From a presentation at the Fall 1995 IATE
Invited article published in the Spring 1996 Illinois English Bulletin 

Teaching Ten Punctuation Rules for Ninety Percent Mastery 

     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 writing.

     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 sentences.
     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 sentence.]
     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 all.
     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.