The Passion of Punctuation
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In an effort to make punctuation more accessible to students, this unit explores emotions that are associated with the artful and deliberate use of commas, semicolons, colons, and exclamation points. In addition to providing students with the tools to use these punctuation marks appropriately, the lessons urge students to experiment with punctuation in a way that contributes to the meaning, style, and voice of writing. Students will examine emotionally charged opinions about punctuation voiced by established writers and will form their own opinions, defend their own choices, and become passionate about their own uses of punctuation.
From Theory to Practice
Haussamen et al. (2003) encourages the teaching of grammatical concepts in the context of real world writing and through examining writers’ choices, asserting, “Although we turn to reference books when we want to check on the acceptability of a word or a type of phrase, the ultimate resources for judgments of the social acceptability of any language are its literature and the way the language is used by influential groups in society” (16). Considering punctuation options as stylistic choices asks students to apply grammatical knowledge to real communication contexts and to appreciate the ways in which the diversity of authors’ purposes, contents, and contexts allow for play within conventional rules and thoughtful breaking of those rules.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Computers with Internet access
- Ability to project videos from a computer screen to a white board, projection screen, interactive whiteboard, etc.
- Session One: Writing with Passion
- Session One: Marks of Punctuation Attitudes Chart
- Session One: Practicing Punctuation
- Session One: Proselytizing Punctuation
- Session Two: A Wink to the Semicolon
- Session Two: “An Elegant Pause—Or Merely a Pretentious Comma?”
- Session Two: An Extension
- Session Three: A Quick Review
- Session Three: Right or Wrong? It’s my choice. Right?
- Session Three: Right or Wrong? It’s my choice. Right? – Answer Key
- Session Three: An Extension
- Session Four: Let’s Talk About Colons
- Session Five: Getting Excited about Exclamation Points
- Session Five: You’ve Got Style
- Session Six: What Mark of Punctuation Are You?
- Session Six: Practicing Passionate Punctuation with Postcards
This excerpt from Seinfeld portrays a debate about exclamation points between Elaine and her boyfriend.
This excerpt from Seinfeld portrays a debate about exclamation points between Elaine and her boss, Mr. Lippman.
Oprah interviews Cormac McCarthy, who discusses his strong opinions about punctuation.
This short film explains the use of the exclamation point with clever examples. The web site also includes a helpful summary of rules that can be printed and distributed.
- Before each session, print and copy printouts for students’ use.
- Before Sessions One and Five, locate Internet video clips (cue before class to avoid showing students advertisements that may precede the clips).
- Test the Postcard Creator interactive and make sure that you have the appropriate software installed for it to run effectively. You will need computers with internet access for each student to use this interactive. If you need additional help with this interactive, please visit our Technical Help page.
- learn the appropriate uses of, and practice using, the semicolon, comma, colon, and exclamation point.
- examine the opinions and attitudes that various published authors hold concerning punctuation choices.
- become familiar with the punctuation choices found in published texts.
- add meaning, style, and voice to their own writing through deliberately placed and chosen punctuation marks.
- Distribute the Writing with Passion printout and ask students to pick an emoticon they like and would be likely to use while emailing or texting friends, as well as one they don’t like or would be unlikely to use. Then, using the emoticon they like, ask students to write a sentence that occurs before the emoticon (a sentence that illustrates its appropriate use.)
- Ask several students to write their sentences and draw their emoticons on the board (or on an overhead transparency or chart paper) and ask the class to discuss what the emoticon adds to the message or how it changes the way in which the sentence is read and understood. As well, consider with students how the choice of a different emoticon might alter the sentence and its meaning.
- Discuss with students the varieties of writing that do not allow for the use of emoticons (this may include handwritten pieces or texts composed in electronic formats that do not offer emoticons to choose from, as well as texts that are composed for more formal writing situations). Ask students to identify other ways of expressing tone or mood in writing (possible answers include the use of capital letters; spelled-out emotions, such as “heeheehee”; and punctuation).
- Tell students that while punctuation choices might not seem as engaging as emoticons, many writers and readers care deeply about punctuation, and so in these lessons, we’re going to examine options for punctuation, the effects of those choices, authors’ likes and dislikes for specific marks of punctuation, and the ways in which students can more confidently use punctuation to develop their own written voice and style.
- Distribute Marks of Punctuation Attitudes Chart to students and explain that this handout provides a chart for them to record attitudes towards punctuation they will be exploring; instruct them to use the chart to note likes and dislikes, as well as writers’ and readers’ reasons for their views about specific marks of punctuation. Begin with two video clips for the class to view. Have a brief discussion reviewing attitudes towards punctuation, as well as inferring reasons for these views after the videos have been viewed.
- Seinfeld video on exclamation points, Elaine and Jake (2:13) [The video is accompanied by Swedish subtitles; these can be ignored, or students can be asked to attend to the punctuation choices of the subtitles.]
- Cormac McCarthy video on Oprah (3:17) [Videos found on commercial sites such as the Oprah site may contain advertisements; these can be avoided if the teacher loads the video before class and allows the advertisement to run before sharing the material]
- Divide the students into small groups (two to four students per group), and explain that they will be given 10 - 15 minutes to read an additional author’s views on punctuation and to answer the accompanying questions on the handout Proselytizing Punctuation. Half the class will complete the exercise with the Lewis Thomas essay “Notes on Punctuation,” and the other half of the class will complete the exercise with excerpts from Helen DeWitt’s punctuation blog post. Each student should complete the questions because at the end of the group work time, students will be asked to share their responses in small groups (two to four students per group) with students who responded to the other essay (Lewis and DeWitt students will be grouped together for a five-minute discussion). During group work time, the teacher will circulate among groups to answer questions and gather feedback on students’ understanding.
- Again, ask students to form small groups (two to four students per group) to examine punctuation choices in two short prose excerpts. Students will be given 10 minutes to read a short passage and to answer the accompanying questions on the handout Practicing Punctuation. Half the class will complete the exercise with the Harry Potter excerpt by J.K. Rowling, and the other half of the class will complete the exercise with an excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Each student should complete the questions because at the end of the group work time, students will be asked to share their responses in small groups (two to four students per group) with students who responded to the other excerpt (Rowling and McCarthy students will be grouped together for a five-minute discussion).
- During group work time, the teacher will circulate among groups to answer questions and gather feedback on students’ understanding.
- If time allows, come together as a class and review the different authors’ opinions and the different uses of punctuation in non-fiction and fiction. Teachers may also choose to allow students to finish this work for homework if there is not sufficient time left in the class session.
- Distribute the handout, A Wink to the Semicolon. As a class, read Sam Robert’s New York Times piece “Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location” so that most students are given the opportunity to read a paragraph aloud.
- After reading the article, ask a student to draw a large semicolon in the middle of the board. Before discussing the content of the piece, ask the students if they can describe how a semicolon is used (semicolons separate two independent clauses that are closely related to each other but could stand alone as sentences if you wanted them to). Make sure to emphasize that semicolons are never a required piece of punctuation; they are a stylistic choice. When added to a text appropriately, the semicolon has the ability to add a subtle connection between two sentences.
- Once the class has agreed upon a definition, return to the New York Times piece and invite students’ reactions to the content. Be sure to reflect on the last sentence, “The semicolon, befittingly, symbolizes a wink.” Ask the students to explain in their own words this allusion (to the wink emoticon).
- Have the students write their own definition of an independent clause in the printout, and come together as a class to review these definitions.
- An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought.
- An independent clause is a sentence. You can put “I realize” in front of nearly all independent clauses and they will make sense.
- An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought.
- Point the students toward their printout, which contains an example of a sentence that correctly uses a semicolon and a sentence that incorrectly uses a semicolon. Allow the students to explain which sentence is correct and why.
- Have each student write an independent clause on a half sheet of paper. Ask the students to stand and arrange themselves in some arbitrary order against a wall of the classroom (by age, height, number of siblings, etc.). Once students are standing, ask each student to search for a member of the class who has an independent clause that could be linked to their own sentence with a semicolon. Once all students are paired (or as many as possible), the groups should stand on either side of the semicolon drawn on the board and read their new sentences aloud. The class as a whole can debate whether or not the semicolon is being used properly
- Distribute the John Henley “An Elegant Pause—Or Merely a Pretentious Comma?” printout. To show students that semicolons are one of the most hotly debated pieces of punctuation, use the excerpts from John Henley’s piece in The Guardian. Ask for volunteers to read the opinions aloud, and encourage the class to record viewpoints on the Marks of Punctuation Attitudes Chart printout distributed in Session One. Once all the excerpts have been read, ask the class which opinions they most agree and disagree with.
- For graded homework, ask that students write three original sentences that appropriately use the semicolon. You may also ask that the students find at least one example of the use of a semicolon in any text they happen to read. The students will describe how the author uses the semicolon and whether they agree with the author’s choice.
- If students need more practice using the semicolon, see the Semicolons: An Extension printout. Here, students will have the opportunity to explore the various frequencies in which Stephen Chbosky, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Steinbeck use the semicolon.
- Distribute the Commas and Coordinating Conjunctions: A Quick Review printout. Begin the class by reading this piece on commas from The Onion aloud. Students will have a copy of the passage in their printouts. Allow students to respond briefly to the piece and point out what they notice, like, or dislike.
- Explain to students that one of the top 10 most common grammar errors is comma usage and that today they’ll work together to master just one of its uses: Commas that join two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction. If you feel the need to review the other uses of commas (e.g., to set off nonrestrictive clauses, to set off an introductory dependent clause, to separate a series of items), do so briefly.
- Ask students to work in pairs and respond to the prompts found in the printout. The prompt about independent clauses should be a review from yesterday’s lesson on semicolons.
- Once the students have had time to read through and respond to the prompts, come together as a class and briefly review independent clauses and coordinating conjunctions. Ask that a few students write their sentences from the printout on the board. Come together as a class and guide the students through the sentences. Be sure to methodically explain why sentences are correct or incorrect.
- Distribute the Right or Wrong? It’s my choice. Right? printout and read the Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) passage aloud. Complete the questions that immediately follow the excerpt as a class.
- Return to Fogarty’s passage and ask students whether or not they understand the comma splice. Once you have helped students reach an appropriate definition (a comma splice occurs when a writer has connected two independent clauses with a comma alone), explain to the students that while commas should be used correctly—as Grammar Girl suggests—authors are still given autonomy over how they choose to correct the comma splice. Comma splices, specifically, can be fixed in three ways (These choices allow authors to infuse voice, meaning, and style into their writing through punctuation alone. Allow students to practice making these stylistic choices in the next section of the printout):
- with a period that replaces the comma,
- with the addition of a coordinating conjunction after the comma, or
- with a semicolon that replaces the comma.
- with a period that replaces the comma,
- Once students have inserted the punctuation of their choosing to correct the inserted comma splices in the John Steinbeck passage, go through each of the seven corrections as a class. Have students defend their position on why they chose to insert a specific mark. After exploring each comma splice and its corrections, share the authors’ actual choices with the class. (See the Right or wrong? It’s my choice. Right? – Answer Key printout.) After seeing which punctuation Steinbeck had actually included, allow students to agree or disagree with his decisions. Ask students to indicate by a show of hands who made choices similar to those of Steinbeck, and discuss how these decisions contribute to the meaning, style, and voice of the piece.
- If students need more practice with commas and coordinating conjunctions, see the Commas and Coordinating Conjunctions: An Extension printout. Here, the students will have the opportunity to correct inserted commas splices in a David Sedaris passage. The answer key is on page two of this printout.
- Ask students to draw a colon in their notes, and ask for a volunteer to draw a colon on the board (some students may draw the human intestine – you can use this as an opportunity to share a bad pun and explain that colons ask readers to prepare to “digest” what is about to follow).
- Ask students to explain when or how colons are used. Possible answers include the following: to indicate ratios, to separate the hours and minutes in expressions of time, to follow the greeting of a business letter, to follow the name of the speaker in a play or in legal transcripts of court testimony, to introduce lists). Remind students that this unit is focusing on punctuation as end stops – punctuation that follows a complete sentence or independent clause– and ask students which of the answers they’ve volunteered is an example of end stop usage (introducing a list or elaborating on the complete sentence that has come before).
- On the board, write several sample sentences that model the appropriate and effective use of the colon. Here are some suggestions:
- I am allergic to nearly anything green: plants, grass, mold, and broccoli.
- Shivering and alone, she could see only one thing: darkness.
- Distribute the Let’s Talk About Colons printout and ask student volunteers to read the rules and opinions about colon use. Remind students to record the information in the Marks of Punctuation Attitudes Chart (distributed in Session One). You may also wish to remind students of Cormac McCarthy’s comments on colons (in the Oprah interview shown on the first day of the unit): “You can use a colon if you’re going to give a list that follows from what you said.”
- After reviewing the opinions, ask students to give examples of how colons can be used to do more than to just introduce a list. Ask students to work in pairs to write a sentence that illustrates the correct use of the colon and to reflect on how the colon affects the tone and meaning of the sentence (the printout provides directions for this work). Ask for several volunteers to write their sentences on the board. Discuss not only the correctness of the usage, but also what the colon adds to the sentence’s meaning.
- What kind of feeling or tone does the use of the colon create?
- In these sentences, does the colon act more like a drum roll? A command or order? A mark of emphasis?
- What does the colon add to the tone of the sentence? Anticipation? Sophistication? Clinical objectivity?
- Invite students to think of metaphors or similes that characterize the marks of punctuation that have been studied (the printout provides a place for this work): "A period stop is like ________________; a comma is like ________________; a semi-colon is like __________________; and a colon is like _________________________." Teachers may wish to assign students a single mark of punctuation by row or invite volunteers to complete the comparisons in a class discussion. If students need an example to get them started, teachers may wish to remind students of the metaphor used in Session Two (a semi-colon is like a wink) or share this metaphor from The Capital Community College Foundation’s web site: a colon is a gate, inviting one to go on.
- Conclude with a discussion of students’ metaphors and similes.
- View the Seinfeld video (1:07) in which Elaine, in her job as an editor, adds exclamation points to a book that she finds lacking in “emotion and intensity.” Distribute the printout Getting Excited about Exclamation Points. Ask students about their own views on the use of exclamation points: are they more like Elaine’s or her boss’s? (Students can record Elaine and her boss’s attitudes on the Marks of Punctuation Attitudes Chart distributed in Session One; they can record their own views on the Getting Excited printout.)
- Share with students the following research findings on use of the exclamation point (this appears on the Getting Excited printout):
- Women use exclamation points more than men do (numerous research studies support this finding and also conclude that women are more likely than men to use multiple exclamation points). Students can be asked to consider the use of multiple exclamation points: Do they use them? How do they read and interpret them?
- Scholars have debated why women use exclamation points. Previously characterized as “markers of excitability,” exclamation points may not be used primarily by women to indicate excitement. A recent study by Carol Waseleski, “Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication: An Analysis of Exclamations Posted to Two Electronic Discussion Lists,” suggests, “exclamation points do more than function as markers of excitability; they can also function as markers of friendliness.” Students can be asked to consider how they use and interpret exclamation points: do they indicate excitement? Friendliness? Something else?
- Tell students that at exclamation points (or exclamation marks, as they are called in the United Kingdom) are also known as “bangs.” Invite students to think of metaphors or similes that characterize the exclamation point (this appears on the Getting Excited printout). Either before or after this exercise, teachers may share with students others’ metaphors and similes for exclamation points:
- Lewis Thomas compares the exclamation point to “someone else's small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention.”
- Writer Merlin Mann calls them “the fire alarm of prose fiction.”
- Explain to students that, unlike other marks of punctuation we’ve considered, exclamation points are often viewed as a mark of poor writing.
- H.W. Fowler has written, “An excessive use of exclamation marks is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald advised, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.”
- Ask students why they think exclamation points are often viewed as a mark of poor writing. Possible responses include the following: the over use of exclamation points may numb the reader and deaden the meaning; exclamation points may be associated with informal writing, youthful writing, or overly emotional and less objective writing.
- Distribute the printout You’ve Got Style. You may assign students to work on a specific passage or allow them to choose one of the three sample passages included in the assignment. Ask students to focus on the use of the colon and the exclamation point (although they may also edit for the use of the comma and coordinating conjunction and the semi-colon). Students should identify specific instances where they would either add or remove a colon or exclamation point; this may entail some re-writing of the original sentence and replacing the colon or exclamation point with another stylistic option for punctuation. Collect completed handouts for assessment, or assign unfinished work for homework to be collected the next class session.
- If time allows, you may wish to share other information about exclamation points:
- Comic books are a genre of writing in which exclamation points are used very frequently. The web site TVTropes notes, “The Donald Duck comic books have a tendency to not contain a single speech bubble without at least one exclamation mark. Yes, even whispering ends with ‘!’” Students may wish to find their own examples and compare the use of exclamation points in comic books, manga, and graphic novels.
- The Video Jug short film (2:36) explains the use of the exclamation point with clever examples. The web site also includes a helpful summary of rules that you can print and distribute. [Videos found on commercial sites such as the Video Jug site may contain advertisements; these can be avoided if the teacher loads the video before class and allows the advertisement to run before sharing the material]
- Tom Wolfe, founder of the New Journalism movement and author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, is known for his use of exclamation points. Students may wish to compare Wolfe’s journalistic writing with that of other authors or to compare excerpts from Wolfe’s novels with excerpts from Cormac McCarthy’s writings.
- Distribute What Mark of Punctuation Are You? printout and ask for volunteers to read the descriptions out loud while students listen and choose which description best fits their personalities.
- After students have indicated on their printouts which description best fits them, ask the class to indicate which description matches each of the four marks of punctuation we’ve studied. (The correct answers in the order in which they appear on the printout are exclamation point, comma, semicolon, and colon.)
- Distribute Practicing Passionate Punctuation with Postcards. The assignment asks students to apply what they’ve learned and to compose short messages that reflect their own voice and style. Using Postcard Creator, students will write about a real or imagined place they have visited, appropriately using at least two of the marks of punctuation studied in this unit. Students will also write a paragraph discussing the punctuation options they chose for their message (and those they did not). In these paragraphs, students will comment upon at least three of the end-stop punctuation options that were studied in this unit, explaining the effect of their choices on the tone, mood, rhythm, and/or meaning of the message. The teacher will circulate and answer questions.
- Semicolons: Allow students to analyze published authors’ use of the semicolon.
- Commas: Allow students to practice correcting comma splices in another published piece.
- Ask students to apply what they are learning about end punctuation to their own ongoing compositional writing of poems, essays, and stories.
- Ask students to apply what they are learning about end punctuation to their academic and outside readings, bringing in examples for discussion. Students can also be encouraged to examine how the use of these punctuation marks vary as writers move across the genres of expository to narrative to poetry writing. For example, how do poets (including e.e. cummings) use punctuation? Why do they tend to take more liberties in their punctuation use?
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Semicolon use (Session Two): students write three original sentences that demonstrate appropriate use of the semicolon. Directions and grading detailed in Session Two instructional plan.
- Colon and exclamation point use, revising for style (Session Five): students examine and alter specific punctuation options in the writing of published authors and reflect on the changes and options. Directions and grading detailed in the You’ve Got Style printout.
- Composing a message and reflecting on punctuation choices (Session Six): using Postcard Creator, students compose a message demonstrating appropriate use of at least two of the marks of punctuation studied and reflect on at least three options possible in the message they composed. Directions and rubric included in Practicing Passionate Punctuation with Postcards printout.
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