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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Punctuation and grammar provide poets and writers with language tools of the writing trade

Poets from countries outside the U.S. have recently been requesting critiques more often than American poets, which usually brings up correct usage of English grammar and punctuation. Both of these crucial aspects of language have been touched on in previous articles on The Poetry Editor blog such as “Revising your poetry can be a smooth move” and “That Punctual Punctuation (Anyway) How” but to recap a few important reasons:

• Punctuation guides readers through a poem.
• Punctuation and good grammar assist understanding.
• Punctuating a poem in a weird way punctuates imperfections and weirdness.
• Well-woven syntax (sentence structure) threads each line with artistry.
• Awkward or unnatural syntax confuses and loses a reader.

Almost every poet wants to stand out or be different, but breaking rules, peppering and assaulting poems with periods and commas, or twisting syntax into pretzels seldom has the desired effect. Most often, freshness comes in other ways as poets decide to:

• Be observant.
• Be clear.
• Be accurate.
• Be highly visual.
• Keep looking to find a fresh picture, perspective, insight, or comparison.
• Keep listening to the music by reading aloud each version of each poem.

Being consistent makes an effective choice too. For instance, some poets put a comma at the end of each line whether it’s needed or not, or they omit punctuation along each line then suddenly add a period at the end of a verse. Since a number of poets seem to be doing the same thing, this might be a trend (albeit ineffectual), or maybe the poet doesn't know normal punctuation works well, or maybe poets in general no longer learn about punctuation and grammar in grammar school.

Regardless of the reasons, poets and writers really need to fill or refill their toolbox of primary writing aids. If, for instance, you do not know how to apply punctuation or grind out grammar in appropriate times and places, you can improve your language skills by finding out what is correct and what is not. How?

Poets and writers with Microsoft Word software can:

Go to “File” then “Options” then “Proofing” and check the boxes needed.

Or call up a file you have saved in Word. Go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar, then click and activate “ABC – Spelling & Grammar.”

Your best options, however, include these suggestions:

Get a grammar textbook, preferably one written for grammar school kids! Why? Well, why not make learning as easy as possible?

Visit such sites as:

Chicago Manual of Style online

Guide to Grammar and Writing (college level)

Online Resources for Writers (from the University of Richmond)

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Studying proper use of grammar and punctuation might take some time, but then you will know the information and be able to use it in innumerable ways. Even more, though, as a poet or writer, your writing deserves whatever you can give – not tricks or weird maneuvers but skillful use of the tools of your trade.

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved


  1. Very helpful information, the desire to be different is alluring to me as a new poet but I see how damaging it is to the poem.

    The six bullet points are very helpful things to remember, that there are other more effective ways to make poems appealing.

    Thankyou for the links Mary, it may be difficult to learn grammar but very much a neccesity.

    Lastly I will say that the critique service is excellent for highlighting these errors for those unaware, such as myself.
    I highly recommend it for anyone unsure of their use of grammar and punctuation.
    Seeing written corrections is an effective aid to learning.

  2. Thanks for your encouraging words, Matthew. I've asked members of one of the peer groups I belong to on LinkedIn to let me know of other grammar websites with easy-to-follow info and visuals that I can add to the Resource page of The Poetry Editor website, so check back to see if new links appear.

    I've also been thinking how each poet is a unique person, which means poets just naturally bring something different or unique to their poems, simply by being themselves. Effective use of grammar and punctuation, however, can help us to connect with other people, who might not otherwise be able to follow our thoughts without punctuation and syntax to guide their reading and comprehension.

  3. Hi Mary, I read your post on LinkedIn and was so inspired I wrote a blog post in response. That was before I read this post on your blog!
    In any case, I agree with most of what you say, however, I think if a poet doesn't use any punctuation in a verse, then plops a period at the end of the verse, they simply haven't thought about the punctuation! I put some links in
    my blog post for some British style and grammar dictators :-). You may want to check them out. I'll be back to check your blog again. Looks like some interesting reading for this performance poet :-) who believes there isn't an established way to punctuate a poem that can portray the way I would perform it!

  4. Good info on your blog! Hope you don't just revisit this one, but sign up to Follow :) Thanks.

    Punctuating poetry to guide the poet in performing might vary from punctuation needed to guide readers in comprehending. Either way, the best answer for any aspect of a poem comes as we ask ourselves: Does it work?

  5. Grammarly Cost
    Language is an important part of expressing ourselves to the whole world. It is needed while we are speaking to someone and also when we are writing something. The language that we talk often tends to have colloquialisms, and the grammar isn't always perfect. But it does reflect into our writings. Along with that, we aren't always able to write in perfect grammar.