Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maybe someone forget to pay the punctuation bill

Commenting on drafts would be much easier if I could stop looking for patterns where they obviously aren't or seeking reason behind random sloppiness:

Why did this student put quotation marks around two titles but not the third? Did the rest of the quotation marks elope with the ampersand? 

Why is the character's name capitalized roughly three-quarters of the time? Did it find the stress of being a proper noun so exhausting that it had to lie down and rest for a paragraph or two before standing upright again?

Why would a student consistently place commas precisely where they are least necessary? Or did he load a shotgun with commas, point it at the paper, and pull the trigger? 

And why does the next paper eschew commas in favor of dashes? Who does she think she is--Emily Dickinson?!

I look for patterns so that I can diagnose the problem and prescribe an antidote (so maybe I should be reading through a stethoscope), but lately I find myself  thwarted. I think I see the beginning of a pattern (he's putting commas after 'and' and 'but') but then it falls to pieces (wait, here's an 'and' surrounded by commas, and here's a 'but' with no punctuation whatsoever). 

My mistake, I think, is in assuming that students are always making conscious choices about their writing and if I just uncover the flawed reasoning behind those choices, I'll be able to fix it. But what if reason has nothing to do with it? What if they're too tired or busy or drunk or distracted to notice little details like punctuation and capitalization? What if they simply don't care?

I'm seeing a constellation of errors and trying to connect the dots, but I fear that they're as random as the stars and equally inaccessible. (So maybe I should be reading through a telescope.)  


Contingent Cassandra said...

The just-not-paying-attention explanation makes sense to me. The more sinister possibility, of course, is that the text does not, in fact, have a single author, because it's mostly patchwork plagiarism. But there are usually other signs of that, up to and including inconsistent fonts. It sounds like the inconsistent patterns you're seeing stop short of that point.

penn said...

I read a lot of writing for my bio classes (three APs and one writing-based intro bio!). I think students just don't know grammar rules, so their mistakes are not intentional. I know that I didn't learn comma rules until sophomore writing in college. My professor had a great activity called something like "The Ten Sentences" that outlined ten great ways to write a sentence*. Even with examples, I found it wicked hard to get all of them. I spent a lot of time practicing.

* forms I remember well enough to write out:
- Main clause (MC), and/yet/but/or MC.
- MC; MC.
- Clause, MC.

Anyway, it was a wonderful exercise. He was ruthless in grading grammar, especially if he'd taught you that grammar. I became a much better writer through that. I mostly let grammar slide unless it affects writing in my biology papers, but I do call students out on egregious over-use of the comma splice.

Keep fighting the good fight!

Bev said...

I would love to do more with grammar in class, but first I would have to explain what the words "noun" and "verb" mean. Yes, it's that bad.

Stop all the Complaining said...

I wonder- wait- maybe I wander-no, that's not it, or is it?!! It certainly seems that there is a significant portion of the students at colleges who just have so much to learn about the simple rules of grammar. I attribute much of it to the focus in high schools now on meeting testing requirements, which are not really centered on writing skills, at least at the level that is acceptable in the college environment. Keep up the good fight.