for Poetry Submissions

Where to Put the F in Comma

by F.J. Bergmann

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …
                    —Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

… but the proliferation of incorrect punctuation, misspellings, typos, and other basic grammatical errors is, nevertheless, distressing. Weird spellings and grammar used to be the defining attributes of spam; now they are increasing rapidly everywhere, with journalists and copywriters as the worst offenders. Sadly, this has begun to penetrate poetry publications as well. As the person responsible for retyping and formatting the 2005 Wisconsin Poets' Calendar poems, I’d like to mention the most frequent bugaboos, as well as other dislikes and “cringe factors” mentioned by writing instructors and editors of literary journals.

Yikes to Watch Out For
Many poets dispense with punctuation, capital letters, and other conventions of the written language. Feel free to omit punctuation if you like, but watch for altered meanings. Conversely, commas are frequently inserted unnecessarily: “eats, shoots, and leaves.” And whether you punctuate or not, be consistent. It drives editors (and readers) crazy trying to figure out why, in a poem with reasonably ordinary sentence structure, some stanzas or lines are correctly punctuated and others are left partly or completely naked.

Capital Crimes
A similar consistency is preferred for capital letters: you can use normal capitalization, capitalize the first letter of each line, or have no caps at all, but there ought to be some rationale behind a desultory sprinkling. The William Blake school of Random Capitalization is Passé. Note that capitalizing Spring, Autumn, and the like is also archaic. Many novice poets are enamored of the lower-case first-person nominative singular pronoun “i”; many poetry consumers perceive this as either affected and overly precious, or disingenuously self-effacing—and best left to e.e. cummings.

Serial Killers
Remember that series, e.g. “one, two, and three,” correctly have commas following each element; the one preceding “and” may be optional, but its omission can have interesting results—as in the dedication To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. The omission is necessary to indicate that a following phrase modifies the series: “Tom, Dick, and Harry, who spent the night in jail” means that Harry spent the night in jail; “Tom, Dick and Harry, who spent the night in jail” means that all of them did. When you have a series of phrases with internal commas, use semicolons between the phrases instead of commas for clarity. Commas do not replace conjunctions; semicolons replace conjunctions.

And You Can Quote Me
Quotation marks (“ ”) are used in actual quotes, of course, but also to indicate the writer’s disbelief in the cited claim: a “delightful” surprise. In this country, terminal punctuation precedes the quotation mark. A quote inside another quote takes single quotation marks (‘ ’). Within quoted material, a mistake in grammar or spelling that you know better than to make and want to draw attention to is indicated by [sic]—Latin for “thusly”—following the offending expression.

Compounding Mistakes
Anyone is one word; no one is two. Anymore is one word only when used as an adverb, as “She doesn’t run anymore.” “Is there any more spaghetti?” should still be two words. Anywhere and anybody (unless you are speaking of a random cadaver) are not two words, nor are everywhere, everybody, whatever, whenever, however, forever, evermore, and nevermore. All right is two words. With two Ls. Already is one with one. Many others are in limbo; as two-word terms get older and wrinklier, they seem to first become hyphenated and then coalesce into one word. Go with your spell checker, spell-checker, or spellchecker, your favorite dictionary, or your tastes. Hyphenations not only indicate compound words, but are always inserted when using a phrase as an adjective or noun (state-of-the-art garrotte, stick-to-itiveness).

Dashing Through the Slush
Dashes are not hyphens! Dashes come in two flavors, em- (—) and en- (–). An em-dash may be indicated by two hyphens (--); an en-dash is not indicated by anything other than itself, and is only used for numbers (1–10) and dates (1885–1887). An em-dash is used to indicate an aside, or a hesitation or break longer than that indicated by a comma, semicolon, or colon—a very pregnant pause, so to speak. It is also frequently used by inexperienced poets to embellish every other line break. (Mac users: en-dash is Option-Hyphen; em-dash is Option-Shift-Hyphen.)

Speak On, Sweet Ellipsis
Ellipses . . . what would novice poets do without a myriad of these to insert not only at line breaks, but also at the slightest provocation? Fortunately, the supply eventually gives out and neophytes have to start using mundane punctuation, unless they are practicing for time-travel to the 19th century. Ellipses are used to indicate omitted material or an unfinished sentence, and are correctly used . . . with a space fore and aft, and a space between each period. Note that this is according to the Chicago Manual of Style; ellipses as a character are part of many fonts, e.g. …, most of which omit the interior spacing. They can be achieved by Option-; for you Mac fans.

Adjective Viewpoint
When more than one adjective modifies a noun, the use of a comma between them is determined by whether the adjectives all modify the same thing to the same degree. If all the adjectives can be omitted without changing the essential point of the sentence, there should be commas between all of them, but any adjective critical to interpretation should not be preceded by a comma, e.g. The small, dirty children cried every night. vs. The small, dirty orphaned children cried for their mother. If all the adjectives are required for clarity, no commas should be used: lower-case first-person nominative singular pronoun.

For Your Protection
Misplaced apostrophes are my pet peeve of all time—outside the political arena, that is. Apostrophes indicate a possessive or a contraction. Instances of misuse are so bountiful as to make samples unnecessary, but for a plethora of read-’em-and-weeps, see the Apostrophe Protection Society, a laudable institution that deserves your support. I’m only going to say that ’s at the end of a word makes it a possessive or a contraction of “____ is,” not a plural; that ’til and till are the only accepted contractions of until—you may not have your double L and apostrophe too; and that it’s is not, never, a possessive: it is only, now and forevermore, a contraction of it is. Remember that no possessive pronoun ever contains an apostrophe—their is a possessive, they’re is a contraction of they are, and there is somewhere else.

Recommended Reading
The Well-Tempered Sentence, The Transitive Vampire, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness, and anything else by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Eats, Shoots & Leaves* by Lynne Truss
A Manual of Style (I’ve got the Chicago Twelfth Edition, Revised, but any of them should do just fine)
A dictionary—the bigger, the better; the ne plus ultra being the OED

* Regrettably, the jacket of Eats, Shoots & Leaves itself contains (in my opinion) two errors, which demonstrates Murphy’s Law of Finger-Pointing: any letter, essay, or book about errors will inadvertently promulgate at least one glaring example of the type deplored within. When you find mine, gloat to your heart’s content.

© 2005 F.J. Bergmann

Too busy to submit your poetry to magazines or journals? Don't know where they would fit in?  POEMFACTOTUM is an affordable poetry submission service!  No hourly fees; just flat rates:


F.J. Bergmann
W5679 State Road 60
Poynette, WI 53955

(608) 566-9087