Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: The Musical and Often Muddled Nature of Punctuation in the Writing Center

Michelle Day, Writing Consultant

Like all good children born in the ‘80s, I sang along with Schoolhouse Rock to learn language mechanics in school. But I wish I would have known about this little gem  by L.L. Cool J, a song in which the rapper suspends his usual lyrics in favor of a minute-long exposition on punctuation. Amid flying periods, commas, questions marks, and exclamation points, the rapper declares, “When you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do.”

The content of the video is particularly relevant in light of the 9th annual “National Punctuation Day,” which was Monday. I’m as intrigued as the next person by flying punctuation that obeys L.L. Cool J’s every rhythmic command. However, his refrain, that “you have to know what to do” with punctuation, may mislead writers to think controlling punctuation is as intuitive as L.L. makes it seem. At the Writing Center, we see it differently.

Richard Nordquist, English scholar, professor and writer, writes that the origin of punctuation was for oral—not written—purposes. In ancient Greece and Rome, punctuation denoted how long a speaker should pause when reading out loud (the comma was the shortest mark, while the period was the longest). After the rise of printing, the importance of punctuation became less about speaking and more about writing and proper syntactical relationships. Writers like playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century began to codify the use of punctuation, and today, there are countless style guides and witty-sounding books on grammar that teach often-competing punctuation conventions. (Read Nordquist’s full article here.)

This last point is particularly relevant to our work at the Writing Center. Our clients—even graduate students with strong writing skills—are often unclear on issues as seemingly simple as when to use a comma. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t quite understand tricks teachers have taught them (“put commas wherever you would pause when speaking” is one of the more commonly misapplied tricks). Sometimes, they’re confused by the competing rules they’ve heard from different instructors. Other times, they’ve never been told how to punctuate a quotation correctly or connect complete sentences without creating a run on (or perhaps they weren’t paying attention to such riveting topics).

Even the Writing Center consultants find punctuation rules a little fuzzy. We recently spent a considerable amount of time discussing when it was appropriate to use single quotation marks (“scare quotes”) rather than double quotation marks. There’s also an ongoing tension between those who love the Oxford/serial comma (the comma that comes before the last item in a list of three or more) and those who consider it superfluous. Some of us have even confessed to intentionally breaking punctuation rules. For example, I frequently place commas in the middle of long sentences where they don’t technically belong, just because it feels right.

It’s true that Writing Center consultants likely discuss punctuation more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the average student (we even have a handout titled “Dash-Dash-Revolution” that describes the dash as “exciting”). But we still empathize with our clients’ confusion concerning punctuation and realize as G. V. Carey did that punctuation is decided “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste” (see Nordquist’s article). That’s why we keep stacks of handouts on common punctuation errors, why we sometimes take breaks from higher-order issues of content or organization to give clients some punctuation pointers. It’s why we attempt to be flexible about how clients’ use punctuation in their writing, and why we try not to judge if a students’ only experience using semicolons, parenthesis, and hyphens is typing emoticons.

Since the only way to avoid punctuating sentences is to never pause or stop a sentence, writers will always have to deal with the confusing or undecided aspects of proper punctuation. What are some of the “tricks” you were taught to remember correct punctuation?  Which were helpful, and which weren’t? What resources do you use now to help clients in session?

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