THEORY : Punctuation


About Spelling and Punctuation

One of my first haiku in English (around 2004) went like that:

Sitting in Silence -
Daruma meditating
In Japanese.

Later I revised the spelling to this version

sitting in silence -
Daruma meditating
in Japanese


In an exercise about haiku composition in 2005, I wrote the following:

Sometimes I find haiku that start with a capital letter in the first word, but have no fullstop at the end.

Sometimes I find ones that start with a small letter, but have a fullstop at the end.

Sometimes I find haiku that have a capital letter in the beginning and a fullstop at the end, like a proper English sentence should be. (At least, they are somehow consistent.) But they look like a picture in a very heavy frame to me and have not so much openness.

Haiku without capital first letter and no fullstop, well they are really floating in space.
When you write with a Japanese brush and ink, the image starts in your mind and the hand moves over the paper long before and long after the acutal black ink is left on the paper ... it is an ongoing process in space and time and the "marks on paper" are just a small part of the whole much larger process. Japanese looking at this kind of handwriting can see a lot more than meets the eye, so to speak ... They see the soul of the poet even before the haiku starts and see their own mind wander off with the images after reading the words ...

Therefore if a haiku in English is written with small letters and no fullstop, it can imitate a bit of this ... timeless, spaceless creative poetic process, which would otherwise be missed if written only according to the grammar prescriptions.

Read the examples I am referring to here:

"briccone3" answered to this:

"floating in space" (you put it well GABI).
I never realized this quality in haiku until reading the book
Classic Haiku: A Master's Selection by Yuzuru Miura. Most of what I had previously read or visualized was either written in English or the Romanized form of Japanese, romaji. In this book the ku are written in these two forms but also in classic Chinese characters.

Those written in the latter truly float in space and have a visual quality or esthetic that neither English nor romaji can replicate. They are truly beautiful to just look at.

Maybe computers just aren't as artistic as a brush on rice paper, but I also fear that English letters are just no match for classic Chinese characters.

If your computer or Facebook gives a capital letter at the beginning of each new line, turn the automatic spellchecker OFF !


As a translator, sometimes you have to make up words as you begin to understand things deeper. Or experiment with spellings etc.

In January 2007, I came across a kind of re-expport spelling for haiku in English in a Japanese text from the haiku town Matsuyama in Ehime/Japan:
HA.I.KU in Katakana ...

eigo HA.I.KU ... 英語ハイク
(Use : Japanese (EUC) for encoding the kanji.)

Sekai Haiku 世界俳句 World Haiku


My friend Larry compiled this about capital letters used in ELH :
HH Forum May 2011

. . . there was a time when every line in an English-language poem was capitalized. This started to change when the 19th-Century became the 20th-Century.

The first English-language poets that pop into my head, who abandoned capitalization of lines, are H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in British poetry, and E. E. Cummings in American poetry, although there may very well have been free-verse experimenters before them.

Capitalization is a convention. Non-capitalization is a convention.
In mainstream English-language poetry, very few poets still capitalize the first word of every line of a poem, but I believe some occasionally do. More common is capitalization that follows the convention of English prose, which is that the first word of a sentence gets capitalized. Many poets today do this in poems that have conventional sentences. And there are poets who write poems in which there is no captialization whatsoever, which has become a conventional way of indicating how 'free' they are.

English-language haiku has gone through stylistic changes in terms of these conventions. Earlier translators of Japanese haiku, such as Blyth, captialized the first word in each of the three lines of their translations. Ueda, in his biography of Basho (Matsuo Basho, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1970) also capitalized the first word of each of the three lines of his translations of Basho's haiku. By 1992, when Ueda published Basho and His Interpreters, he had abandoned capitalization except for the personal pronoun "I", place names, and people's names, when used in a haiku.

Nowadays, the dominant fashion in English-language haiku is to use no capitalization, period. I think this is due to two trends.
One is to attempt to emulate Japanese haiku, which has, so far as I know, no capitalization. The second trend is to fit in with what is currently fashionable in mainstream English-language poetry under the heading "free-verse", which is to make English-language haiku at least a partial free-verse form.

I remember having read essays about capitalization and punctuation "rules" in English-language haiku, but most of those escape me now. For a sense of what has come and gone, you might want to look at this link to some essays by Jane Reichhold:

Click on the essay, "Haiku Rules That Have Come and Gone."
Relevant to this discussion are these entries in her list:

46. Capitalize the first word of every line.
47. Capitalize the first word only.
48. Capitalize proper names according to English rules.
49. All words in lower case.
50. All words in upper case.

People tend to feel very strongly about conventions such as these, all out of proportion to the conventions' actual importance. It is akin to the strong feelings that various fashions in hair style can evoke.

. . . . .

I'm not sure anyone knows why at one time in English language poetry the first word of each line in a poem was capitalized. I've read an online speculation by a teacher, Alberto Rios, at Arizona State University, that it could have been due to what he calls "housekeeping" -- a way of ifferentiating poetry from prose.

However, since there used to be other ways of making this distinction, particularly when metric lines were the convention in poetry, my speculation is that capitalization of the first word in each line of poetry was a way to indicate the importance of, and the privileging of, poetry in relation to prose. At one time in English, poetry was considered to be a superior art form to prose writing, as was/is the case in many written languages.

So, why did poets begin to drop capitals at the beginning of each line? As I have previously speculated, a good part of it was due to an attempt by poets to free themselves from long-established conventions, even ones as trivial as that. Appearance frequently carries the same weight as substance.

How does this apply to English-language haiku? I'm not sure I agree with Gabi about not using capitalization as a way to represent a more free flowing relationship to space and time. This might have some validity however, if one thinks of each individual haiku written as being part of some vast meta-haiku chain to which all haiku writers are contributors.

In fact, in Japanese, it has been said, if memory serves, that the use of 'kireji' began as a way to indicate a separation between the parts of linked verse in 'renga'.

As I have suggested before, I think the dropping of line-capitalization in English-language haiku (ELH) is due to an attempt to emulate the lack of capitalization in Japanese haiku, and an attempt to fit in with the contemporary paradigms of mainstream free-verse poetry.

I would like to now suggest yet another reason for the dropping of capitalization in ELH:
since a number of people in the ELH community view haiku writing as a spiritual exercise in addition to, or instead of, just being the writing of a particular genre of poetry, dropping capitalization also attempts to acquire a posture of humbleness, feigned or real.
It is meant to demonstrate that haiku doesn't occupy an artistically privileged position. This would be akin to some modern painters doing away with frames, or minimizing the visual impact that frames once had.
HH Forum May 2011

in the white clouds -
shapes of haiku

Gabi Greve, May 2011


We have "cutting words" kireji, in the Japanese language
and many "cut markers" in the English and other languages

The CUT (kire) used in Translations and
English Language Haiku (ELH)

using ellipsis, em-dash, en-dash, comma,
exclamation marks and more


. . . . . . The question mark

The Japanese language has a word expressing the quesiton ...
か KA
ぞ ZO is also uesed, especially in poetry.

o-genki desu ka
How are you?

It is usually translated as a question mark ? .

Some modern Japanese now use the question mark, but it is not obligatory and KA is still the way to express a question.
The word KA is used in Japanese haiku.

秋深き 隣は何を する人ぞ
aki fukaki tonari wa nani o suru hito zo

autumn deepens
and I wonder,
what is my neighbour doing?

Matsuo Basho
Tr. Gabi Greve

WKD : Autumn deeens


A note on kireji, if you want to write in Japanese

Since kireji are not usually used in non-Japanese-language haiku (what a definition!), I will give you a short review of my memo about them.

As a beginner, use only one kireji in one haiku. Leave the exceptions of the rule to the masters. (This is sound advise from many Japanese Haiku Masters.)

Kireji serve the three purposes of : emphasis, cut or jump.

Usually at the end of the first line. Feels like an exclamation mark:
Butterflies! separating strongly from the next two lines, like stopping your breath for a moment, then say the next two lines about a different topic.

Very seldom it can be used in the middle line. In that case the topic is usually the same without a juxtaposition, so it does not CUT the meaning, but connects it strongly.

kiri saku ya..... will separate from the following lines

kiri saite .. the meaning about paulownina will go on in the following line.

<> My pattern (maru is the prototype of a word)

marumaru ya
maru maru maru no
maru no maru

Usually only at the end of the last line. Feels like a sigh, Oh, yee butterflies! Does not cut the meaning as strong as the YA, rather connects the first to lines with the last one.

marumaru no
maru no maru maru
marumi kana

Usually at the end of the last line, but sometimes in the middle line. Cuts the meaning stronger than KANA.

Used in reference of something in the past, something unexpected or very sudden.

marumaru no
maru no maru maru
nari ni

My rule of thumb:

If you have a Japanese word with four beats, use <> marumaru ya <> in the first line

If you have a Japanese word with three beats, use <> marumi kana <> in the last line.

Read a bit more of my thoughts on this here.


kakko 括弧 parentheses, round brackets
kagikakko, kagi kakko カギ括弧, 二重鉤括弧 "hook brackets", Japanese quotation marks
(「 」) (『 』)
Look at different types of brackets in Japanese
© More in the WIKIPEDIA !

nagaki yo no tsui ni naritaki kagikakko

in a long night
the quotation marks
want to become a pair

Hanatani Kiyoshi 花谷清


George Bernard Shaw : suggested respelling of

ghoti for fish

gh as in cough
o as in women (wimmin)
ti as in nation


To the Daruma Museum Index
To the Worldkigo Database




Anonymous said...

I read your thoughts on punctuation. That thought is new to me, Haiku floating in space when there is no punctuation.
Thanks for sharing. :)


Gabi Greve said...

Kireji, a discussion of haiku translators


Anonymous said...

Inspired by you dear Gabi:

walking the path,
leaving a deep inkprint-
that is poetry


the essence
not the flower
is driving me crazy


a timeless poem,
floating in an endless space-
a haiku

You don't have a site.
It is a TREASURE...!
Every visit, I learn moreeeeeeeeeee..
Thank you Gabi