Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Punctuation--it's what I'm sayin'

A while ago, Kelli posted about her pet peeves as an editor--that she has none. She is a kind and generous person, and she says:

While I like people to use semi-colons correctly, I will not reject a poem or story because the writer got it completely wrong. We will accept the poem/story and write to the writer to let him/her know we have some punctuation issues we need to fix, but would still like to publish his/her work.

I admire that--and I'll admit right now that, while I hope to be a kind and generous person, I know I'm not when it comes to punctuation.

Sure, I make mistakes, too. I'm not perfect. Every once in a while, I've realized that in the process of revising I've introduced some error. And I'm mortified.

As an editor, I'm quickly distracted by inconsistent punctuation, inconsistent capitalization, inconsistent dashes, mix-ups between it's and its, and mixed-up homophones (there/their/they're, hear/here, heel/heal). Technically, those are spelling mistakes, and I look closely to make sure it is or isn't an intentional play on words--which would be fun.

But honestly, if a writer doesn't care enough to check his or her work before sending it, why should I care enough to read it?

Quick interjection: If a poem is pushing punctuation, using it unusually (but consistently that way), or not using it at all, that's great. Recently, I've been reading some poems by Mei Mei Berssenbrugge in which she uses punctuation only when a stop comes inside a line. If the stop coincides with the end of the line, she doesn't add punctuation. It's different, but she's meticulously consistent. And many fine poets, including W.S. Merwin, have decided not to use punctuation at all for very good reasons.

Before you think I'm only whining, I'm going to give you another good reason to attend to your punctuation: Chances are extremely good that an editor isn't going to have the time to do it for you. Your poem will be posted or printed as-is, warts, misplace apostrophes, and all.

What are your thoughts on this? If you've read this far, do you even care? Am I a dowager or a dinosaur (or just too damn nit-picky)?

What do you think?


Sandy Longhorn said...

Here's where being a composition instructor bleeds over into my poetic life. I started teaching when I started my MFA, and I confess, I didn't fully understand the comma until I had to teach it. Now, whenever I "break a rule" I make sure I do it meticulously. In every other case, I comb through my drafts character by character before sending them out. Still, I'm human and imperfect and I make mistakes, too.

T. Clear said...

I'm a punctuation geek. I was smitten with my husband when his first email missive to me was exquisitely punctuated, formatted, and with bulleted (or is that bulletted?) points.

When my younger son was struggling with comma placement, I told him to think about where he paused when speaking, and to put a comma in a similar place when writing. His response: "But I never pause!"
And he was right. Eventually he got it, and now he gives me a hard time if I text him and get sloppy with the punctuation.

T. Clear said...

Also, I read a while back that the OED is getting rid of a lot of hyphens....Long Live the Hyphen!