Does your favorite poem use enjambment?

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Write for fifteen minutes in enjambment mode. Split ideas across multiple lines, and add some twists and turns to those ideas. Post your practice in the comments when you’re done.

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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