There’s a poster on the wall in my classroom that has two phrases on it: “Dog eating chicken” and “Dog, eating chicken.”
My perpetual hope is that the students in my Creative Writing and Senior English classes will pay some attention to it. And that, consequently, they’ll make a better effort to use commas correctly in their compositions.
Alas, that hope is not always realized.
Beside those two simple phrases on my poster are two illustrations. The first one is of a crazed, monstrous chicken attempting to consume an obviously frightened dog. The other one shows a much more contented canine with a napkin tied around his neck as he hoists a fried chicken leg.
Of course the lesson I want my students to learn from that old poster is that something as small and as seemingly inconsequential as a comma can change the meanings of those two phrases completely.
If they still don’t get it, I write this sentence on the board: “A woman without her man is nothing.” Whereupon the girls in the class bristle up and take offense. So I just insert a couple of commas and make it “A woman, without her, man is nothing.”
That’s when the boys disagree.
A comma can be a powerful little tool if employed correctly, and can be a source of great confusion when misused. When some students realize that their grades will suffer if they don’t at least make an effort to use commas correctly they commit what amounts to overkill: they sprinkle them into their writing, with no rhyme nor reason, like salt on popcorn. The end result is a bewildering labyrinth that makes even less sense than it had before adding the commas.
Part of the problem is that young people today hardly ever feel called upon to use commas – or any other punctuation – at all, much less correctly. Only in their classes at school – and sometimes only in their English classes – are they held accountable for such precision.
It will come as no surprise to you that a good many kids today, and more than a few adults, limit their personal written communication to texting, emailing, tweeting, and pouring forth their entire lives on Facebook or MySpace. And the adherence to traditional guidelines is too often thrown aside in those venues.
Many electronic scribblers don’t even bother capitalizing things that really do need to be capitalized. Like the first words of sentences, for instance, which I always thought was a pretty important rule. But many texters, tweeters, and bloggers – three words that would have been as meaningless to me a decade ago as Swahili phrases – conveniently sidestep that requirement by leaving out periods, thereby doing away with sentence structures altogether. The resulting unfettered hodgepodge of disconnected snippets is as free of punctuation as it is of clarity.
The sad fact is that young people who have never written a letter and stamped it and put it in the mail won’t be particularly good at toeing the grammar and usage line when putting words together. That, and the fact that fewer and fewer people read for pleasure, when the perusal of skilled authors has always been one of the best ways to learn how to write correctly and clearly.
In any event, I’ll soldier on in the grammar and punctuation war even against staggering odds, and hope for eventual victory.
I may try a new tact, and warn my students that a comma omission might, if they take up sign painting for a career, result in sending the wrong message on road signs.
Instead of “Slow, children crossing”, they might print “Slow children crossing”, which calls to mind either very lethargic or very dense kids traversing a road.
Or it may get them into hot water with somebody important. Like the journalist in England who, wanting to reach as wide and varied a reading public as possible, wrote in his first column that his intended audience was the Prime Minister, a racist, and an idiot.
Unfortunately, the typesetter at the newspaper left out a particularly important comma and the sentence became “I shall endeavor in these weekly musings to speak directly to, in addition to many other people, the Prime Minister, a racist and an idiot.”
Which didn’t, as you might imagine, sit all that well with the Prime Minister.
(Previously published as one of my Sunday newspaper columns)
Q: So, have our collective grammar skills gone south? Does it really matter if they have?