Acephalous makes a fine point about the serious misuse of the comma among students these days.

Nearly every teacher of college writing I know wails and gnashes teeth over these kinds of problems.  Frankly, student papers take the “perplexity of narrow passages” idea to its nth degree. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a great deal of sympathy for ideas that are poorly worked out–every writer struggles to put her pages in order, and no one succeeds absolutely.  Punctuation on the other hand is an entirely different matter.  I find it hard to sympathize too much over simple comma errors, precisely because they’re so simple.  Not knowing where commas go is like not knowing how to add or subtract, or what the capital of Britain is: these are things you learn in elementary school, or should.  And there’s just no time to teach that stuff in college, except in remedial classes, and these errors persist all the way through, for a lot of students.

The real punctuation problem is simply ignorance. Few of the students I’ve met have been willing to sit down and learn the basic rules of grammar.  Major style guides, I’ve taught ’em all: from The Elements of Style to Plain Style to plain ol’ Style.  At various points in the past I’ve memorized those books so well that I could mark errors with a single number, and been able to channel Will Strunk in student conferences (“Rule 13” or “Make the paragraph the unit of composition!  Make the paragraph the unit of composition!  Make the paragraph the unit of composition!”).  And it’s certainly done my writing a great deal of good.

When I started graduate school, I had what you might call a natural facility for writing.  I had read enough to know more or less intuitively how to write grammatical English sentences, and a couple years of Latin taught me what a subjunctive was, &c. (We won’t get into my ongoing struggle to come to terms with the demands of academic writing, which is an entirely separate issue and the subject of the post, sorta, that’s banging around in my head.)  But I wasn’t a very deliberate writer.  After umpteen years of teaching writing classes, I think I’ve absorbed most of the rules. I don’t recall any former students really mastering them, not to that extent.  But when I pull down my battered copy of Strunk and White, the one I was given by a favorite professor as an undergraduate, I am hopeful that some of them are working on it even as I type.

So my conclusion is, there’s just no way to “teach” the sitting down with a basic text and memorizing it.  It’s funny that foreign language classes make people do that all the time, but not English ones.  That’s the one of the best arguments I can think of for learning a foreign language: it forces you to learn some grammar.

So, is it obvious I’ve been agonizing over grading essays all day?  (Rule 12: Choose a suitable design and hold to it!  Choose a suitable design and hold to it!  Choose a suitable design and hold to it!)

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