What bothers me, as I respond to my students' last-minute requests for feedback on their drafts before they turn in final papers, is not so much that they seem unfamiliar with common conventions of punctuation and spelling but that they don't seem to care. Sure, if I make a big deal about it they'll insert an apostrophe to indicate possession, but they make it clear that they're just humoring me, submitting to my stodgy and outmoded standards just for the sake of the grade. For my students, I realize, punctuation is becoming a dead language.
Which is unfortunate, because punctuation can impart clarity and elegance to complex ideas--and besides, it's not that difficult. I sympathize with students whose texting habits have made punctuation seem superfluous, but I firmly believe that anyone capable of learning to operate a smartphone or play Angry Birds is capable of learning how to use apostrophes to form possessives or semicolons to link sentences.
I admit that I'm on shaky ground here since I don't own a smartphone and I've never actually played Angry Birds, so I found a web site offering a tutorial called "How to Play Angry Birds" (see it here). "It's a simple game to learn," promises the site, "but mastering it takes time and practice," which could also be said of punctuation. The site breaks down the mastery of Angry Birds into 13 easy steps (with pictures!). I can break down the formation of possessives into two easy steps, or three if you break the second into two:
1. To form a possessive of a singular noun, write the noun and add 's.
2. To form a possessive of a plural noun, write the noun's plural form; if it ends in s, add an apostrophe, and if not, add 's.
See? Two steps versus 13. Why, then, am I regularly called upon to instruct college students--even senior English majors--on the formation of possessives? And why do I have to repeat the lesson for the same students when they reappear in other classes later? Why don't they take the time to master these two simple rules and practice them until they can form possessives in their sleep?
Here, in a nutshell, is the rule for using semicolons: semicolons connect two complete sentences. Yes, there are other uses involving phrases in series, but for most students, this one rule will serve all their semicolon-related needs. However, half the time when I suggest that a student needs a semicolon, what ends up appearing is a colon--so not only do they not know when to use a semicolon; they don't even know what a semicolon is.
I'm tired of hearing myself say this, but listen: it's not that difficult! If only punctuation were as addictive as Angry Birds...hey, there's a get-rich-quick scheme! Time to invent an app that bombards nouns with apostrophes and sentences with semicolons to earn points and to avoid the wrath of the Angry English Professors.
But then students would find a way to hack the game and before you know it we'd have an epidemic of Angry English Professors being battered to bloody death by weaponized semicolons.