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Another Perspective of the Psycholinguistic Model:
The Purpose of Punctuation
KISSS Level 6.1 Punctuation

     I often start class with a joke, and, if they are long, I simply put them on an overhead where students can read them while I am taking attendance or whatever. In the composition course, we do not start syntax until three or four weeks into the semester, and when we are ready to start, I put a version of overhead #1 on the overhead.

Overhead #1
I watch their faces squint at the screen for a minute or two, as they look at it, look at me, and then go back to squinting at it. Then I ask them what is taking them so long. They, of course, look at me as if I am crazy, but I point out that a thousand years ago, that is the way texts were written -- there were no punctuation marks or spaces between words. Of course, there weren't many texts around then, and those who dealt with them were monks who were in no particular hurry. 
     But at some point in our history, some apparently unknown monk made a tremendous discovery. Texts are easier to read if there are spaces between the words. So I put up another version:
Overhead #2
The reading goes much more quickly, and when most of the students are done, I ask if, based on the first "sentence," they know if the men were in the garden when they made their agreement. Although they are somewhat hesitant, most of the students respond to this question with a "Yes, they were" or "No, they weren't." Occasionally, a bright student notes that it is impossible to tell from the first sentence. I then show them the punctuated version:
Overhead #3
In that version, we find:
Two men, members of a religious order, wanted to smoke while walking in the garden. They agreed that each would ask his superior for permission.
The period, of course, separates the "while walking in the garden" from "They agreed." In looking at this sentence, the students conclude that they can't tell whether or not the men were in the garden when they made their agreement. They also note that if it were punctuated as "While walking in the garden, they agreed . . . ." they could give me a conclusive answer. The point of this little exercise, of course, is to help students understand that the "rules" of punctuation are not simply rules of etiquette. Our ancestors developed them to help clarify the meaning in written texts -- to show which words chunk with which.
        Far too often grammar textbooks present the "rules" as if they come from some unknown superior authority, and as if our students are sheep or slaves who are simply expected to follow without question. Our children are not sheep, nor are they slaves, and it is no wonder that they learn less than half of a grammar that treats them as if they were. Treat students as the intelligent humans that they are, and they will respond much differently. The KISS Approach tries to do that.
        I might note that the joke was included in the rejected NCTE book manuscript, and one of the reviewers objected -- she is not going to bring a joke about smoking into her classroom (as if the joke will make students start?). Nor did this reviewer seem to understand any of the principles illustrated by the joke, nor did she apparently realize that, if she did not like the joke, she might be able to find another text to illustrate the principles. One of the reasons I use this joke is that I can honestly tell students that I did not make it up. I found it in Braude's Handbook of Humor for All Occasions (Prentice-Hall, 1958, p. 166). And that is important because the joke also demonstrates the MIMC principle -- Main Idea in Main Clause.
      English teachers have been debating the importance of the MIMC principle for years, with many linguists and grammarians claiming that it is not important. Many of us, on the other hand, think not only that it is, but also that once students understand it, they can significantly improve the focus of their writing. In the joke, the first man apparently asks:
Can I meditate while smoking?
The second asks:
Can I smoke while meditating?
The first receives approval; the second is denied. The only way to explain this is to say that the superior responded to the idea in the main S/V pattern. There are, I should note, other arguments in favor of the MIMC principle. See, for example, the "Alicia" assignment. In addition, the KISS Approach does not tell students that they "should" or "must" follow the principle. It presents the evidence, and, since it enables students to analyze sentences in real texts, the students can make their own stylistic decisions.
     The sentence structure of the joke may be a bit complex for students who are just beginning the study of clauses, but some teachers may want to use it -- later in the year, or in later grades. The following links, therefore, lead to an exercise version and analysis keys.
Analysis Exercise AK