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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


Student Objectives

Session 1

Session 2


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Develop understanding of punctuation, particularly semicolons, by considering the use of semicolons in Swift's essay and investigating reader expectations of semicolons on usage sites

  • Analyze how punctuation relates to meaning by investigating the rhetorical effects of semicolons in Swift's essay

  • Apply what they have learned by using semicolons in their own writing

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Session 1

1. Open with a discussion of "A Modest Proposal," which your students should have read and discussed (see Preparation, Step 2). If students are unaware, point out that multiple versions of the essay exist. Explain that in this lesson they will explore the use of semicolons in only one version of the essay because they are looking at how the effects of punctuation might affect a reader's interpretation-no matter who inserted the semicolon.

2. Put students into groups of two and have each pair open a new word-processing document. The pairings work best if you design partnerships so that at least one of the students is a strong reader. Have each pair of students put their names on the document and save it to a drive you designate. Give them a copy of the Effects of Semicolon Rubric and review it so students will know the expectations for the lesson's outcomes.

3. Next, have students access the online version of "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift. Tell them that their task will be to find all the sentences they can that contain semicolons. Each time they find one they should copy and paste it into the document, making sure that they skip a line between each sentence. Model this process before students begin to do it on their own.

4. When students have found all the semicolons they can, have them use the highlighter function to highlight the six to eight words following each semicolon.

5. Using the Sample Semicolon Sentence Sets as a guide, model for students how to group the different types of semicolon use in the essay. Have students look at the highlighted words and read the portion of the sentence that follows the semicolon. They should then put the sentences in groups that have similar structures and patterns. Start them off by doing some with them. For example, you might show the following sentences and ask students which ones would go together:

1. Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about
that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or
maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course
may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance.

2. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies
in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom
would not be the worse.

3. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance
in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year
old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether
stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it
will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

Students should see that two sentences have "and I" after the semicolon. The other ("the kingdom") begins a new sentence.

6. Tell students they should work with their partners to group the sentences they found according to their similarities. There may be some sentences that students do not group because they aren't like any other sentences they collected. This is acceptable for the moment, as long as students have grouped the majority of sentences.

7. Once students have grouped the sentences that are alike, model how to descriptively label the groups so the labels explain what they see. For example, using the "and I" sentences from Step 5, ask students what names they could give the group of sentences that are like this. They might call them "And I" sentences or "And" sentences. Be sure to explain that there is not one correct way to label the groups, but that the labels need to be descriptive of the sentence pattern.

8. Students should then label the rest of their sentences with their partners. Note: If students are still struggling with this concept after you model it for them, you can choose to continue the labeling as a class. If students continue to work in partnerships to do the naming but would benefit from whole class work, have them share their groups of sentences with the class to see if other groups have suggestions.

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Session 2

1. Have students access one or more of the websites from the Resources section and read about the "rules" for semicolons. In the same pairs as Session 1, have them summarize what they learned and each write a summary on an index card for reference.

2. Have students open up their documents from Session 1. As a whole class, review what the students found out about semicolons. Then ask students to look in their documents and find an example of a sentence that uses one of the rules they have identified. Write the sentence on the board. Discuss how it follows the rule.

3. Next, ask students to find a sentence that follows a similar pattern but does not use a semicolon (for example, find a compound sentence with "and" as the conjunction but punctuated more traditionally-with a comma). Help them to locate one if they are having trouble to show them what you mean (see examples in the Sample Semicolon Sentence Sets). Have them paste the new sentences into the document. Select an example from what they find to compare to the sentence already written on the board, and write that sentence on the board as well. Ask students why they think Swift or an editor might have chosen to use semicolons in one sentence and not another. What effect does the semicolon have on how the sentence could be interpreted?

If students are struggling to answer this question, suggest some possible interpretations. For example, a compound sentence is usually punctuated with a comma to show the relationship of the ideas. A semicolon usually joins two independent clauses without a conjunction. Using both a conjunction and a semicolon (rather than creating two separate sentences) both ties two ideas together and yet separates them more distinctly than a comma would. For example, in the third example listed in Session 1, Step 5 the semicolon makes a break that emphasizes the second part of the sentence. That emphasis could make a reader see the irony in the second part of the sentence. Not only are the methods of cooking mentioned, the mention of specific dishes in that second part of the sentence emphasizes the irrationality of the suggestion.

4. After the group work of theorizing about the effects of the use of semicolons on meaning, have students individually write their conclusions about Swift's use of semicolons and how it contributes to what he's trying to say in his essay. In this writing, they should use a semicolon once in the way the rules indicate; they may use it one more time in a way Swift does, if they can use it to create the same effect he did. Refer to the Semicolon Writing Prompt for details. Note: You may choose to allow students to finish this work for homework if there is not sufficient time left at the end of this session.

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  • You may also choose to teach the lesson Every Punctuation Mark Matters: A Mini-Lesson on Semicolons, which looks at semicolon use in Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

  • Students might find it interesting to read "The Sissy Semicolon" by James J. Kilpatrick and discuss or debate the points it brings up about the uselessness of semicolons. You might even consider sharing this article just prior to giving the writing prompt in Session 2 as a way to allow some students evidence for a different perspective.

  • Have students apply the same process they did in Session 2 to other forms of punctuation in other pieces of literature: 1) finding examples; 2) grouping and naming them; 3) looking up corresponding rules; 4) finding contrasting examples or nonexamples; 5) theorizing about the choices and the effects of those choices. A good option would be the use of dashes in a selection from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (Vintage, 1989).

  • Sentences in one version of "A Modest Proposal" that are punctuated by a semicolon are sometimes punctuated differently in other versions. Have students compare punctuation in different versions of Swift's essay to see how meaning can be affected by punctuation. Here are other possible online versions:
  • Have students write a short satirical piece of their own using semicolons to create similar rhetorical effects as those they discovered in Swift's essay.

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  • Observe studentsí participation as they work in pairs to collect their sentences and create the word document. Check for how they work independently when it was time for them to work independently but also how effectively they worked cooperatively during the partnered portions of the lesson. If you choose to do more of the work as a whole class, also consider the level of participation during whole-class discussions.

  • Have students turn in the highlighted document they created in Session 1, the semicolon rules summary, and their individual paragraphs. Use the Effects of Semicolon Rubric to evaluate their work.

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