|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST 2012
Last year, The Legal Writer column officially celebrated National Punctuation Day — September 24 — with worldwide news, punctuation recipes, punctuation gifts and punctuation haiku. In that article, I invited readers to send in their own haiku about punctuation: three poetic lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively. The response was astonishing, and I’ve received messages throughout the year from readers (and authors) eagerly awaiting the results. Wait no more!
The following gems were contributed by readers who care deeply about punctuation — or at least who wanted to see their names in lights on The Legal Writer’s marquee. Each haiku (or set of haiku) is introduced with just the tiniest reminder of proper usage, mostly so that you’ll appreciate the point of the haiku (but really because I couldn’t help myself). The grand champion is at the end.
These first haiku remind us of basic punctuation rules that we all know but too often miss when proofreading. For example, no one would ever use a period to signify a pause, or end a sentence with a comma, right? Of course, we all know to make a contraction with an apostrophe and the plural without!
English teachers tsk.
when commas and periods
aren’t used correctly,
misunderstood and misused.
Its not that hard, folk’s!
—Judith A. Swinney
My biggest pet peeve:
Quotes go OUTSIDE periods
Not inside. Please stop!
—Lydia M. Godfrey
Some haiku authors took a more philosophical, introspective approach to punctuation, addressing themes of neglect and loss. Remember that the series comma (aka the Oxford comma, the serial comma) appears just before “and” in a list of three or more items. At least, it appears in the writing of grammar curmudgeons. And the ellipsis (three little dots) shows an omission from a quote. The rules on spacing of an ellipsis — with a space before the first dot, between each dot, and after the last dot — are often abused. The worst abuse of an ellipsis is removing context from a quote, oh, like omitting the word “not” to change the meaning completely.
The series comma:
Neat, precise, and effortless.
But oft neglected.
What was omitted?
The ellipsis hides so much
so often abused.
These two haiku are not philosophical but practical. They praise the strength of the exclamation point and honor good proofreading.
Halt. The guard stated.
No one stopped. Halt! He exclaimed!
Creep into text quite slyly.
Proofreading’s a must.
—Judy K. Cohen
The following haiku allows me to rant a bit about the signs that litter our world with incorrect punctuation and grammar.
Punctuates signs everywhere;
Let’s all get it right!
—Judith A. Swinney
Grocery stores are among the worst sign offenders. Consider this haiku a group plea to clean up the stray apostrophe announcing “Carrot’s $1.00” as though one carrot possessed a dollar (and maybe lost it over by the potatoes?) and to correct the sign over the express line announcing “Ten items or less” (which we all know should be “Ten items or fewer”).
This haiku is bittersweet because it was co-written by my colleagues John Bonine and Svitlana Kravchenko. Coming across their submission just a few months after Svitlana’s passing reminded me what an amazing person she was and how many people around the world she inspired.
“Kill do not pardon.”
(Kasnit’ nyelzya pomilovat’)1
Czars need commas too.
The second line is the Russian-language version of the first line. The third line is John and Svitlana’s commentary. Fortunately, the authors submitted a lengthy explanation for their entry, which I excerpt here:
This sentence is used to teach Russian children the necessity of care in placing commas. The sentence is said to have been issued by a czar as an order concerning the fate of a particular prisoner (“Kill do not pardon”). Unfortunately, the czar’s order lacked a comma (did he mean “Kill, do not pardon” or “Kill do not, pardon”), so the prisoner’s fate rested upon how the jailers would interpret the order. (Can you imagine a jailer going back to the czar and asking for clarification of punctuation? We can’t.)2
Russian speakers will note that the second line of the haiku has eight syllables, rather than seven. Of course, being lawyers, John and Svitlana added a long defense of their haiku, asking for a generous interpretation of the structural rule based on a comparison of average word length in English, Czech, French and Russian. They were quite convincing, and I was lenient.
And the winner is…
traffic without rules
words without punctuation both
both utter chaos
It’s never too early to begin next year’s celebration of punctuation. Over the next year, please send me evidence or explanations of punctuation gaffes that you encounter in the world. You can send photos, brief excerpts, or descriptions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy Punctuation Day!
1. казнить нельзя помиловать.
2. This lesson for Russian children is available on YouTube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMoPVzGMkVU. Even without speaking Russian, you can understand the challenge issued to a student whose grade hangs on correct comma usage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment for its support of her work.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2012 Suzanne E. Rowe