Punctuation & attitude

I haven’t taught composition in a couple of years, less from aversion than from natural patterns (if you get reassigned time, you usually buy out comp; likewise, if you teach in an interdisciplinary program, it usually replaces comp).  In the courses I’ve been teaching, papers almost never come in all at once.  Students can write to a variety of different deadlines, and so there’s never a time when everyone’s getting a draft or a final paper back.  Also, I’ve shifted entirely to electronic submissions–largely to ward off disease, but also because my handwriting’s bad–and so there’s never that edgy class period when I’ve clearly got a stack of papers.

That means it’s been a Very Long Time since I’ve been able to do my “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” thing over, say, the abuse of the present progressive, or students’ weird habit of padding out sentences by writing, “In the novel The Egoist by author George Meredith.”  There’s nothing quite like an emotional rant on behalf of more nuanced punctuation to spice up, say, a Wednesday.

Last week I got the chance to do this again in a course I’m team-teaching, and *boy* was it fun.  And it gives me the opportunity to re-link to one of my favorite essays on grammar, Paul Robinson’s “The Philosophy of Punctuation“:

Rules are important, no question about it. But by themselves they are insufficient. Unless one has an emotional investment, rules are too easily forgotten. What we must instill, I’m convinced, is an attitude toward punctuation, a set of feelings about both the process in general and the individual marks of punctuation. That set of feelings might be called a philosophy of punctuation.

I say “a” philosophy, because I’m not yet so opinionated as to insist that everyone adopt my own. I recognize legitimate alternatives, and I’m quite aware that punctuation has a history. A single page of Thomas Carlyle, or any nineteenth-century writer, reminds us, for instance, that a comma between subject and verb–for me the most offensive of all punctuation errors–was once perfectly acceptable. A colleague of mine, whom I consider a fine writer, punctuates, as it were, by ear. That is, he seeks to reduplicate patterns of speech, to indicate through his punctuation how a sentence is supposed to sound. Consequently his punctuation lacks strict consistency. But I can respect it as guided at all times by what I consider philosophical principles.

. . .

Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple. They force the writer to express his ideas directly, to eliminate unnecessary hedges, to forgo smart-aleck asides. They also contribute to the logical solidity of a piece of writing, since they make us put all our thoughts into words.

The idea that taking up a distinctive attitude toward grammar is probably more important than a fetishized ideal of correctness seems to me exactly right, and lurks behind a surprising # of comments I make on student writing.  Re-reading the Robinson essay has me looking forward again to next semester’s composition class!

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2 Responses to Punctuation & attitude

  1. dance says:

    The other day I got to make an impassioned argument that involved the phrase “grammatical heart of the sentence” and ask my students “what is the subject of this sentence?” I stopped before I got to subordinate clause, sadly. Possibly just as well as I am hardly sure what a subordinate clause is.

  2. jbj says:

    I have a colleague who frequently asks students to name the first verb in Paradise Lost. You’d be surprised how many non-verb words get thrown out as suggestions!

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