I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.

 

 

 

 

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to I Need Help With My Commas

  1. John Wegner says:

    Good point. I think you’ve identified the struggle we undertake when we try to teach writing. We want students to understand how grammar helps create poetry, but too often we end up hammering them with comments that makes the act of writing nerve wracking. Thanks for reading and comments.

  2. I think one point is missing here and that is the poetry of language. Punctuation helps with rhythm and rhythm helps with the conveyance of ideas. On the other hand, being pedantic on punctuation might kill any inclination novice writers have to write and that would be counterproductive.

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