Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 08-01: Punctuation – Introduction


chapter 8: introduction

This chapter begins to situate grammar and punctuation within the writing process and promotes grammar from a rhetorical perspective.
For too long  people have mischaracterized grammar and punctuation as rigid and prescriptive, something mysterious (possibly magical), and that a knowledge of “grammar” somehow transcends all other language considerations, especially in writing and writing instruction. For us, grammar and punctuation has a place in  writing and writing instruction, but grammar is NOT writing and writing  instruction.
There are many who would like to believe that grammar is a single, unchanging entity: that the grammar and punctuation of American English is the same as it has always been and will be the same on into the future. But language  is a messy business, constantly in flux, constantly changing for good  and for ill. But, because most of us want stability in our language,  this messiness leads some to mystify grammar and punctuation: something we believe but  cannot articulate, something to apply based on a “gut feeling,”  something we leave to the experts and the pedants.
Many of us learned our first grammar lessons at home, informal as  most of them probably were: “Don’t say ain’t!” “Don’t use contractions!”  But these lessons were too often inconsistent both in delivery and in  usage.
Our next exposure to grammar came in elementary school: formal,  acontextual forays doing battle with worksheets and deciphering the red-inked code of the teacher-expert scratched across our (often  first-draft) writing assignments. As we moved into junior and senior  high school, the mystery of grammar and punctuation became deeper and more complex,  especially as our own language use became more informal and much  different from those of our parents’ generation. The answers to all of  our grammar and punctuation questions always seemed to be just out of our grasp, even  though the teacher (that shaman) seemingly had the answers we so  desperately desired hidden within that red pen. And grammar and punctuation became the  most important consideration in our writing lives because grammar and punctuation seemed  to always be the focus of comments on our writing. But once again,  these lessons were too often inconsistent both in delivery and in usage.
As the authors of this textbook, we believe that the basis of this  mystery occurs, unfortunately, because over the years too many of our  English teachers at the primary and secondary level have had too little  training in writing instruction and too little training in grammar and punctuation instruction. But they were still expected to be the expert in the  classroom, and this expertise was delivered with a certainty borne from  position rather than understanding. 
To complicate matters further for the English teacher, responding to  student writing is a complex enterprise. Responding to one student paper  is hard work. When you multiply that times 150 papers, day in and day  out, teachers have always looked to simplify their lives. Thus  responding to student writing became dependent on the mystery of grammar and punctuation because grammar and punctuation, inexplicably, made the teacher’s response to writing  easier, and seemingly more concrete:
  • Dangling modifier = -3 points
  • Comma splice = -2 points
  • Misspelled word = -1 point
In other words, grammar and punctuation appears objective; grammar and punctuation appears explicit;  grammar and punctuation makes the response to writing quantitative and scientific. A  writing teacher can find as many grammar and punctuation errors as  necessary, assign a numerical value to each, and give the paper a score.  Unfortunately, this allowed teachers to avoid the messy,  time-consuming, difficult (and subjective) scoring that comes with  responding to higher-order issues in writing. Therefore, in this way,  grammar and punctuation has become synonymous with writing for far too many people  across the country.
This leads to a key misrepresentation of grammar and punctuation: learning grammar and punctuation makes you a better writer. For this false claim (and others), grammar and punctuation has  been exalted among the practices of writing, placed on high without  evidence or reason.
But we make no false promises. This chapter will further your understanding of the complexity of language and the various grammatical and punctuation choices amidst that complexity. This chapter, in particular, will help you understand how to punctuate correctly (what the choices  are and why one choice is more correct than another). But it will not, alone, make you a better “writer.” To be a better  writer, you need to understand, both practically and  theoretically, a wide range of writerly skills that go far beyond mere grammar and punctuation.