Pen to Paper: Mastering the Quirks of Polish Writing
#language & literature
default, The interior of renovated and expanded Raczyński Library in Poznań, project: JEMS Architects, photo: archives of Raczyński Library, center, The interior of renovated and expanded Raczyński Library in Poznań, project: JEMS Architects, photo: archives of Raczyński Library
Periods in unexpected places, paragraphs full of dashes, and mysterious abbreviations abound in Polish writing. Here are a few tips to make sense of the Polish language's unique style and punctuation (language proficiency not included).
Reading and writing might be the bane of any intermediate foreign-language speaker – now, not only do words have to be spelled right, there’s also a whole new set of writing rules to contend with. The bad news is, there are just enough differences in writing styles between Polish and English that intelligibility is not always guaranteed. The good news? At least it’s the same alphabet (sort of)!
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Where’s the dialogue?
Glancing at a page of Polish dialogue might feel a bit like looking at Morse code. Instead of using a quotation mark at the beginning of speech, you should instead add an em dash (—) on both sides of the sentence. The dash is known as a pauza (or myślnik when relating to dialogue) and it serves a variety of functions similar to dashes in English. But, it also replaces the apostrophes in written conversations.
— Like this — she said.
You may also notice the lack of a comma before the dash. Although you can add other punctuation as needed (exclamation points, question marks), leave the commas out of it! Not all dialogue ends with he said/she said. In cases when a complete sentence follows the dialogue, use a period.
— Like this. — He left the room.
If there is no verb or description after the dialogue, instead of continuing in a new paragraph, there is no need to add a myślnik to the end. The biggest part of getting used to this style of writing dialogue may be more mental than physical. While reading, it’s easy to be pulled out of the world of the story, as the brain is wired to interpret quotation marks as people speaking. This problem goes both ways, however. Polish speakers learning English tend to forget the quotation marks, so if you’re working with or reading the work of a Polish speaker, don’t be surprised to see a stray myślnik here and there.
Unlike the versatile quotation mark, dashes are used for dialogue and not quotes; if you’re looking to quote someone or something, our next rule can help you out with that.
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A still from Pan Tadeusz picturing Grażyna Szapołowska and Michał Żebrowski, photo: Mirek Noworyta / Agencja SE / East News
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In Polish, quotation marks are referred to as a cudzysłów, literally meaning ‘foreign words’. That’s exactly the context they’re used in when marking words that come from somewhere other than the original author. However, instead of the hanging apostrophes English speakers use, Polish quotation marks look like this: „ ”
They can be used for titles of books, quotes or to add an ‘ironic’ glance to a word. Not much changes between English and Polish for this, but remember to never use them for dialogue!
The nature of a cudzysłów changes if you are trying to use a quote within a quote.
In that case, it's most common to use » «, which is known as cudzysłów niemiecki (literally, quotation marks). For example:
Napisała „nie jestem pewna czy wolę »Pana Tadeusza« Adama Mickiewicza czy raczej Wajdy.“
She wrote, “I’m not sure if I prefer ‘Pan Tadeusz’ by Adam Mickiewicz or by Wajda”.
Although these characters may seem foreign to English speakers, at least Polish has the advantage of not being bogged down by a surplus of quotation marks that sometimes occurs in cases of double-quoting.
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English is no stranger to abbreviations but they are most often reserved for casual writing, proper titles (like Mr, Dr, etc.) or Latin words (exempli gratia would be a common one). Polish texts, on the other hand, tend to make use of abbreviations at every turn, most often of their own language. Here are a few abbreviations that you’re likely to come across:
- tj., to jest – that is
- tzw., tak zwane – so-called
- m.in., między innymi – among others (like e.g. but used at the beginning of a list)
- np., na przykład – for example
Two abbreviations that may be confusing are:
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- itp., i tym podobne – and similar (much like the English etc.)
- itd., i tak dalej – and so on (also used like the English etc.)
Their translations are very similar, so how do you know which one to use? The slight differences are mostly intuitive, so some reading and practising is the best advice. But if you’re nervous about getting it wrong, good news: you can just use both! When writing out lists of items, adding both itp. and itd. to the end of the list shows that it’s too long for you to complete. For example:
Cały dzień oglądaliśmy filmy Wajdy, Smoczyńskiej, Pawlikowskiego, Holland, itp., itd.
All day we watched movies by Wajda, Smoczyńska, Pawlikowski, Holland, etc., etc.
So, when you open up a Polish-language newspaper, take a look through the pages and see how many abbreviations you can spot! Although these are some of the most common ones, there are plenty more that might require a Google search. Good news is, there are plenty of online resources dedicated to abbreviations (because there really are just that many).
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Crash course in Latin
Polish writers, especially of academic texts, tend to use Latin phrases without translation. The Polish-Latin connection goes deeper than just some phrases, however; much like Latin, most Polish words are accented on the penultimate syllable. And Poland is one of the few languages whose word for ‘tea’ doesn’t come from the Chinese cha or te, instead most likely from the Latin ‘herb’.
Both in everyday conversation and writing, Latin phrases are more likely to crop up. Here are a few to get you started:
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- Notabene (literally ‘note well’, which can also be shortened to nb.) is used before providing tangential but important information.
- De facto is also common in English, and the meaning remains the same in Polish though it is also used to add a rhetorical flourish to a sentence.
- Ex aequo (pronounced egzekffo) means to tie or place equally in some kind of ranked contest, like a sports match.
- Sensu stricto, meaning in a narrow sense – it’s also sometimes shortened to just the word ‘stricte’.
- Vel, the Polish answer to ‘a.k.a’, used when signifying pseudonyms or in similar situations.
- Pro forma (literally ‘for the sake of form’) is used to denote that something is happening mostly for appearance’s sake.
- Na cito is used when asking for something quickly or immediately, Poland’s ASAP.
Dates, numbers & numerals
Much like other European nations, Poles write the date in day/month/year order. Instead of slashes, however, it’s most common to use periods between the numbers. Though Arabic numerals are standard, another acceptable form would be to use a Roman numeral for the month, such as 28 XII 1899. With this form, periods are no longer used.
In Polish, always refer to centuries using Roman numerals. Though you may see the year written out similarly to the English method (i.e. ‘1970’), there is also a wordier style that may crop up: instead of 1970, that number would become ‘lata siedemdziesiąte XX wieku’, which literally translates to ‘the 70s of the 20th century’. When writing out just the decade, use Arabic numerals with a period after the number.
W latach 90. wszyscy uwielbiali disco polo.
In the ‘90s, everyone loved disco polo.
Mastering the titles
Unlike the Germanic roots of English, Polish is a Slavic language. A clear difference between the two languages (other than grammar, spelling and everything else) is the ways titles are written out. English tends to capitalise every word in a title except for articles, conjunctions and prepositions. The exception to the rule would be ‘artistic’ titles that choose to lowercase each word, but that is a deliberate choice. In Polish, only capitalise the first word in the title. The rest of the words, with the exception of names, are lowercase.
For example, Stanisław Lem’s book The Star Diaries is capitalised throughout, while in Polish it is written as Dzienniki gwiazdowe. A wordier example would be Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which becomes Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych.
Another facet of using titles is the ever-important colon. Quick rule: don’t use it! Although colons are fair game in every other part of writing, titles instead use a period to differentiate between a heading and a subhead. The film The Art of Loving: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka becomes Sztuka Kochania. Historia Michaliny Wisłockiej. The first word after the period is always capitalised as well, and in this case is followed by a name, otherwise the remaining words would be lowercase.
Here on Culture.pl, regular readers may notice that we actually tend to capitalise Polish titles and put colons in them, as if they were English titles. We do this to ensure that our English-language readers actually recognise them as titles, since these two rules are anathema to the non-Polish-reading eye and can interrupt one's reading flow!
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When dealing with foreign names of people or products in Polish, changing the required cases can be a little trickier. If you’re reading this article, hopefully you’ve made some progress in differentiating between genitive, accusative and all the other cases Polish depends on.
Foreign words present a certain difficulty with declension, but spelling-wise the rule is simple. If a foreign word ends in a vowel, add an apostrophe before the ending. If the word ends in a consonant, no apostrophe needed! A few quick examples include Nowy film Marvela (a new Marvel movie) or komputery Apple’a (Apple computers).
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Getting better all the time
Now that you understand Poland’s stylistic quirks, why not leap into our rich world of literature? Get a head start on Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s currently untranslated novels, or tackle some works that are unlikely to receive an English-language debut. The hardest part is getting started, and we have plenty of ideas to guide you in the ‘write’ direction.