Tag Archives: punctuation

Only to a degree expressible.

I’ve shared four poems by W.S. Merwin on my blog over the years. He is a poet who doesn’t use punctuation in his poems. I recently read an interview with him, given five years ago. Here I’m posting a short excerpt in which he talks about his eschewing punctuation, and about the uses and challenges of poetry generally.W.S. Merwin_NewBioImage

If you stop using punctuation, that’s a kind of formality. I mean you have to be very conscious of the grammar and the syntax and how the sentence is put together; otherwise it’ll be just so ambiguous and confusing you just won’t be able to read it. The other thing I think it does is to make the separation between poetry and prose. I thought, punctuation is very convenient, but it was really invented in the seventeenth century for prose. Not for poetry at all. The punctuation of Shakespeare texts is whatever seemed convenient. There weren’t any particular rules that he was following that I can see. I mean it changed in the course of the plays. But above all, I thought that having no punctuation made you listen to the poem. That’s the important thing.
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Poetry, like the imagination itself, must be limitless. And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what—poetry is just that. Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got. That’s another reason why I think that poetry is as ancient as language itself, because I think language must come out of an urge for which there was no expression, no way of doing it. I mean grief or fear or rage or whatever it was. It goes from one roar or one scream or one terrible sound of pain to starting to articulate it. It’s the articulating that becomes poetry. But it doesn’t become information at that point. It’s closer to translation. It’s translating something that’s there, that is only to a degree expressible.

-W.S. Merwin in Guernica magazine interview

Minding your itses and it’ses.

This article from Stan Carey at the Sentence First blog,  Its, it’s: It’s a problem should help you clear up any hesitation or confusion you have about when to put an apostrophe in its. It’s the most thorough treatment of the problem I have read, with 40 ! surprising and cringeworthy examples of misuse photographed from original documents or screens, even in the edited prose of such publications as The New York Times and The Economist. Using it’s when its is called for is the most way these two are mixed up — I think even more so now than when he wrote this article. Anits 2d still wrong.

To be fair I should mention that Mr. Carey is generally in the descriptive linguistic camp, but he says this issue is a pet peeve of his. He admits that the scale of the its-it’s problem is not cosmic, “But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

If you don’t want to read any of his article, here is a key point to remember, which alone may correct the tendency to follow the maddening crowds: It’s always, always is a contraction for it is or it has. If you start to type it’s, ask yourself if you could say one of those phrases instead. No? Then leave out the apostrophe.

Another thing that helps is to keep a list in your mind of all the possessive pronouns (noting that its is one of them), none of which have apostrophes: my, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, etc. See, even the ones ending in s do not have apostrophes. Its behaves like its siblings.it's 2

But I hope you will at least scan the article – it’s fun to take instruction from examples of professional writers goofing up, and it will freshen and reinforce your language skills so that no one will think you are sloppy or illiterate — at least not over this little word.