Commas save lives

Like most students of my generation, I “did” English homework work: I memorized vocabulary words from publisher-produced lists, responded to publisher-produced “questions for understanding” literature, and completed publisher-created exercises in correct placement of commas.  By the time I graduated high school, valedictorian of my class, I had come to believe commas were just decorations, about as vital to writing as cosmetics to chickens.

I persisted in this belief until my senior year of college when a chemistry professor did what no English teacher was able to do: He helped me learn why comma placement matters.

Commas save lives is more than just a T-shirt slogan.

My roommate had published poetry while in high school, but her ambition was to be an inorganic chemist. From the first day we met, Cheryl talked about wanting to isolate the amino acid lysine from human hair. For nearly three years, every time I got my hair cut, I’d ask for the clippings, which I gave to Cheryl to use for isolating lysine.

A psychology major, English minor, I worked as a “reader” for a visually handicapped sociology major with whom I shared several courses. When we were required to take a statistics course, I knew Sue wouldn’t be able to understand the text without seeing the graphs.  I decided to take Sue to a chemistry lab where I could draw the graphs on the blackboards that covered three walls, since I knew from Cheryl that the  labs were deserted in the late afternoons,

I discovered that I couldn’t just read the statistics book to Sue, even with the diagrams on the board. She had never seen a graph and didn’t know how to interpret one. I ended up having to learn the week’s statistics material and teach it to her.  As I was doing that, the chemistry prof, Dr. Dale Ritter, would often walk through on his way to the instrumentation room as I was explaining statistics to Sue.

One day Dr. Ritter told me Cheryl had to write for her analytical chemistry class in a format suitable for chemistry journal, but what she wrote was in a literary style. He said he didn’t know how to explain what she needed to do differently and asked if I could help. Cheryl was already a very fine writer. It took only a few minutes to point out the features of journal style that she needed to follow.

When Cheryl hadn’t done the lysine isolation by my final semester of college, I teased her about it by telling some students in the chem lab about the acute embarrassment I’d suffered for three years when asking for my hair clippings. Dr. Ritter overhead me and asked if I’d like to do the lysine isolation myself. He said the lab had everything that was necessary, and he’d be happy to help me set it up.

I’d never taken a chemistry course, but it sounded like it might be fun. I said I’d love to do it.

Dr. Ritter got out the equipment.

Cheryl got out the directions.

I got bewildered.

Many of the sentences of the directions contained words that could be used as different parts of speech depending on the context, but none of the sentences had any internal punctuation marks. That often meant it was impossible to be sure what part of speech a particular word had in a particular sentence. For example, if you chose to regard a word as a noun, which you would have done if it had a comma after it, you would do something quite different than you would do if you treated that word as an adjective modifying the following word.

I’d read the directions and figure out what I thought I ought to do.

Then Cheryl would come along and read the directions, pausing in different places, and she’d conclude I needed to do something quite different.

Sometimes someone else would wander by, read the directions, and, by pausing in other different places, reach an entirely different third conclusion.

I learned from the experience the chemistry fact that putting hair in hydrochloric acid produces the smell of vomit.  

I also learned from the experience the importance of commas. When you’re doing things with hydochloric acid, you realize quite forcefully that commas are not just decorations.

Commas are essential to clear communication.

Learn a lesson from my experience. When you teach comma use, be smart about it. Instead of funny examples, use examples from law and business that show how much damage a comma can cause.

A misplaced comma really could kill somebody.


Resources for comma use

Punctuation Matters: ‘Dear John’ Letter and a 2-Million-Dollar Comma. The second example shows the importance of careful comma use in business.        

Why Commas Matter: The Wire Act Story. Incorrect comma use changes how a law is interpreted.

The ruling in this Maine labor dispute hinged on the omission of an Oxford comma. A news story from The Washington Post about a business law case.

Get control of your commas.   Examples from Perspect Med Educ, a medical education journal, about the importance of comma placement when writing about medicine.

17 rules for using commas without looking like a fool  This guide from Business Insider shows each rule on a separate slide. Slides are supplemented by an explanation of the rule.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Taxonomy-aligned multiple choice questions

Taxonomy of Educational Objectives cover
My well-read paperback Taxonomy

 Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules.  To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.

If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.

Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.

Enough theory.  Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.

A five-question set

For the five numbered items below,  indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.

_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.

A second five-question set

Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.

_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.

One single question

11. Look carefully at this statement:

Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.

To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.

Use the results as formative assessment

You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.

The answers

1-c,  2-b,  3-b,  4-b,  5-a,  6-a,  7-a,  8-a.  9-c.  10-b,  11-e.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.

Comma splices: Grammar’s Siamese twins

Earlier this week, I published at my PenPrompts blog a writing prompt template to use to get students to define some class concept concretely.

We English teachers are particularly poor at identifying concepts whose meanings:

  • Are obsolete outside English class
  • We ourselves don’t really understand

I once overheard a retired English teacher telling someone about failing the exam her college required of all prospective teachers.

The teacher, whom I will call Susan, said the exam included an essay question. Susan said the graders failed her for having comma splices. They made her retake the exam.

The person to whom Susan was telling her story asked, “What’s a comma splice?”

Susan said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s using lots of commas or something.”

After more than two decades teaching English, Susan had never learned:

  • The function of a comma is to separate grammatical elements.
  • To splice means to join elements by overlapping them.

A comma splice joins two sentences with a device for separating grammatical elements.

That is unnatural.

It’s weird.

Comma splices are grammatical freaks.

Comma splices are the Siamese twins of grammar. 

conjoint twins are metaphor for comma splices

Old photo of Siamese Twins

You can prevent your students from falling into creating grammatical freaks.

First, when you use a 12th century grammatical term, explain it for students or use a 21st century term instead of the textbook term—even if you have to invent a term.

Then have students explain the term by writing an original sentence and explaining which word(s) in their sentences performs the grammatical function you are trying to teach them.

When you use informal writing to provide informal assessment of students’ knowledge, they will soon teach you which terms mean something different to them than they do to English teachers.

Students’ misunderstandings should also teach you what to say instead of using the misunderstood term.

Thanks to students’ misunderstandings, I taught myself to say “grammatical subject of the sentence” and to distinguish it from “the conversational subject of the sentence.”

To sum up:

  • Use terms students understand.
  • Use informal writing to find out what students misunderstand.
  • Don’t let students go though life creating grammatical freaks.

Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.


Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

Reading Pairs Repair Written Grammar

one person reads aloud from a paper written by the listener
You can use native English speakers’ ability to hear errors to help them identify potential grammar problem areas in their writing, such as run-together sentences.

Using students to give feedback about their writing is a powerful way to develop students’ skills while reducing your workload.

Simple two-step process

1. With students working in pairs, the author reads his/her work aloud while the other listens.

Why it helps: Slowing down to read aloud may be enough for the author to spot grammatical errors that the author doesn’t see when reading silently.

2. For a second check, the listener reads the work aloud to its author.

Why it helps: The person who didn’t write the paper is far more likely to read sentences as written instead of the way the author intended.

Why it helps: Hearing the paper read by someone else is more likely to reveal to the writer problems he/she corrected mentally but still needs to correct on paper.

During the second reading, students may want to stop at the end of every paragraph, or more often, to see if either questions something that they read. A penciled question mark in the margin (or highlighting on the computer screen) is all that is necessary to help the author remember to check that sentence later.

Tips for trying the technique

Although most strategies I recommend are geared toward teaching teens and adults, this activity can be done with students as young as fourth or fifth grade.

For the activity to work, students need to be fairly well matched in respect to their reading and writing skills.

Also, the reading order is important. The author gets the chance to identify needed changes before the partner can note them. If the listener has reading difficulties, reading second lets him anticipate words s/he will see in the reading.

Read aloud pairs is not a peer editing activity per se. The point is to get the author to focus on the words s/he put on the page.


Comments? Questions? Let’s hear from you.

This post appeared in Writing Points for May, 2011, ©2011 Linda G. Aragoni

Simple Games Give Grammar a Boost

The only memory I have of sixth grade is of playing “My grandmother went to Europe,” a traditional memory game.

In the game, the first player (the one closest to the teacher’s desk, if I remember correctly) says, “My grandmother went to Europe and in her trunk she took…” The first player names some object. The second player repeats the sentence adding a second object. Play continues with each player repeating the list and adding an object not already named until a player makes a memory error.

The game requires no real talent, but it has just enough challenge to keep a class from getting out of hand.

An English teacher with a grain of creativity could modify the game to add a bit of oral grammar drill — and possibly drill on other topics as well — while still keeping the game moderately engaging for middle school students and even for some high school students.

Here are three possible ways to add some useful content to grandmother’s trunk:

1) Instead of using the simple past tense, use a different verb tense. For example:

  • “My grandmother will go to Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother has gone to Europe, and in her trunk she has taken…”

2) To give students practice in using irregular verb forms, use a different verb in opening clause such as fly, swim, drive, ride, hike, or cycle.

  • “My grandmother will fly Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother swam to Europe, and in her trunk she took…”

3) When students are familiar with the way the game works, have them invent a pair of clauses to use in practicing other grammar and possibly in recalling other information.

  • “This week my favorite sport is football, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Last month my sister’s hair was blonde, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Anne Frank and her family hid in a building, and in this building there was/were __.”

Since most of us acquire grammar by hearing spoken language, oral activities help students whose out-of-school experience has not provided opportunities to hear “good” English grammar patterns. Try one of the memory games when you have a block of class time that’s too long to waste but too short for any activity you’ve planned.  Observing students’ reactions can provide a useful clue to students who could benefit from ear training in grammar.