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Lesson Plan

Semicolons and Swift: Analyzing Punctuation and Meaning

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Semicolons and Swift: Analyzing Punctuation and Meaning

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Two 60-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Deborah Dean

Deborah Dean

Provo, Utah


International Literacy Association


Materials and Technology






  • Computers with Internet access

  • One classroom computer with a projector and screen

  • Transparencies and overhead projector [optional]

  • Index cards

  • Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka (Scholastic, 1993) [optional]

  • Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2006) [optional]

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1. Read the online version of "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift carefully, and identify sentences with semicolons in preparation for students to do the same. Also review the examples in the Sample Semicolon Sentence Sets as a way to familiarize yourself with these sentences. Note: Although Swift in all likelihood used semicolons, since no copy of the original manuscript exists, it is impossible to know which semicolons are his and which are the work of others. Different versions of Swift's essay show different punctuation of sentences; these differences are a result of editors adjusting punctuation for more modern audiences, since most punctuation has changed in practice somewhat since Swift wrote his essay.

2. Later in the lesson, when students relate punctuation to meaning, they will need a sound understanding of the tone and meaning of the essay to interpret and effectively relate the use of punctuation to the meaning of the sentences. This means that before beginning this lesson, students should have already read and discussed the satire in "A Modest Proposal." They should have discussed and considered answers to the following questions:

  • How does Swift establish his credibility in the essay? Why is it important that he do so?

  • What kind of evidence does he use to support his assertions?

  • Where is the evidence that Swift is being satirical and not serious?
For further help with the concept of satire, you may want to teach From Dr. Seuss to Jonathan Swift: Exploring the History behind the Satire.

If students are unfamiliar with the idea of punctuation affecting meaning, you might consider having them read Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka and Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss.

3. Both sessions of this lesson require students to use computers with Internet access, so you should reserve the computer lab if necessary. If you do not have access to a computer lab, you can print off the versions of both the essay and the semicolon rules you want students to use; you will want to make several copies for each student so that they can cut out the sentences with semicolons and still have a clean copy to look at.

4. Investigate the rules for semicolon use that are available in the Resources section and select two or more websites you want students to access, noting that the rules do vary in the different resources. Bookmark the websites you select and the one with Swift's essay on the computers students will use.

5. Make copies of the Effects of Semicolon Rubric and Semicolon Writing Prompt for students. If you do not have access to a computer with a projector, make a transparency of the Sample Semicolon Sentence Sets from "A Modest Proposal" so that you can share it with students. Note that this example sheet is meant only to show formatting and not as a key to label the sentences a certain way.

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