Sunday, 21 December 2014

Punctuate or not to punctuate

Here’s a simple question: When do you punctuate a piece of writing? Before, during or after the writing process.

I know, people are thinking: Duh! During the writing, of course. I think in punctuation, Chris. I live and breathe semi colons, mate. However, I think it is a bit more complex than that. Maybe a mixture of all three. Do we consider all three in how we teach writing? Or, do we focus on one more than the other?

People will know how I have obsessed over sentences. How I have revelled in teaching them. How I have explored and shared novel ways to structure a sentence. How I have taught students to develop writing by teaching an explicit structure. Most of the time, the punctuation in a sentence is mirrored in the writing the student has produced. The explicit teaching of sentence structures has helped students to see where punctuation goes. It has a comma after this word, so I must make sure it has it in my sentence.

Primary schools have and have had the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’ and students, before they started writing, could see what piece of punctuation could get them in terms of a level. Move over commas – I want a sexy colon in my writing. This aspect of punctuation teaching I have always struggled with. The idea that all bright people use semi colons and colons is ludicrous. A systems for assessing writing based on single features is, in my opinion, flawed. It is simplifying the writing process without asking the important question: does the use of this punctuation change and improve the meaning of the sentence? All too often, punctuation is used in its basic form. How many times have I read a piece of writing with fifty exclamation marks in it? Ask the student why they used the equivalent of the GDP of small country’s worth of exclamation marks and you will usually get a blank face. We all know that an exclamation can shout, can shock and can impress something on us. But, teaching a student to use it just once, makes the shock even more effective. It can heighten a serious issue, or raise the tension. However, we tend to say: don’t forget to use a range of punctuation marks. What if we said one of the following things in our directions at the start of teaching?

Use just one exclamation mark to draw attention to the most shocking thing you are saying.

Use just one exclamation mark to highlight your disgust at an aspect you are writing about.

Use just one exclamation mark to raise the tension in the dialogue.

Use just one question mark to show sarcasm.

Use just one question mark to make the reader doubt what they are thinking.

Obviously, you can go to town on this and insist on three questions in a row to shock the reader. This, however, makes the writer clear about the explicit function of the punctuation and it avoids the meaningless spattering of punctuation like my neighbour has placed his Christmas lights on his house.

I seem to spend a lot of my time getting students to explain why something is used in a text. Maybe a narrow focus like this in teaching writing will help students to explain why other writers do things.

Recently I have been marking mock papers and two students had planned before writing. One of the used AFOREST – groan! The other used a list of punctuation marks and I like that one approach. The student in question ticked off the punctuation as she used them in her writing. But, isn’t that like the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’? Yes and no. Yes, it assumes there is an ideal pattern for excellent writing. Use all of these and you will be an A* student. No, because the student ticked off the punctuation as she used it. She only used a punctuation mark once and only once and not fifty times.    

Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

  1. speaking is important as writing. But for a non native speaker, if you'll stick yourself on the rule to communicate with native speaker, you'll find in disappointing and frustrating.

    business english


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.