Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

punctuation is not an end, but rather a means: rules and biases

I like to consider punctuation an integral part of any writing. It's not just an end thing, a way to put in a stopper. It's way more than that for me. It's a breath, a pause of some strength or length, or simply a way to gain the attention of the reader saying get ready for something else. I am, of late, distressed to see the rebuking of the Oxford comma, that little curvy mark that separates a list from the oncoming conjunction: we ate ham, cheese, and toast with our eggs. We now see it without that comma before the "and," which makes me a little bit crazy. I look at a load of submitted poems for my 'zine (note the apostrophe!) and can tell you that nonuse (or, worse yet, misuse) of punctuation sends me 'round the bend (ha! another apostrophe!) Someone recently told me that the apostrophe in contractions is unnecessary now. This trend toward eliminating them is due to internet "speech" and to laziness. My students' papers were littered with incorrect usage of punctuation, including non-contracted contractions. Yikes! Cough! I consider this a sign of laziness or ignorance. (Harsh, you say? Well, there it is: I'm okay being harsh on this)

Through time, we have seen many changes and alterations in punctuation, and certainly cannot call it static. But the abandonment of punctuation by some writers (including some in my own circles) is jarring to me. I have a notion that some people avoid using ANY punctuation because they simply do not know (remember?) how to use it. The truth is that poetry is not like any other kind of writing in terms of lines, punctuation. We do not always end a line in punctuation. This is, in part, because the ends of our lines are not necessarily the ends of our lines. We enjamb. Since we do, we need to signal to our readers just when they ought to pause, stop, or move onward through the line to the next without awkwardness. We don't want readers to enjamb our lines if we do not intend them to BE enjambed. Punctuation serves the purpose of saying "pause here a bit before moving on" or its lack says "keep going to the next line without pausing." It is particularly important in fixed form poetry where pausing might overemphasize the rhyme, making it seem forced. We want our readers to feel comfortable with how they read our poems. We don't want them to pause to try to suss out HOW the line ought to be read. For me, I want my readers to flow through the poems and feel the meaning. I do not want them to have so much to do that they miss the glory of words, phrases, and meanings. Unfair at its very root.

One form of punctuation that is abused and overused is the ! (in all forms of writing). We generally do not see the ! used in formal writing, but we do see it all over the place in casual writing. It can be annoying to be told how we are to feel as we read. Certainly the ! is, in my opinion, just that: a directive to get excited. I want to decide when and where I get excited. Please don't tell me to do it.

In poetry, use of the ! can mark the poet as having little in the way of skill for creating emphasis. There are so many ways to create emphasis that having nothing to do with punctuation. Using the ! ought to be relegated to the quirky poem, the satirical poem, the experimental. I fully admit to personal bias here. When I see the ! used in a poem, I tend to disregard the poem and the poet out of hand. OK, so maybe I'm being harsh here, but I embrace this little bias. It works for me. Remember, I did say the experimental, the humor poem, etc are places where the ! is fair game, so please don't hate me for my little biases! (LOL)

Another of the abused forms of punctuation (thanks Emily D) is the long dash, the em dash. One of my poet friends absolutely loves the long dash. She uses it profusely. I am trying to break her em dash habit. Others in my writing group are also fond of this punctuation and use it, too often in some cases. It is infectious, almost viral. Using the em dash is a convenient way to put in punctuation when one is unsure of how much of a pause is needed. It is also a way to set a kind of placeholder while one decides the length of a pause. I think that the em dash in a first draft, used as a placeholder, is fine. In fact, it is helpful, as long as it can be reworked into some other form of punctuation later. It is good and prudent to look long and hard at these placeholder dashes when revising and to ask the hard questions about intent and meaning when doing so.

I will end today's blog with a few "rules" for using the long dash (the em dash) which is so called due to its width, the approximate width of the letter "m" in typing. Grammarians warn us to use it sparingly, if at all, in formal writing. In informal writing, it MAY be used more liberally to replace commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses. It can signal added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. It is this last use (abrupt change of thought) where the em dash can function beautifully in poetry. Remember, "normal" rules can be a bit different in poetry than in prose. We poets need to consider our readers carefully when we punctuate. Just because we CAN use the em dash, we need not if it will cause the reader untoward work to understand or read our poems. Indeed we ought not. I'll (not Ill) leave you with a decision: to dash or not to dash. But if you send me a poem, I will look at the em dash with a jaded eye. Fair warning!

Examples:You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.
Never have I met such a lovely person—before you.
I pay the bills—she has all the fun.

A semicolon would be used here in formal writing.
I need three items at the store—dog food, vegetarian chili, and cheddar cheese.

Remember, a colon would be used here in formal writing.
My agreement with Fiona is clear—she teaches me French and I teach her German.

Again, a colon would work here in formal writing.
Please call my agent—Jessica Cohen—about hiring me.

Parentheses or commas would work just fine here instead of the dashes.
I wish you would—oh, never mind.

This shows an abrupt change in thought and warrants an em dash.


  1. I agree with all of these except the first two, where I wouldn't use a semi-colon. I think an em dash is fine for the first one, where it acts in effect like parentheses. Brackets might be an alternative. In the second one I would use a comma as an alternative to the em dash. I think, though, that this may be an evolutionary thing about punctuation. The use of the em dash is becoming more widespread and, like modern changes in vocabulary, will be hard to stop.

    When I was at school in England in the sixties, I was taught not to use the Oxford comma. I was told then that the only time when it was appropriate to use a comma before 'and' was when the and was used as a conjunction. Maybe things have changed!

  2. I am not a fan of the em dash per se, preferring to use other more stable bits of punctuation. I am also a fan of white space to do the job of making a reader pause a moment. Having said this, I am not a fan of NO punctuation when the meaning gets muddled in the process.

    Thanks for your response.