Punctuation Matters. Full stop.

Punctuation Fun blog

Punctuation does what it says on the tin – it punctuates.  It ensures that our reader is clear about our intended meaning.  Whilst it is important to use it correctly, I am a strong advocate of punctuation being employed carefully and thoughtfully in order to craft the writer’s intended meaning.  After all, there is often more than one way to punctuate a sentence correctly.

There are some very handy ways of helping students to remember the punctuation marks.  So often, there is an over-reliance on commas (frequently creating the dreaded ‘comma-splice’) when they should use the full range of punctuation available.  The ‘punctuation face’ and ‘kung fu punctuation’ are useful aide memoirs that rely on visual clues (in the former) and physical clues (in the latter) to help students remember the choices available.  Yet, though extremely helpful in their way, these materials stop short of answering the punctuation why question: why did the writer choose that punctuation mark?

Consider the following versions of the same sentence:

  • She thought, but told no-one, that she loved him.
  • She thought (but told no-one) that she loved him
  • She thought – but told no-one – that she loved him.

Grammatically speaking they are all correct.  And yet each has a slightly different intention.  Each version wants the reader to think something different about the relationship between the ‘she’ and what she ‘thought’.  In example 1, the commas make the information in the embedded clause sound ordinary.  In example 2, the information is almost hidden away, perhaps like the girl’s secret. In example 3, however, the reader may consider the information more dramatic and revelatory, given the use of a pair of em dashes to separate it more clearly.  These examples demonstrate the significant influence that a writer’s punctuation decision can have over the reader.

So whilst I agree that students need to ‘learn the rules’, this should go hand-in-hand with an awareness of the effects of punctuation – which can be both positive and negative.

In my last blog I mentioned the work of Jacob Mitchell in advocating the use of WABOLLs (What A Bad One Looks Like) to teach grammar, again the same approach can be used when using punctuation.  A way of building upon this might be to ask students to take photographs of WABOLLs they see around the school and in the wider community. Add in an element of competition to collect the ‘worst’ example. Once the sharing and laughing part is over, it is vital to spend time discussing how the punctuation error has affected meaning and how the reader could easily be confused.  Can the students turn it into a WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like)?  Is there more than one version of the WAGOLL?  Why?  Which is best for which context?

Another way of making punctuation relevant is to consider punctuation in relation to modern methods of communication – namely texting, emailing and tweeting.  Students could create different versions of the same text message, for example, adding and removing punctuation in order to consider how meaning is affected. ‘Hi, busy all day today, no time to call, call me later’. What would happen if the commas were replaced with full stops or exclamation marks or ellipsis?  What if no time to call had parenthesis around it?  I have seen this activity work with tweets ‘from’ the characters of various plays and novels.  What might Mr Birling tweet after Act 1?  How would he punctuate it?  What happens to the meaning if I change the punctuation?

I feel that it is important for students to consider punctuation in context.  Much of our teaching of literature focuses on linguistic and structural features, and very little centres around punctuation.  Not only can we spend time discussing what punctuation has been used, we could also discuss what punctuation hasn’t been used and why.  Why did the writer choose the em dash and not a colon?  What would happen if we swapped it?  Would the meaning change?  Why?  How?  To move students into higher level punctuation thinking, students should be encouraged to recognise punctuation patterns in the text they are studying.  Does the writer use any particular punctuation mark frequently?  When in the text does this happen?  Why do you think that might be?

Our students must start to see that the punctuation marks they choose are as important as the language choices they make.  And they can only do this when we as teachers re-focus our practice to ensure that we give equal time and importance to both the rules of punctuation and analysing its potential meanings.

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