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
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
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
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
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
(And my eye caught this partly because my father was an amateur beekeeper.
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
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):
Hierarchy of Functional Punctuation
||Degree of Separation
|sentence final (. ? !)
||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.
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
Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvic.
Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman, 1985.
1. See "But Don't
Begin a Sentence with 'But'."