Standard Lesson

Semicolons and Swift: Analyzing Punctuation and Meaning

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Two 60-minute sessions
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In this lesson, students identify and categorize different ways Jonathan Swift and those who have edited his text since its initial publication used semicolons in the essay "A Modest Proposal." They compare these uses with rules for semicolon use as indicated in online guides, theorizing about uses that do not follow the rules. Following this analysis and theorizing, students use what they learn about punctuation and its influence on meaning to write insightfully about their findings, using semicolons as they do so.

From Theory to Practice

  • Reading and writing can be improved through an understanding of punctuation and grammar.

  • Students learn most effectively about language in the context of their reading and writing. Inductive and active contextualized learning provides students with the ability to transfer learning about language (e.g., usage, punctuation) to other reading and writing situations.

  • Working together with other students allows students to use language and to theorize about its rules and practices.


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.

State Standards

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).
  • 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.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 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

  • 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]




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.

Student Objectives

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

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.

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.


  • 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.

Student Assessment / Reflections


  • Observe students’ 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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