Lies Your Teacher Told You About Punctuation

English punctuation can be maddening for students, and for a couple of related reasons:

1)   Teachers often give the impression that punctuation works like a perfect algorithm - learn the rules, and you’ll know how to punctuate in every situation.

  • Rule: Use a comma to separate clauses in a compound sentence.
  • Example: I think Ryan Reynolds is ultra-hot, but my girlfriend disagrees.

But students, being curious and observant, notice exceptions to most rules. Often, they'll point to famous authors who break them; Hemingway is always a great example.

  • "There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam..." (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 3 - though you can open this book to almost any page and find a similar example).

Inevitably, students want to know: which exceptions are okay, and which ones aren't? And where did these exceptions come from, anyway? 

2)   For teachers who suggest that punctuation rules are Permanent, Proper, and True, these questions are impossible to answer.

But as soon as you learn a bit of the history about how our punctuation marks emerged and changed over time, these questions become much easier to address. Punctuation isn’t a perfect, self-contained system; it’s a mish-mash of rules and practices developed over millennia, for a huge range of purposes, by an enormous cast of peoples and cultures. Punctuation isn’t one thing; it’s a grab-bag of stage directions, actors’ cues, printers’ marks, and – perhaps most importantly for us – whispers from authors to readers.

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I’d never really thought about punctuation before reading Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Like most people, I’d just struggled with it – remembering the rules I learned in elementary school, recognizing situations where those rules didn’t seem to apply, and wondering what to do.

Of course, it wasn’t all struggle. I’d enjoyed trying to solve punctuation problems, because like Truss, I believe that “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.” But fundamentally, I thought of punctuation problems as problems. There had to be solutions, if I could only find them.

After reading Truss, I no longer feel that way. Punctuation problems aren’t problems – they’re just questions. And often, there are good answers to these questions: we have lots of well-reasoned guidelines for most situations. But occasionally, you find yourself trying to express something just so, and nothing on the current punctuation menu will satisfy. That isn’t a problem – it’s a challenge.