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  • Teaching commas won't help

    A new rant in Salon by Kim Brooks complains, “My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay,” and asks the perennial question, “Is it time to rethink how we teach?”

    While it’s always time to rethink how we teach, teaching commas won’t help.

    Teachers like Brooks commonly elevate the lowly comma to a position of singular importance. But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths, just like the myth that says Eskimo has twenty-three words for snow (twenty-eight? forty-five?). More to the point: understanding commas does not guarantee competent writing.

    As for comma misuse, well, just look no further than the United States Constitution. Originalists see every word and punctuation mark of that founding document as evidence of the Framers’ intent. Constitutional commas set off syntactic units or separate items in a list, just as we do today (though don’t look for consistency of punctuation in the Constitution: sometimes there’s a comma before the last item in a list, and sometimes there isn’t). But what does the good-writers-understand-commas crowd make of the fact that the Framers and their eighteenth-century peers also used commas to indicate pauses for breath, to cover up drips from the quill pens they used for writing, or like some college students today, for no apparent reason at all?

    Take, for example, the comma dividing adjective from noun in this excerpt from Article I, sec. 9:

    No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid . . .

    Or this one from Art. II, sec. 1, separating direct from indirect object:

    The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation . . .

    We don’t separate the subject from the verb with a comma, except in the Constitution:

    Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. [Art. III, sec. 3]

    Or the first and third commas of the Second Amendment:

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    Any student turning in essays with commas like those would be marked wrong.

    Plus a contemporary writing teacher would spill a lot of red ink correcting all those unnecessary capital letters in the Constitution, and the jarring it’s for its in Art. I, sec. 9—because no one but “students who can’t write” would use them today:

    No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws. [emphasis added]

    Opening of the Constitution: We the People

    Students capitalizing or using commas like the Framers would be marked wrong today.

    Oh, and don’t forget that the Framers wrote chuse for choose (more red ink: they did this six times), or that little problem with pronoun agreement in Article I, sec. 5, where each House is both an its and a their, “mistakes” that today’s teachers might signal with an ominous “see me!”:

    Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy. [emphasis added]

    Did the Framers do right by the law, but wrong by standard English? Did they learn the rules before they won their license to break them, much as they broke from their former colonial masters? Whatever the explanation, it's clear that any writing teacher would grade them down, or maybe even write them up in Salon, for not understanding commas and for violating the laws of language. But if you're radical enough to argue that the Constitution contains errors, you'll need not just a lot of red ink but also a joint resolution of Congress followed by approval of three-fourths of the states if you want to correct them. 

    My point, if you’re waiting for the sound bite, is that mastering commas has little to do with standard English, and mastering standard English—if standard English can even be defined—doesn’t guarantee good writing.

    The oft-repeated demand to rethink teaching by teaching more grammar is not the answer (and teaching the comma is not teaching grammar, it’s teaching punctuation). When American schools began requiring grammar in the nineteenth century, teachers, not students, complained that the subject was too hard for them. They were told by school authorities, “Just stay a page ahead of your students, you’ll do fine.” When after a few decades of mandatory grammar lessons it became evident that student writing still wasn’t where it needed to be, the schools dropped grammar as deadening and ineffective. With student writing still an issue, critics want grammar back in the classroom. If nothing else, this cycling in and out of grammar should tell us that writing and grammar aren’t really connected.

    There’s a reason to study grammar: it reveals the structure underlying human communication, and human communication is, well, it’s what we do. But studying grammar won’t help us communicate better any more than studying the internal combustion engine will help us to be better drivers.

    What can make writers better is more writing. Writing more doesn’t always work: the best writers sometimes fall flat, the worst sometimes fail to improve, and the mediocre may stay stuck in the middle. But writing, both for practice and for real, works better to improve writing than sentence diagrams, comma drills, and mantras like “a noun is the name of a person, place or thing” (should there be a comma after place?). The problem, for the schools, is that writing takes time. It’s a messy process. Improvement isn’t linear. It requires one-on-one feedback from an engaged audience. It’s labor-intensive. It can’t be taught by machine. It’s expensive.

    On the other hand, writing is also something that, thanks to the digital revolution, more and more people are doing not just for work and school, but also voluntarily, for their own benefit. Schools tend to dismiss the kind of writing that appears on Facebook, Twitter, IM, texting, and blogs as trivial, even detrimental to the development of good writers. But maybe we should rethink how we teach by looking at what writers do when they tweet and post. And that in turn might shed some light on what writers do when they write essays, poems, grant proposals, quarterly earnings reports, or constitutions. (Hint: they don’t check Strunk and White every time they’re not sure where to put the comma.)

    Excerpt from Unabomber's handwritten diaries 

    Avoid needless explosions: Excerpt from the journal kept by Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Kaczynski wrote with a copy of Strunk and White by his side. It didn’t help.


    <script_disabled_disabled src="http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" type="text/javascript">

harrism@purdue.edu May 14, 2011 4:54 pm
Thanks so much for your delightful discussion of comma confusion in the Constitution. I had to post the link to it on my various Facebook and Twitter accounts. I especially enjoyed the irony of your closing comment about the Unabomber keeping his Strunk and White close by. People do tend to get a bit overwrought about the "rules," though there are indeed times when a punctuation mark is critically important in terms of how it's interpreted. As a writing center director, I (along with the tutors) frequently answered phone calls from concerned writers all over the country asking questions of all sorts about "rules." A particularly difficult one was from a lawyer in Indianapolis who wanted a "ruling" on an apostrophe placement that could be read ambiguously. I think he had a strong case in terms of that apostrophe placement that essentially prevented his client from being sued for extensive damages in a car accident in which the client was in the passenger seat at the time. So some apostrophes are more important than others. Thanks again, Muriel Harris
javava@live.com May 14, 2011 6:59 pm
As Muriel Harris (no relation) noted in her comment, some apostrophes are more important than others. In the grand scheme of things, one could say the incorrectly-placed ones on the likes of "The Jone's" or "The Bishop's" on front-yard signs shouldn't be as annoying as I find them to be. Nor, I guess, should I pause unnecessarily long when I encounter -- most often in a weekly (or similar) newspaper -- the likes of "Pastor, Stephen Smythe will officiate." To paraphrase Edmund Burke. "Those who don't know historic constructions are destined to construct rule-breaking sentences." Doug Harris Java VA
csscamel@yahoo.com May 14, 2011 7:03 pm
I appreciate the historical example. But beyond comma usage the larger issue is carelessness in language, the "whatever effect" or deformalization ("becoming casual") practiced in texting and email. This trend spills into classroom essays--mispellings, flawed punctuation, you spelled "u", initial caps uncapped, no page numbers printed on the page, etc. When an instructor attends to comma errors, she plugs chewing gum into a dam about to break. She sends a message: "Hey, in the formal essay we strive to get certain details right, just as the engineer does in the wiring for the Space Shuttle. The immediate stakes are lower for us, but we still want you to have a capacity for flexible response in language. In some work contexts accurate writing matters, in others it doesn't." Only if we agree that the classroom space (discourse community) is identical to that of Facebook and daily life would it be responsible to condone mass deformalization and its characteristic idioms such as abbreviation, flawed punctuation, etc. It is of course pleasurable to write without supervision and rules, but not always realistic or practically wise. And should learning always be pleasurably ungoverned by formal criteria? Of course not. My own pedagogy involves students in the creation of an exotic but rigorous milieu in which language recovers its prestige. This milieu does not look like Facebook. Students learn to distinguish themselves in writing and speech, not through photos of themselves wearing designer jeans and sunglasses. But this college milieu upholds an ethos according to which difficulty is integral to genuine learning. Not for a moment do we cross the line and regress to the remedial behaviors that set the standard elsewhere. Some students are enthralled, others flee as if their lives are in peril. If an instructor is seeking to achieve optimal scores at teaching evaluation time, she would be wise to follow Facebook. ----- Mispellings? And your point is? --db
marc1940@verizon.net May 15, 2011 8:46 am
I couldn't agree with you more. As a retired editor, I could bore you silly with a thousand stories in corroboration. The problem to some extent resolves itself in the battle between prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. But cliched or not, "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach." I hope I got the quote right, commas and all. It may sound like sophomoric reductionism, but it has more than a kernel of truth in it.
ulyssesmsu@yahoo.com May 15, 2011 11:13 am
The Framers made punctuation errors in writing the Constitution, so that shows what a waste of time it is to teach punctuation? That sounds backwards. How does citing an example of poor comma usage support the claim that "teaching commas won't help"? What relevance do the punctuation mistakes in the US Constitution have for the teaching of punctuation today? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see how poor usage proves that we shouldn't teach usage. Just the opposite, IMO. --- The point is that they're not errors. The notion of what's an error is what is flawed here. db
ilan.elron@gmail.com May 22, 2011 8:10 am
Everyone should respect the Constitution for its historical standing. It is not, in my opinion, a text to cite as an example of good, or bad, writing. If anything, the examples given detract from its 'quality' as good prose. Good (never mind 'proper') use of commas should be taught and marked. It is a necessary rung to climb on the way to becoming a writer of readable stuff, whatever that stuff may be.
shabab41@live.com May 22, 2011 10:18 am
It sound's like sum peple are gettin bent out of shap.... Some commas and apostrophes are very important to the intended meaning--others perhaps not.
mach0017@yahoo.com May 22, 2011 4:09 pm
Multiplicity of commas seems to have been the normal style of the times when the Constitution was written. It carried over into the early 1800s when James Fenimore Cooper wrote the "Leatherstocking Tales" - one of the most difficult books I have read because of his liberal use of commas to indicate slight pauses in speech (according to his editors). I remember well when a friend commented on his college English composition instructor (1955) finding too many commas a fault with his submissions. I have tried to keep mine at a minimum ever since. Imagine my shock at finally reading J. F. Cooper's works (2011) and wondering what that instructor would have had to say about punctuation in "The Last of the Mohicans."
mark.engel1@mac.com May 22, 2011 5:41 pm
The Framers did not break any rules of punctuation, because there were no rules of punctuation in the 18th century. Or rather, there was a system in place that we historical editors call "rhetorical punctuation," in which the various punctuation marks stood for pauses of various lengths. If a period (or other full stop, ! or ?) represented a pause of one unit of time, then a colon stood for pause of a half-unit, a semicolon for a quarter-unit, and a comma for an eighth-unit pause. Underlying this system, of course, was the ancient idea that writing was a way of recording an oral speech performance. Punctuation was a merely guide to performance, like the marks that an actor might make on a script ("breathe here," "long pause"), and it was no more rule-bound than that. It was not until the mid-19th century that our modern system of rules, known as "syntactic punctuation," in which the placement of punctuation marks is determined by the grammar of the sentence, evolved in both Britain and the US. I am a historical editor (aka "scholarly editor") of the works of Thomas Carlyle (17951881), the British essayist and historian, who was in his day the most famous and admired writer of non-fiction prose in English. Carlyle's works all went through several editions in the course of the 19th century, from first editions in the 1830s and 40s to "last lifetime editions" in the 1870s. My job as a historical editor is to establish an optimal text of each work by comparing ("collating") its various editions in detail and deciding, for each variant reading, whether the change was more likely an authorial revision or rather a printer's error or a printer's deliberate but unauthorized "correction." I can report that the first editions of all of Carlyle's works (and therefore presumably the lost manuscripts from which they were initially typeset) are punctuated using the 18th-century system of syntactic punctuation. In the course of each subsequent edition, punctuation, especially the placement of commas, was gradually regularized in the direction of our modern syntactic punctuation rules. In later editions, someone, presumably either Carlyle or one of his devoted editorial assistants, took great care to think about whether punctuation marks belonged inside or outside of close quotes, according to whether or not the punctuation was part of the quote, and corrected all of them. Carlyle also frequently used capitalization as a rhetorical marker, for emphasis or to "personify" an abstraction for example. It was standard practice in 17th-century English to capitalize all nouns, as it still is in German, and this faded only gradually through the 18th century, resulting in the occasional "odd" capitalization seen in the Constitution. Carlyle capitalized selectively and deliberately, in the sense that you can almost always see why he did it. His printers all hated it (when setting type by hand, the upper-case letters are literally in a separate case, and the typesetter has to reach farther for them) and from edition to edition Carlyle's idiosyncratic capitals were progressively lower-cased by lazy or officious printers. We even have a marginal note to his printer in a set of proofs from 1841 in which Carlyle complains, "That *abolition* of Capitals...will never do; abolition quasi-total, which in many places considerably obscures the sense." (Note his defiant capitalization of "Capitals.") But the trend continued anyway, in the direction, again, of our modern capitalization rules, which developed along with the punctuation rules in the course of the 19th century. In short, it is ahistorical, and just silly, to say that the Framers "broke the rules" of punctuation and capitalization, when there existed no such rules for them to break. Languages evolve. Mark Engel Strouse Carlyle Edition
bill@emr.net May 22, 2011 6:35 pm
Regards commas... when in doubt, I use three dots.
mandelbaumf@yahoo.com May 25, 2011 12:01 pm
Yes, we should teach the use of commas. People need language. We think in words. If we don't know the rules, we can't define or express our ideas precisely. Informal language is fine sometimes, but on other occasions more precision is useful or even necessary. (Read the book "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves", whose subtitle is "Why, commas make a difference.") Yes, it's possible to obsess over details, but... But Im worried. This idea that we dont need rules is spreading to other disciplines. Ive seen many students who cant do arithmetic (they use calculators), but they also havent learned basic concepts, and have difficulty understanding the idea of basics. Theyre taught specific formulas for the standardized tests. However, the laws of nature arent as forgiving as the rules of language. When these kids grow up, and are making our bridges, and airplanes, and medicines, were in danger!
schwopes@msn.com Jun 26, 2011 10:26 am
A product of a fifties education, I learned to write correctly. My niece, a child of open classrooms, learned to write about what she cared about. But even though her thesis was STUFFED with crazy commas and misplaced modifiers, it was published as a book by a major publisher. Guess who's a professor now? Not me! I edit.

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