The KISS Approach to Teaching Punctuation

     As usual, at the beginning of the college semester I had my Freshmen fill out a questionnaire about their knowledge and perceptions of writing and grammar. And, as usual, approximately 80% of the students reported that they were taught not to begin a sentence with "But." (Interestingly, 80 % were also unable to identify "was" or "were" as verbs.)  In class, when I demonstrated that the rule about "But" is totally invalid [#1], some students were stunned. One thoughtful student asked, "If that rule is invalid, then how are we supposed to know what is right and what is wrong? Who makes the rules?" Those are two excellent questions.
     The answer to the second question ("Who makes the rules?") needs to be explored first. Simply put, the answer is "No one, and everyone." If we lived in France, the situation might be different. As I understand it, the French have a National Academy that establishes the "rules," and for most purposes, all writers in French follow them. In the United States, as probably in most English speaking countries, this simply would not be tolerated -- no (academic) body is going to tell us what to do or how to do it. Such intellectual freedom may be nice, but we pay for it. Instead of having a single "rule book," we have dozens of them. And on many of the fine points, they do not always agree. A simple example of this involves the rule about using commas to  separate items in a series. Some books say that the last two items in the series must be joined by a comma plus "and"; but other books note that the "final" comma is not needed. Which is right? And which is wrong? Or is there a "right" and a "wrong" here -- other than personal preferences?
     This question leads us back to "Who makes the rules?" In a sense, everyone who writes, or reads, in English does. The rules are, in effect, matters of convention, and you and I do not really have much say about many of them. The primary conventions have been established by all the writers who came before us.
     For some people, this situation is not satisfactory -- they want the "rules" -- plain and simple. And there are always people who are willing to give other people rules. Their books make lots of money for publishers. This situation is reinforced by the way in which grammar is often (incorrectly) taught -- as a matter of "right" and "wrong." But if you use your eyes and mind to examine real texts, you will probably agree that punctuation is actually a matter, not of "right" and "wrong," but of "effective" and "ineffective."
     The same student who asked the questions at the beginning of this essay stopped to chat after class. I had shown the students where they could find hundreds of examples of sentences that begin with "But," all written by well-known professional writers. If all of these writers begin sentences with "But," why can't students? The student, however, had an additional important question -- where does one draw the line? How many professionals have to do something before it is considered "acceptable"? The problem with this question, however, is that it assumes that capitalization and punctuation are acceptable or unacceptable in some absolute sense. They aren't. Writing is done in many different circumstances, and for many different audiences. Thus capitalization and punctuation should be looked at primarily from two perspectives -- 1.) Do they make the text easier, or harder, for the intended readers? 2.) How will they affect the readers' perceptions of the writer?
     As a simple example of this I told the student about some teachers I have seen who simply eliminate all capital letters in whatever they write. They got this from e. e. cummings, a famous poet. Apparently, these teachers allow, and in some cases, even encourage their students to eliminate capital letters. (From my perspective, these teachers ought to be fired, but not many people listen to me.) I have seen messages written this way on various internet lists -- and I simply stopped reading them. I am, moreover, quite sure that I am not alone. As the example of the two men (above) suggests, capital letters make texts much easier to process. I'm not about to spend extra time trying to unravel the meaning of a text simply because the writer wants to be cute and say, in effect, "Look at me. I'm a rebel. I don't use capital letters."
     Refusing to use capital letters is, of course, an extreme example of violating the "rules." Indeed, for most writers, even for most inexperienced writers, the "rules" that cause confusion are those that involve either apostrophes or clause boundaries. KISS validates these rules in terms of the psycholinguistic model anything that will cause confusion for readers is a problem. KISS  includes some exercises on the use of basic punctuation marks, and of the apostrophe, and more will be added. It may well be, however, that many, if not most, of students' problems with the apostrophe result from the students' inability to identify subjects and verbs. The KISS Approach, of course, hits this problem directly, and as students analyze real sentences, they will soon see that "it's" is a subject and verb that have to be underlined, whereas "its" always functions as an adjective. The same is true of "whose" and "who's," "their" and "they're," and many of the other word pairs that give some students problems.
    As for the clause boundary errors, the real problem is that students cannot identify clauses in the first place. Thus KISS resolves this problem by going to its root. Currently, most of the numerous exercises devoted to the primary problems of comma-splices, run-ons, and fragments are in KISS Level Three, the starting place for KISS instruction in clauses. You will probably find, as I have, that most of the problems that students have with these errors can be easily resolved, particularly through an understanding of how to use semicolons, colons, and dashes.
     As teachers, we need to keep at least two additional perspectives in mind. First, some students have major problems with the basic punctuation of a sentence. These problems often get blown out of proportion, and the idea arises that all students need to be taught more about punctuation. This is an invalid conclusion. The movement for additional testing has added to this push, but the tests cannot validly go beyond the basics. No justifiable test, from whatever source, can quiz students, for example, on whether or not there should be a comma before the "and" in a series. The experts disagree, and thus such a test question would be exceedingly unfair.
     Second, we need to remember that published prose is almost always edited -- even the prose of editors is edited. For example, consider Anne Fadiman's wonderful Ex Libris (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998). She herself edited The American Scholar for many years, and yet she thanks her editors for proofreading her book.  Beyond the basics, punctuation, like writing, is an art, not a science. Obsessing over rules of punctuation has, I am sure, killed more good writing (and writers) than it is worth.
     Most textbooks, of course, do not give that impression. But the rules of punctuation in grammar textbooks are made by grammarians who like to make rules; the punctuation in real texts is made by people who like to write. These two groups generally ignore each other. As noted above, there are some rules of punctuation that are very clear and should not be violated. Textbooks make this appear to be true of all punctuation, simply because they present simple rules and then give simple exercises limited to cases in which the rule clearly applies. If, however, you want your students to master the art of punctuation, the best way to do that is to study, not the grammarians' rules, but rather how various writers use it.
     Within the KISS Approach, we should, of course, start by giving students the simple textbook rules. These are not difficult, and if some students do have problems with them, the best response is not additional rules, but rather additional practice. This may seem obvious, but I have seen many people, including some teachers, who, unsatisfied by the rules in one book, go to another, and another, and another. As they do, so they find that the grammatical terms change -- "main" clauses become "independent," "subordinate" become "dependent," etc. The result is usually simply more confusion. Study written texts; don't study dozens of grammar books.
    Beyond the basics, most KISS punctuation exercises attempt to help students by simply providing passages from real texts, but with the capitalization and punctuation stripped. Consider, for example, the following passage from a version of "Philemon and Baucis."

They had many hives of bees from which they got honey and many vines from which they gathered grapes one old cow gave them all the milk that they could use and they had a little field in which grain was raised.
Now consider it as it was actually published:
They had many hives of bees from which they got honey, and many vines from which they gathered grapes. One old cow gave them all the milk that they could use, and they had a little field in which grain was raised.
Without the comma after "honey," many people would have seen the following "and" as joining "honey" and "many vines." That does not make sense, but without the comma after "honey," readers are not sure of what to expect -- it could have been "honey and wax." The comma after "honey" tells the reader that what follows the "and" should not be joined to "honey." As a result, readers tend to easily see the "and" as joining "vines" and "hives." Similarly, the period after "grapes" tells the reader that no more words will chunk back to the previous sentence pattern. Without the period (and capital letter), readers will tend, if they make it this far into the sentence, to read "cow" as another direct object of "had" -- They had ... many hives ... many vines ... one old cow . . . .
     Dr. Albert E. Krahn, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, focuses on questions of punctuation on his web site (www.punctuation.org). Having read the preceding, he sent me the following:
Actually, I think you have a conundrum here. But putting the comma in front of the "and," you actually have a gardenpath sentence. The common signal using ", and" is found in a limited number of places: series, compound sentence. When you put it in this position, the reader anticipates one of those, but that anticipation is not fulfilled because we get a fragment (not a compound sentence) and not a series. You  seem to be subscribing here to the older, rhetorical use of punctuation based on speech patterns rather than grammar, no?)  Also, the word "many" marks this as being a parallel construction joined by "and" in which you don't usually want a comma.
(And my eye caught this partly because my father was an amateur beekeeper. :-D)

What say?
Although I don't think that the KISS Approach to punctuation is based on speech patterns, I certainly do agree that the passage poses a conundrum. "[T]hey got honey and many vines ..." also creates a garden path, so what we have here is a case in which the lack of a comma will lead some readers astray, and the inclusion of a comma will lead others off the path. I truly appreciate Professor Krahn's comments, especially since they reinforce my point.
     The point is that the simple rules in the textbooks cannot cover the infinite variety of sentence patterns. Thus the best way to teach punctuation is to give the students the simple rules, explain the psycholinguistic model of how the human brain processes language, and then have the students study the punctuation in real texts. This can easily be done by stripping the capitalization and punctuation from any published text, by asking the students to "fix" the punctuation, and then by comparing it to the original and discussing the results.
     In support of this KISS Approach, I might point out that in his widely-admired book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Glenview, Ill:  Scott, Foresman, 1981), Joseph Williams suggests precisely this type of exercise, with one difference. He suggests that students do the exercise twice -- once to punctuate the passage as lightly as possible (and thus, for example, to leave out the comma before the "and" in a series), and again to punctuate it as heavily as possible (and thus put that comma in). Although that is twice as much work for students and teachers, it might be a good idea in tutorial and/or home-schooling situations. In a classroom, however, the same effect can be achieved simply by having an overhead of the unpunctuated passage and having the students discuss the punctuation as they work their way through the passage.

An Essay on
"Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool" by John Dawkins

     In a country of freedom, such as ours, it is always surprising to see how, when it comes to grammar -- and especially to punctuation, so many people either want to follow or to enforce "the rules." This "fear of the rules," of course, adds to, if it is not the primary cause of, many people's fear of writing. When I was editor of Syntax in the Schools, I even had teachers send me notes -- "I want to write something for you, as soon as I get my writing skills up." To me, those notes always implied fear of making grammatical "mistakes." The problem, however, is that there are no "rules," there are only "norms."
     Thoughtful teachers of grammar realize that the rules are only norms, but most grammar books just teach "the rules." Then, of course, there are always those people who get a sense of power by pointing out other people's violations of such "rules." And students are in no position to challenge their teachers. Indeed, because grammar is so poorly taught, very few people are willing to challenge a statement of a "rule." Recently, however, I accidentally ran across a most excellent and important article -- "Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool," by John Dawkins. Dawkins not only proves, in a most convincing way, that the rules are norms, but he also suggests a superb way of teaching how punctuation really does work -- and how to teach it!

     Dawkins takes two approaches to proving that the rules are simply norms. For those who need an authority, he quotes Quirk et al, noting that they have

examined statistical data on the use of the comma to mark coordination and concluded: "These results show we are dealing with tendencies which, while clear enough, are by no means rules. In such cases, it is probable that the general truth that punctuation conforms to grammatical rather than rhetorical considerations is in fact overridden" (1060) (533)
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Quirk et al. is almost a bible for many modern grammarians. Thus Dawkins has a very strong appeal to authority here. But for those of us who prefer to see the evidence, Dawkins makes an even stronger case by providing 69 examples, most of them from widely-known authors. And along the way, he consistently points out how the textbook presentations of the rules are either inadequate, or downright harmful, harmful in the sense that they present "don't's" and thus cause fear of errors.

     As his title implies, Dawkins suggests that instead of being looked at as potential errors, punctuation marks should be taught as "rhetorical tools." They are, in effect, "separators." In KISS terms, they separate sentences from sentences or, within sentences, various "chunks" of sentences -- adjectives, phrases, clauses, verbals, etc. But, of course, in the very act of separating, they also clarify -- what meaningfully goes with what. One of the most important parts of Dawkins' article is the following table (p. 535):

Table 1
Hierarchy of Functional Punctuation Marks
Mark Degree of Separation
sentence final (. ? !) maximum
semicolon (;) medium
colon (:) medium (anticipatory)
dash (--) medium (emphatic)
comma (,) minimum
zero (0) none (that is, connection)

In the next table, Dawkins explains the "Basic Functions" or norms, associated with the various punctuation marks. Thus periods and semicolons "separate independent clauses"; colons and dashes "separate independent clauses, or separate non-independent clause element(s) from the independent clause." Finally, the comma (and zero punctuation) "separate non-independent clause elements from the independent clauses." (536)
     A third table presents three sentence patterns, and then a fourth table indicates which punctuation marks are normally used with each of the three patterns. These are somewhat standard, and for fear of violating copyright by summarizing and quoting too much, I'll pass over them, especially since the best part of Dawkins' article explains the underlying logic for violations of these rules.
     Perhaps the most important thing for us to notice here is Dawkins' repeated reference to "clauses" and "clause element(s)." The problems that many people have with punctuation are not the result of their not knowing the rules. Indeed the situation is precisely comparable to some people's problems with subject/verb agreement. They can be told a million times that subjects must agree with their verbs in number, but if they cannot recognize subjects and verbs, the rule is useless. Similarly, if people cannot identify clauses and clause elements (prepositional phrases, verbals, appositives, i.e., precisely those constructions that KISS Grammar explores), the rules of punctuation will not be very helpful.

Works Cited

Dawkins, John. "Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool." College Composition and Communication, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), 533-548. [If you have access to JSTOR, you can get it there. Otherwise your library should be able to get a copy for you. The notes indicate that he also has an article in ERIC, "Rethinking Punctuation," ED 340 048. 1992.] I would love to get permission to reproduce the entire article here on the KISS site.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvic. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman, 1985.

1. See "But Don't Begin a Sentence with 'But'."