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Writers Talk About Writing

Teaching Commas Won't Help

A new rant in Salon by Kim Brooks complains, "My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay," and asks the perennial question, "Is it time to rethink how we teach?"

While it's always time to rethink how we teach, teaching commas won't help.

Teachers like Brooks commonly elevate the lowly comma to a position of singular importance. But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths, just like the myth that says Eskimo has twenty-three words for snow (twenty-eight? forty-five?). More to the point: understanding commas does not guarantee competent writing.

As for comma misuse, well, just look no further than the United States Constitution. Originalists see every word and punctuation mark of that founding document as evidence of the Framers' intent. Constitutional commas set off syntactic units or separate items in a list, just as we do today (though don't look for consistency of punctuation in the Constitution: sometimes there's a comma before the last item in a list, and sometimes there isn't). But what does the good-writers-understand-commas crowd make of the fact that the Framers and their eighteenth-century peers also used commas to indicate pauses for breath, to cover up drips from the quill pens they used for writing, or like some college students today, for no apparent reason at all?

Take, for example, the comma dividing adjective from noun in this excerpt from Article I, sec. 9:

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid . . .

Or this one from Art. II, sec. 1, separating direct from indirect object:

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation . . .

We don't separate the subject from the verb with a comma, except in the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. [Art. III, sec. 3]

Or the first and third commas of the Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Any student turning in essays with commas like those would be marked wrong.

Plus a contemporary writing teacher would spill a lot of red ink correcting all those unnecessary capital letters in the Constitution, and the jarring it's for its in Art. I, sec. 9—because no one but "students who can't write" would use them today:

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws. [emphasis added]

Oh, and don't forget that the Framers wrote chuse for choose (more red ink: they did this six times), or that little problem with pronoun agreement in Article I, sec. 5, where each House is both an its and a their,"mistakes" that today's teachers might signal with an ominous "see me!":

Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy. [emphasis added]

Did the Framers do right by the law, but wrong by standard English? Did they learn the rules before they won their license to break them, much as they broke from their former colonial masters? Whatever the explanation, it's clear that any writing teacher would grade them down, or maybe even write them up in Salon, for not understanding commas and for violating the laws of language. But if you're radical enough to argue that the Constitution contains errors, you'll need not just a lot of red ink but also a joint resolution of Congress followed by approval of three-fourths of the states if you want to correct them. 

My point, if you're waiting for the sound bite, is that mastering commas has little to do with standard English, and mastering standard English—if standard English can even be defined—doesn't guarantee good writing.

The oft-repeated demand to rethink teaching by teaching more grammar is not the answer (and teaching the comma is not teaching grammar, it's teaching punctuation). When American schools began requiring grammar in the nineteenth century, teachers, not students, complained that the subject was too hard for them. They were told by school authorities, "Just stay a page ahead of your students, you'll do fine." When after a few decades of mandatory grammar lessons it became evident that student writing still wasn't where it needed to be, the schools dropped grammar as deadening and ineffective. With student writing still an issue, critics want grammar back in the classroom. If nothing else, this cycling in and out of grammar should tell us that writing and grammar aren't really connected.

There's a reason to study grammar: it reveals the structure underlying human communication, and human communication is, well, it's what we do. But studying grammar won't help us communicate better any more than studying the internal combustion engine will help us to be better drivers.

What can make writers better is more writing. Writing more doesn't always work: the best writers sometimes fall flat, the worst sometimes fail to improve, and the mediocre may stay stuck in the middle. But writing, both for practice and for real, works better to improve writing than sentence diagrams, comma drills, and mantras like "a noun is the name of a person, place or thing" (should there be a comma after place?). The problem, for the schools, is that writing takes time. It's a messy process. Improvement isn't linear. It requires one-on-one feedback from an engaged audience. It's labor-intensive. It can't be taught by machine. It's expensive.

On the other hand, writing is also something that, thanks to the digital revolution, more and more people are doing not just for work and school, but also voluntarily, for their own benefit. Schools tend to dismiss the kind of writing that appears on Facebook, Twitter, IM, texting, and blogs as trivial, even detrimental to the development of good writers. But maybe we should rethink how we teach by looking at what writers do when they tweet and post. And that in turn might shed some light on what writers do when they write essays, poems, grant proposals, quarterly earnings reports, or constitutions. (Hint: they don't check Strunk and White every time they're not sure where to put the comma.)


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 16th 2011, 5:58 AM
Comment by: danny I. (London United Kingdom)
In these situations I always go back to the Hebrew and I cannot recommend a study of Hebrew too highly, for those who want to understand the origins of European language structures, or simply write well. What we call punctuation today is, and was, known in Hebrew, as 'nikudot', a plural noun referring to the dots and dashes which surround Hebrew characters, words and sentences, and which modify their meanings. I'm not suggesting that students need to study Hebrew, but an overview of nikudot can be instructive. It's worth bearing in mind that there was a time, particularly in the Roman world, when oratory was held in high esteem and the written report followed the spoken word, for the few who could read. It's different now, where we write, rather than speak, for creative effect, but in this regard the nikudot tell us about respiration, and how to group ideas, so that they can be spoken in one breath, one breath per idea, as it were. For the majority in the western tradition, scripture was a first encounter with reading and writing, and the King James version of the Bible undoubtedly preserved the punctuation, as best it could, which the translators found in the earlier Hebrew texts, possibly via the Greek. This seems to be the test, of where and how to punctuate, that we have inherited. It's interesting that in modern Hebrew the nikudot are mostly not written, at all, yet the written intent seems to be barely affected. In fact for many centuries Hebrew was written without nikudot, and without diastemae, spaces between the words, yet it is Hebrew text which has probably been the more influential on western thought, through scripture, compared to other languages, which may be an argument for abandoning punctuation altogether.
Of course there will always be anomalous uses of punctuation, as in the Constitution. Universal literacy is an aspiration rather than a fact, but if you punctuate as you speak you shouldn't go far wrong. When we talk about punctuation we are in fact talking about a hierarchy of signs which enable us to structure our thoughts on the page, the most important being the comma, the full stop, and the paragraph, as text dividers, relative to breathing. If we start by teaching the neeed to structure our thoughts, so that we can be understood, then the punctuation will surely follow, rather than the other way round.
Monday May 16th 2011, 4:18 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
What a refreshing point of view!
And just as I was beginning to take grammar seriously.
But I think I'll keep up my study of grammar at the same time as I practice my writing.
I may seem a bit compulsive in attempting to achieve a higher level of Standard English in my writing; because, otherwise, I'll be right in step with those who disdain capitals, spelling, and favor other slovenly practices.
Monday May 16th 2011, 9:36 PM
Comment by: Partnership Let's Go!
Professor Baron - I consistently find delight in the insightful, pragmatic, and eloquent qualities of your writing. As a public school English teacher, my experiences in teaching English confirm your pronouncements that teaching to write well takes time as does learning to write well. I have gone the grammar, punctuation, and drill route to little avail other than my own intellectual amusement. However, I have seen great success in students' development of writing skills through writing workshops that provide students with the space and time to write, review, and revise.
Wednesday May 18th 2011, 5:47 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
Much as I agree with you on lots of things (on your excellent blog, especially) I just don't see why you think that grammar teaching won't help. I also think you're rather caricaturing Brooks' wider concerns by reducing them to a fixation on one punctuation mark. Much of what she said in the Salon article rang true for me as a teacher, even if she didn't put forward a particularly coherent argument for the type of teaching she wanted to replace the existing approaches.

Admittedly, the teaching of grammar in secondary schools/high schools in the UK and USA has been a pretty patchy affair - sometimes doing more harm than good - but the most recent research being done over here (by Debbie Myhill at Exeter University) suggests to me that if grammar teaching is contextualised and linked to an understanding of writer's techniques and (perhaps more importantly) students' own writing, then it can really help.

If grammar is taught in a vacuum as a dry, feature-spotting, old-school parsing exercise, it's bound to be useless for most young people, but if approaches to grammar are integrated into the study of things like standard and non-standard forms of communication - dialects, text messaging, slang - and linked to writing and speaking in different contexts, it becomes relevant and worthwhile.

I agree very much with your final paragraph, however, but think there's room for analysis as well as writing.

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