Jay Waters captured common self-doubts about grammar-related abilities in his two-stanza freeform poem that won the 2023 ACES National Grammar Day Poetry Contest.
I grade grammar, guiltily.
the task, only steps
ahead of my students, my
own writing treated with disdain
Oh, that IS better,
the removed confusion
settling like mud out of lake water,
leaving only what I meant
Waters, 61, is retired from advertising, and for the past eight years he has taught advertising strategy at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Not only does he grade a lot of student writing, but he also also works among “some hugely talented writers — best-selling authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, AP Style experts — so I am constantly trying not to embarrass myself with my writing.”
He said he turns to Grammarly, a popular software application that provides some general writing advice.
Judges for this year’s contest also liked a slightly risqué two-stanza quatrain that might help us remember the differences between lay, lie, lain and laid:
Lie with me and lay me
Your usage is oh so right
“Lay” takes a direct object
So make me your object tonight
We will have lain there
Until the morning light
You will have laid me
My brilliant grammatical knight
The second-place poem was written by Jeffrey Barg, writer of “The Grammarian” column in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Third place went to a jarring new twist on an old joke about commas and the danger of dropping one:
"So, have you eaten Grandma?"
With one resounding crunch,
"Without a comma, darling,
'Twas quite a shocking lunch."
That was by Amanda Louise Davis-Obigbesan.
In fourth place by Phil Boiarski, a published poet, was a clever ode that combined punctuation and etymology:
Ode to the Comma
Take a pause from pausis -
"a cessation, a pause,"
from pauein - "to cause to cease,"
Pause for all-too-common comma,
Hesitate a beat, less than a breath,
a bit, a byte, certainly not drama,
the full dead end of a period,
or the prattle of
a run on, nice,
And in fifth-place, Jessica Stump wrote lovingly of the em dash.
Em dash—lovely and wide—
you are truly the best mark to date, having
dashed off with my heart since the 7th grade,
when a young poetess (me) decided she
would emulate one Emily D.
Oh, Em—what whispers,
what jubilees can you not hold
For his winning poem, Walters will receive a variety of tools perfect for anyone wishing to feel better about their grammar acumen, including a link for free access to the LinkedIn Learning course “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing,” a one-year membership to ACES: The Society for Editing, and complimentary registration to the ACES virtual conference Sept. 27-29, 2023. The winning poem also will be featured on Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast.
Our celebrity judges for this year’s contest were:
Patty Boyd, founder and owner of Steel Pencil Editorial. She has been in the editing and writing business for thirty-plus years. Although she specializes in helping novice writers with their nonfiction books, she relaxes by escaping into the lovely world of fiction. Her first poem, written at age ten, received the prestigious Mom's Refrigerator Award.
Iva Cheung, a Certified Professional Editor, plain language trainer, indexer, publishing consultant, and researcher. She has won Editors Canada's Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, President's Award for Volunteer Service, and Karen Virag Award for promoting the editing profession. She draws a monthly cartoon about editing and recently published “An Editorial Cartoon,” a print collection of the cartoon's first 10 years.
Elizabeth d’Anjou, an editor for nearly 30 years, most of them as a freelancer working on nonfiction books, reports, and educational materials. She is an instructor in the Publishing Program at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she co-created the online course in grammar and also teaches the introductory copy and stylistic editing course. A dual citizen of Canada and the USA, she lives in a small town on Lake Ontario.
Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl and a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She is the author of seven books about language, including the bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She has also appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her favorite poem is “The Land of Counterpane” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Claire Valgardson, a Toronto-based academic copy editor and proofreader specializing in APA Style, particularly in psychology, education, and the social sciences. She also edits nonfiction, business reports, web content, “and most other things that are written in English.” She won the ACES National Grammar Day Poetry Contest twice, in 2022 and 2019.
All the entries for the 2023 contest can be found on a Google Sheet here.
Judge selected several other poems for honorable mentions:
The backbone of a sentence.
— Ben Gaynor
A place where
Every end -ing
Is also a beginning
— Samantha Perry
A king with sartorial “flare”
blazes from buckles to hair.
The queen is bemused
but not amused.
They’re not a synonymous pair.
Met with a ruler laid bare,
an editor darest not err.
Let Rex don a mantle
or lean ELbow on mantel
to trumpet grammatical flair.
— Anne Lipton
There’s a rule change that’s no longer “newer”
But continues to vex this reviewer.
The distinction is ended —
We don’t care if it’s “less than” or “fewer”!
— Jamie Seiberlich
Hip or critical remarks
To down home made
Lingo that insiders
Use to oust others
Until they become us
And no one knows
What’s out or in
Or how the whole
Trip got started
— Mary Biddle
There is no comma in my poem
As I have no comment about you
So you will know my love to you
Quiet and calm and smooth
Taking no rest and marching on
Allow no full stop to come
— Rob Chen