Analyzing Puncutation

I’ve seen this article from Adam J Calhoun on Medium (a great, long-form blogging platform with some potential for providing classroom texts, by the way) linked quite a bit lately on Facebook and other places, so I thought I’d share it with all of you. Here’s the author’s initial question that drives what he finds about punctuation in novels:

When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?

Inspired by a series of posters, I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct.

His findings are very interesting, and the charts and visuals in the article are worth a close look (the image below comes from a visual he shares that compares punctuation patterns he finds in William Faulkner, on the right, to Cormac McCarthy, on the left).


What do Calhoun’s results suggest for us as teachers of grammar? The most important implication, I think, is that these punctuation marks are used by many writers in ways that are reflective of their style and the purpose. Yes, some marks are strictly bound by rules (like the apostrophe), but many others are harder to nail down into set “rules” because writers use them in a variety of ways, based on their patterns for structuring sentences and their purposes.

Here again, studying writing from others is a great way to start to unlock those patterns and the general trends in usage. In class, we’ve highlighted how we do this for phrases and clauses in the sentence (the words that Calhoun suggests we often focus on); it’s just as possible for us to do this with punctuation.

Thoughts on “bad” words

Related to the work we’ve done in class about grammar and power, slang terms, and words that have dangerous power, I came across this brief essay about profanity written by a newspaper columnist. After she extolls the scientifically proven virtues of swearing (including research that shows that cursing can help us manage pain), she closes by telling us what she teaches her children about “bad” words:

There are no bad words, I tell them. There are only sensitive and less sensitive audiences. Know your audience. Or be ready to get kicked in the crass.

I have often talked with my own children in similar terms, only because I don’t want them to be afraid of any words or think that the words themselves have some inherent power. As we discussed in class, these “dangerous” words in our language are labeled as such because some people find them to be offensive and/or hurtful. And they’re entitled to feel that way, and we’re obligated (as speakers or writers) to be sensitive to those feelings. But to ascribe some inherent power (or “badness”) to a word is misguided, and can prevent us from considering language in an objective way that helps us understand how and why it exercises such power in the world around us.

Teenagers love to talk about generational differences in language, how slang words mark a younger generation or how the older generation often criticizes the use of words such as “like,” for instance. Discussions about profanity are also interesting to students and a great way to initiate a dialogue about where power comes from in language. The more we can stress to our students the important role that audience plays in this, the more critical and thoughtful students will be as writers and communicators.

What about prescriptivists?

One student in class this semester has brought up an issue that’s well worth further discussion. Let me quote part of this communication:

I … receive grades from prescriptivist professors, ones who mark “relatable” as being not a word and therefore not appropriate for a paper. Even though I feel solid about the choices I make in writing, I don’t want to get into an argument or seem disrespectful. I want to be considerate of my audience’s expectations and get a good grade but I don’t know how to “fix” things that I didn’t know I was doing “wrong” in the first place.

I would hope that this course helps to shift some of your attitudes towards a more descriptivist approach to the mechanics and usage of the language. But adopting such an attitude certainly can create some challenges for us as we interact with others (whether they be university professors or colleagues in your future English departments) who have different opinions.

The glib (and easy) answer is just to say that there isn’t much we can do about those with these attitudes. They will continue to act the way they do, and they’re likely to have these attitudes so engrained that there’s little we could do to change them. And the truth is that good writers adjust their writing to their audience, even if that audience is (frustratingly) just a single person with idiosyncratic expectations.

A more complex and honest answer helps us see some important things about those who adopt prescriptivist attitudes. In a case like the one this student describes above, you could confess your ignorance to the professor/audience in question and ask if he/she would extend some mercy. I suspect some might just allow for that and cut you some slack; others are going to suggest that “you should have been taught that” and it’s quite possible that someone did teach you that along the line but you weren’t ready for it and didn’t internalize it in your writing practice. Another response would be to show how other writers commit the same “error” you do, in an effort to suggest that your choice is more commonly accepted. That might invite the professor/audience to look at the alleged mistake in a different light, but it’s just as likely (I suspect) to elicit a “just because others do it doesn’t make it right” response.

This is all to suggest that attitudes like this one are formed early, and once they’re formed they can be notoriously difficult to change. This has significant implications for us as teachers: We need to help students adopt an authentic (notice, I do not say “careless” or “liberal”) attitude towards errors and mistakes. We need to teach students to write for specific audiences and to understand what those audiences expect. And, finally, we need to remember how frustrating it can feel to be on the receiving end of prescriptivists’ hate and strive to be different ourselves, to model for our students this authenticity and honesty about writing and grammar and usage.

On errors and usage, from the teacher’s seat

As we discuss errors and usage each semester, you get to hear a certain perspective from me and from the readings I choose to have you peruse. That perspective is presented honestly, I hope you’ll agree, but it is a bit removed from real teachers in real classrooms. And sometimes I worry that you leave my class thinking that the issue of error and how it’s treated in classrooms is largely a settled thing.

Far from it, and I hope these other resources might show you. I subscribe to the NCTE Connected Community and recently have seen two threads that are germane to our discussions in class, one of the use of “they” as a generic, singular pronoun replacement for the gendered “he” and “she” pronouns we have, and a second thread on the use of the first-person pronoun “I” in students’ writing. (You may not be able to access these threads without first creating an account.) Both have generated far more activity than threads in this forum typically do, and the thread on the use of “they” is a particularly colorful one.

As you peruse both threads, you can see a more nuanced and varied set of perspectives on the interconnected issues of error (or perceived error), the rules, and how we respond to (and teach) students writing. I encourage you to consider how you situate yourself after looking over these threads and our class discussions. But I want to highlight one post in particular:

I’m a middle school English teacher, I teach five paragraph essays and all that entails, and have the utmost respect for high school and college writing teachers who “undo” what I have taught them. I have no problem with that. It is as it should be.

I “undo” the rules that my students learned before eighth grade. For example,  I unteach never starting a sentence with “because” once my students understand adverb clauses. I undo the rule of always using a comma before a ‘fanboy’ once we study compound sentences and sentence length. I don’t insist the thesis statement be first. And I don’t need a summary of the body in the introductory paragraph.

What strikes me here is how this teacher considers her own efforts within the context of those made by other teachers; she recognizes that her students have previous experience (some of which she feels a need to “unteach”) and she recognizes that, as her students move on in their schooling, they will be exposed to different and (perhaps) more sophisticated expectations. I think we’d all do well to heed her example and recognize that, while perhaps beginning a sentence with because bothers us to no end, it may not bother all audiences and thus should not be something we teach as an unquestioned rule to which there are no exceptions. In fact, as with many so-called “errors” or “rules,” perhaps we ought to instead teach this as an “option” or a consideration students should address when they write, all as part of their considering the rhetorical situation.

Revision at the Paragraph Level (Fall 2015)

We’ve talked a lot about revising at the sentence-level as we’ve explored techniques like sentence comparison from Ed Schuster. Now I want you to see how we might take this to the level of paragraphs. Below I’ve included a grammatically correct but rather stylistically mediocre paragraph (it’s actually taken from an old Warriner grammar book that I used when teaching middle school). Your task is to revise this paragraph, using the techniques we’ve discussed this semester (also listed below) to improve sentence fluency and the flow of ideas. Copy the paragraph into your word processor, work your revision magic, then come back here and paste the paragraph into the comments section so we can all see it. You should have your revised paragraph posted here by the start of class on Tuesday, November 3.

Remember to use any of these techniques as you revise:

  • out-of-order adjectives/opening adjectives or adverbs
  • participial phrases
  • absolutes
  • appositives
  • compound and complex sentences (including FANBOYS and AWUBIS conjunctions)

Here’s the paragraph:

     Many stories have been written about Lorelei. It’s a huge rock which juts out from the Rhine River in Germany. According to one song the rock is inhabited by a woman. She is blessed with supernatural powers. She has jewelry that glitters in the sunlight. This gold jewelry catches the attention of a sailor. He is passing in a sailboat. She sings a magical song to him. She casts a spell on the sailor. She forces him to stare up at her. He never sees the dangerous obstacles in the water. These obstacles are jagged rocks which can tear into a ship’s hull. The sailor is deprived of his senses. He crashes his boat upon the rocks. He is still caught within the woman’s spell. He follows his boat to a watery death. Many ships have sunk near Lorelei. They have been destroyed by the power of this magical woman.

Breaking the Rules (Fall 2015)

Here’s where I’d like you to play around with breaking the rules, according to the readings we did for class and the models we looked at together. I’ve included my example, the labyrinthine (or run-on) sentence here, and I’d like you to play around with any of these techniques (listed here or that we discussed in class) in the comments to this post:

  • sentence fragment
  • comma splice
  • labyrinthine sentence

I cannot explain effectively to anyone who hasn’t taught–anyone who hasn’t faced the challenge of grabbing and holding the attention of over thirty 12-year-old pre-teens–what it’s like to stand before the classroom, heart pounding slightly more than usual and moisture starting to spread in my armpits, trying to decide what to say now, what to do now while Andy’s over in one corner picking at his nose trying to make it bleed so he can take the hall pass and go to the bathroom (and thus flee the prison that is his seat and my classroom), while Miriam’s turned around talking in low tones to the girl behind her who–bless her heart–is trying to at least pretend to listen to the lecture, while I can clearly see that Zac has drifted off into some daydream and is no longer with me, his chin resting in the palm of his hands while his eyes stare out onto the soccer practice field outside the window, while Barbara hunches over a piece of notebook paper on which I know she’s not writing down highlights from the lecture but instead a note she intends at some point to subtly pass across the room to her friend Tessa, while Paige (who is definitely not even pretending to pay attention) makes eyes at John as if he were some great catch (which, quite honestly, he is not).

I Could Care Less and Grammar Vigilantism

In honor of the grammar rants you’re currently writing, I thought you might enjoy this comic from xkcd:


As you’ve been reviewing rants, I’m sure you’ve come across the attitude of those who see it as a duty to correct those who mis-speak or mis-write. As well-intentioned as some of these people might be, it can’t hurt to step back and see how these corrections are perceived by others. And we need to be especially careful, I’d suggest, as teachers. More in class.

How Much Does A Word (or Name) Really Matter?

image from Wikipedia

When we analyze mentor texts as closely as we do in this course, it can sometimes seem like we’re really squeezing that proverbial turnip. Getting hung up on a single word or a turn of phrase might seem at times like a trivial pursuit or of questionable value. None of you, of course, feel that way since you’re all English types, but there are many (your future students included) who will wonder if all this rhetorical analysis is really grounded in anything that matters.

The recent dust-up over the renaming of Mt. McKinley in Alaska illustrates, though, the power that one word (in this case, a name) can have. This piece from The New Yorker highlights some of the debate and also connects it to larger trends in our society, as we evolve and progress, to more closely consider the way historical names reflect legacies and what our responsibility is today to those names. I was especially drawn to this section:

The truth is that the obsession with word magic and names is a primitive one, inherently irrational. Names are notional. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—or as rancid, depending; a mountain by its older name is just as tall. Yet the desire to remedy the wrongs of the past by righting our nomenclature is a deep one, and it burns on. Word magic it may be, and no more than that, but we believe in magic, and we think in words.

We must always remember that our thoughts are formed by words and language, and so words and language influence the way we think. The limitations (and the possibilities) of language help to shape the limitations (and possibilities) of our thoughts. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision to return the name Denali to this famous mountain, the debate itself reveals the significance we attach to words.

New Understandings about Errors and Typing

It’s fun for many of us to poke fun at or ridicule some of the errors we encounter, and online media seem to offer an abundance of opportunities to spot these mistakes and look down our noses at the authors. From misspelled words in online comments to errors in tweets, there’s no end of hilarity, right?

However, as we discuss in this class, for teachers it’s probably more healthy (and certainly more sane) to adopt a more compassionate or understanding attitude towards error. None of us, I suggest, entered the teaching profession because we take delight in marking up every error in our students’ writing (and there can be a lot of mistakes in developing writers’ work). And few students relish a returned paper that’s covered in angry red hash marks and corrections. Still, it can be hard for English teachers to silence that inner critic and feel like students are either lazy or deliberately disrespectful when errors come into their work.

A recent piece from the Washington Post provides some solid evidence that might help in this regard, looking at various studies that suggest that in hurried situations (especially when typing or adding a quick comment to something), typos and mistakes can be very easy to make and a totally unconscious thing. The author espouses a more gentle approach to these mistakes we find:

But people don’t need to be corrected any more than they need to be ridiculed. I know the rules for how these words should be used and spelled, and I’m sure most who make these mistakes know them, too. What I really wanted to know is why we make these slip-ups anyway.

The rest of the piece summarizes the evidence he’s found in research studies; if you find yourself struggling to accept the idea that errors are to be tolerated or forgiven rather than assiduously marked and corrected, you should find something here to help you embrace the former approach.

Evolving Words and Marketing

An interesting piece this past week in the Wall Street Journal by Ben Zimmer describes the decline of the word “stylus” in tech circles, even though the device itself is experiencing a resurgence of interest (with newer, larger phones/phablets becoming popular). We talk in class about shifts in language, and vocabulary is definitely one of the primary ways in which language change over time. What’s interesting to me about these changes in word choice is how they reflect on our societal and cultural preferences.

As Zimmer explains in the article, the stylus as a device has been around for a long time, as far back as the earliest civilizations that wrote on clay tablets. So here’s a word that’s familiar and has a long pedigree; why are marketers of these devices today hesitant to use this word to refer to modern iterations of the device? (more…)