For fifteen falls, I looked at my high
school students' blank faces when I began to teach basic punctuation
rules and wondered why they seemed to not know this material.
I knew that they had been taught about commas, colons, semicolons,
and apostrophes, but I also knew from their writing that exposure
to and acquisition of such fundamental usage were not apparently
related. Then I began to study their papers searching for
clues which would allow me to give them the absolute minimum number
of punctuation rules in order to become what I considered "writing
literate". Based on the frequency, durability, and
persistence of certain errors, clear patterns, or "rules,"
began to emerge.
Somewhere during that time, I also stopped
teaching the grammar text and developed a schema of Ten Rules
for Ninety Percent. I explained the rules; I tested on these
rules; and lo and behold, I saw these rules applied in my students'
writings. There is nothing sacred about these ten, but as
I explained to my high school students then, and my college students
now, "Anybody can learn ten rules; conquer these and then
we'll work on the other ten percent." I must offer
a caveat here: "ninety percent mastery" is more of a
poetic description than a statistical one; future statistical analysis may reveal its validity, but for now,
I continue to use it as a motivational device since it provides
a cognitive suggestion of mastery.
I share these rules with any of you who
have experienced the same blank stares and the same passive resistance
from your students to learn even a modicum of punctuation proficiency.
These rules have been used with students as young as sixth grade
by teachers who as college students had worked with me in Eureka
College's Writing Center and who now teach in middle schools.
And they've also been used with nontraditional students who punctuate
appropriately, most of the time, but don't know why; these rules
allow such students to intellectually untangle punctuation knots,
instead of "adding a comma where they take a breath."
So it is possible that for basic writers, regardless of their
grade level or age, that these rules provide a matrix of knowledge
which allows them to apply what they have learned to their own
To teach this material, first the students
must have been taught the distinction between a complete sentence
and a fragment. I had always assumed that anyone who reached
high school had internalized this distinction, but once I questioned
my mind-set on this and then questioned my students, I discovered
that this was not so. So I now briefly "review"
fragments and complete sentences before I teach punctuation.
Failure to do this makes the lost student even more certain that
writing is a mystical act, predetermined at birth, preordained
by some fairy godmother, and totally unlearnable by most mortals.
However, by demystifying the most basic English language understandings
for all of our students, then the voice silenced by the fear of
failure begins to speak with power and honesty. Or, at the
very least, it now has the opportunity to do this.
The first four rules are on commas:
1. Use a comma before a coordinating
conjunction [and, or, nor, for, so, yet, and but] joining two complete
2. Use a comma between every item
in a series, including the last item. [A "series"
is three or more "somethings".]
3. Use a comma, or commas, to set
off interrupters. [An "interrupter" is any word
or set of words which the sentence doesn't need to be a complete
4. Use a comma to separate multiple
adjectives modifying the same noun. [A comma does NOT go between
the last adjective and the noun.]
The next two rules build on the first
four and are concerned with appropriate use of semicolons:
5. Use a semicolon between two
complete sentences which do not contain a coordinating conjunction.
6. Use a semicolon to separate
items in a series which contain internal punctuation.
The next rule on the colon [the "snakebite"
I tell my students who somehow are even confused about its appearance]
I teach in conjunction with the previous six rules so that no
rule can be "learned" just because that is what we are
studying at a specific moment.
7. Use a colon after a complete
sentence and before a list.
The last three rules are concerned with
the use of the apostrophe. I somewhat laughingly tell my
students that it is the "endangered" punctuation mark
because I so seldom see it used appropriately or even see it at
8. Use an apostrophe where the
letter or letters are omitted when forming a contraction.
9. Add an apostrophe and an s to
show possession to any word which does not end in s.
10. Add only an apostrophe to show possession
to any word which ends in s.
That's it. Ten rules. Nothing
fancy. No exceptions. Plain, bare bones rules.
A place to begin. Once my students reveal mastery of these
rules in their own writing, then and only then, do I begin to
teach them the wonderful nuances of punctuation. These nuances
I teach one-on-one as the individual's writing need demands.
But I can teach the ten rules and hold ALL of the students responsible
for their use from the very beginning of a composition class.
I can do this partially because many of the students do know some
of these rules already. Such a "review" for these
students provides a chance for all of them to learn or re-learn
ALL of these rules.
One of my unexpected rewards of this
approach was that when the students work on peer editing, they
catch the errors covered by these rules, and so I seldom see a
comma splice or a run-on sentence or any of those other snarly
creatures of beginning writers. I can then focus my energies
on voice, structure, and content, without reinforcing incorrect
punctuation usage by ignoring it.
The most important value to teaching
punctuation in such a basic fashion is that students who used
to shut off their minds to the possibility of writing with the
command of standard English now seem to understand that they can
learn "this stuff" (their word, I promise!). This
is one of the main ways I open the door to composition mastery
to the struggling writer: start with readily understandable basics
and continue to build in complexity and difficulty. These
rules offer a beginning, but only a beginning, in teaching all
of our students written command of their language.