The Breaking Point: End-stopping and Enjambment
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By SparrowSong   |   Watch
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Published: June 9, 2009

The most noticeable difference between poetry and prose is often the use of line breaks in poetry. When the line break comes at the end of a phrase, sentence, or clause, the line is end-stopped. End-stopped lines often end with punctuation like periods/full stops, commas, semi-colons, and colons. When the line break disrupts the phrase, sentence, or clause, the line is enjambed. The French word enjambement, from which 'enjambment' is derived, means 'straddling,' and appropriately, the phrases straddle two or more lines.


The first four lines of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" are an example of end-stopped lines:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Walt Whitman also uses end-stopped lines in "Song of Myself (I)":

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Notice that in these examples, every line ends in a piece of punctuation, and every line is either a complete phrase or a complete thought is implied ('thou art more lovely and more temperate [than a summer's day].'). End-stopped lines bring a sense of closure, peace, balance, and harmony.


Enjambed lines are found in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale:

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

Note that only the last two lines are end-stopped; the other line breaks split up phrases. Enjambment is also found in Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "The Pool Players./ Seven at the Golden Shovel.":

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Here, enjambment changes the rhythm by placing additional stress on the 'we' on the end of each line.  Enjambment can also create a sense of forward motion, discomfort, urgency, or disorder, and be used to create variation or tension.

Application and Importance

As we've seen, a long, end-stopped line like Whitman's has a melodious, resounding, peaceful effect. A short, enjambed line creates a sense of urgency ("We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin."). The enjambment in the medium-length lines of A Winter's Tale propel the reader forward through the poem and keeps us reading; the medium-length lines of "Sonnet 18" seem calm and measured. Part of this is because of the regularity of the meter in "Sonnet 18," but part is because of the end-stopped lines in contrast to the enjambment of the lines from A Winter's Tale.

If you've decided to enjamb your lines but don't know where to place your line breaks, remember that we often subconsciously put more emphasis on the last word in a line, because it's the word held in the mind for that fraction of a second that we pause while we scroll down to the next line.  Most poets choose to break lines after nouns and verbs because of this, as these are the strongest words in poems.  

The extra emphasis on this last word also means that enjambment can change how a poem is read.  'We left school' does not have the same rhythm as 'We / left school,' and in this case, the emphasis on 'we' highlights the egotism of the pool players as the focus of the poem instead of their actions, at least until the last line, where 'die soon,' in a line all its own, receives the emphasis.  Keep in mind that breaking a line after an article ('a,' 'an,' 'the' ), conjunction ('and,' 'or,' etc.) or a preposition puts emphasis on one of the least important words in the line.  In the thirty lines of poetry above, none of the poets chose to break lines after articles, conjunctions, or prepositions; they all end their lines in nouns, verbs, pronouns, or the occasional adjective.

Line breaks can also change the meaning of the poem by misdirecting the reader.  "I held a fly swatter" is pretty mundane. "I held a fly / swatter" leads the reader in one direction ('I held a fly' ), and then changes the direction of the reader's thought process and the meaning of the line by adding more to the phrase. The sentence is still mundane, but it's a tad more interesting because of the line break. However, doing this too often can make your readers feel like you're trying to trick them and be more clever than you are, so be careful. Your reader may prefer if you change 'I held a fly swatter' to something more interesting instead of trying to spice up something dull with devices.


Line breaks, like all literary devices, should be used deliberately. They can come unconsciously, but the choice to keep them should be conscious. Try breaking up famous published poems in new ways and ask yourself how the meaning, rhythm, or tempo of the poem changes. Experiment with line breaks in your own poems. The more conscious you become of where and why you break your lines, the more tools you'll be able to choose from, and the better your poetry will be.

Thanks for reading.  I hope this helps you!

Sources / More Information:
Robert G. Shubinski's Glossary of Poetic Terms (E) at Bob's Byway.
Peter Lewis Grove's article, "Run-on Line, Enjambment" from The Literary Encyclopedia.
anonymous's avatar
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shokker66's avatar
shokker66Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for the great explanations between end stop and enjambment. It has been a very long time since I thought about what makes an enjambment. Your explanation clarified it and was dead on to how I was taught and have practiced enjambment. As I went searching for the best explanation to help me explain it to another, I came across examples from people who . . . really didn't have a clue.  THANK YOU!
Thank you very much for taking the time to explain this as clearly as you did!
Consider another newb enlightened...!
IndigoSkyes's avatar
IndigoSkyesHobbyist Writer
Your tutorial has been featured by :iconthewrittenrevolution: for the September 1st Writers of the Revolution feature! Congratulations! :heart:
SparrowSong's avatar
Thanks, but I'd rather not receive any publicity. I've hidden all my journals for a reason. This only shows up in people's favorites because it used to be a news article, and I only keep it up for those who had added it to their favorites back then.
IndigoSkyes's avatar
IndigoSkyesHobbyist Writer
Would you prefer that we remove you from the blog? (:
SparrowSong's avatar
I think I need to figure out whether to delete the journal entry myself.

Thanks for being courteous!
LiliWrites's avatar
I hope you don't delete this particular one. :( I reference it ALL the time in critiques because it is so helpful.
ignotism's avatar
ignotism General Artist
This was a very useful article! Thank you!
Tzigan's avatar
"Your reader may prefer if you change ‘I held a fly swatter’ to something more interesting"


More seriously, thanks dear - that's given me a much needed education in the subject :)

Wolfenlied's avatar
WolfenliedHobbyist Writer
Awesome article! :) I've subconsciously done a little enjambment but now it feels like I'm starting to get a handle on it.

Experimented with it here [link]
rlkirkland's avatar
rlkirklandHobbyist Writer
When we stop learning we have begun to die. :heart:
seussical-love's avatar
Thank you very much, oh teacher my teacher! I needed this. Knowledge is good for all experience levels.
SparrowSong's avatar
As long as it doesn't require me to be dead on a deck. ;P
salshep's avatar
Great article, Audrey, and much-needed. There's a few folks I'll be pointing this way, for sure.
alapip's avatar
alapipHobbyist Writer

thank you for writing this. for my
comments, as well as my poetry,
this is something i needed badly.

a small but needed detail
in my lexicon of methods;
what was done in mere intuit
now has new direction to it,
artistic choice of two i have
to line-break
or enjamb it.
you give me 'nother route to take, longer thinking "dammit!"

SparrowSong's avatar
I like that last rhyme!
alapip's avatar
alapipHobbyist Writer
tanx yew veddy muck!

(eating taffy)(slurp)
Mattiello's avatar
MattielloProfessional Writer
Quite wonderful. As everyone has said already, you're always very helpful. :thanks:
Jazzman1989's avatar
Jazzman1989Student Writer
I'm loving your informative journals, articles, and deviations! They are what the lit community needs! :aww:
Memnalar's avatar
MemnalarHobbyist Writer
Good stuff, and timely. ~slather recently educated me as to what an enjambed line break was. Apparently I did one in a poem, and had no idea. :D
SparrowSong's avatar
~slather's pretty groovy, for sure.
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