Punctuation isn’t grammar

From time to time, Katharine and I chat about the fact that most people don’t know what grammar actually is.

I certainly didn’t, not until I taught freshman writing and began reading grammar books.

Like virtually everyone else, I thought grammar was punctuation — punctuation and parts of speech. That was about as far as my K-12 education took me.1

These days I explain grammar to students this way:

If you learned every word in the French dictionary, you still wouldn’t know French because you wouldn’t know how to put the words together.

(I used to include an observation about dogs not having language, just words, but it looks like dogs may actually pick up some grammar, too.)

Putting French words together: that’s grammar.2

Putting an apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Gentlemen’s Outfitters: that’s punctuation.

A self-styled ‘grammar vigilante’ has revealed that he has spent years changing offending shop signs in the dead of night.

Wielding an ‘apostrophiser’ – a broom handle laden with two sponges and a number of stickers – the man has corrected tens of missing and misplaced apostrophes on shop banners across Bristol over the past 13 years.

The pedant, who is yet to reveal his identity, claims his efforts are needed to bring an end to the improper use of English. But critics suggest he should start with his own name – as apostrophes are strictly a matter of punctuation rather than grammar.

“I’m a grammar vigilante,” he told the BBC. “I do think it’s a cause worth pursuing. I have felt extremely nervous. The heart has been thumping.”


Jason Singh, 42, who owns the tailors Tux & Tails, claims that he potentially faces paying thousands of pounds for his sign to be corrected.

The issue, the omission of an apostrophe in “Gentlemens”, has been corrected with what appears to be two blobs of paint, or stickers, that do not sit well with the newly-fitted vinyl.

“I did take it lightly at first, but now I’m a little angry to be honest,” he said. “We think it’s paint, and this is vinyl, so if we have to replace it you’re looking at a few thousand pounds. I understand, but at the end of the day I’d have preferred him to come in and tell me.

“I think it could be considered rather rude. I think there might even be grounds for a police complaint, and if his name is revealed, I’ll be sending him an invoice for the damages.”

However, the vigilante has defended the legality of his work, telling reporters that some of the mistakes he redresses are “just wrong” and that “it’s more of a crime to have apostrophes wrong in the first place”.

Melania Branton, a poet from North Somerset, said that whoever the ‘grammar vigilante’ turns out to be “must be wincing at the misnomer, as punctuation isn’t grammar”.

Revealed: Self-styled ‘grammar vigilante’ corrects badly punctuated shop signs in dead of night

1. I also learned the terms simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex — but, when I began teaching, I discovered that I didn’t actually know what those terms meant. 
2. It isn’t grammar, it’s syntax. Grammar includes the rules for putting morphemes together to form words. But same principle. (Comma splice intentional.) 

More examples of modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences

I forgot that the most egregious ones in my collection were hiding in my iPhone notes!

  1. During this field experience, it was the first time I saw an autistic support classroom in action.
  2. In Ms. X’s classroom, she teaches math and reading.
  3. When observing the speech therapist and teacher, they would show just how dedicated they are to their jobs.

Sentence 3 illustrates another hazard of not revising such sentences (a hazard far worse than loose structure and wordiness): some of these  modifiers, however innocently they start out, can end up as danglers.

Good sentences and good writing

All good writing consists of good sentences properly joined.

– Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg Higher Lessons in English. A work on English grammar and composition, in which the science of the Language is made tributary to the art of expression. Revised edition, 1896

Commitment is tough—especially when it comes to grammar

I’ve been distracted away from blog posting by a number of things: most recently, a heap of student papers. But these papers, as it turns out, aren’t just time-consuming items to read and grade; they’re also rich material for a blog about writing instruction. With great regularity, they illuminate blog-worthy patterns in the prose writing styles of the latest crop of college graduates (my students are typically master’s students). One of these patterns appears in the three sentences below, which I’ve altered slightly for anonymity:

  1. In Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, it discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. From talking with the student’s mother, it seems as though she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. For those individuals that are included with their regular education peers, they struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

What do all these sentences have in common? I’m not sure how obvious the pattern is: I’ve perhaps become, over the years, as hyper-sensitive to it as I am hyper-irritated by it. But what we see here, generally, is a looseness of syntactic structure. More particularly, all three sentences have topical material that really belongs in subject position, right before the verb, but is “factored out” into an introductory modifier. Ditch the modifier and move the content into subject position, and you get:

  1. Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. My talk with the student’s mother gave me the impression that she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. Those individuals that are included with their regular education peers struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

The sentence structure is tighter, and there are fewer content-poor words like “it” and “for.” The original sentences, in other words, have undergone the kind of pruning and tightening that should be one of the priorities of revision. And I’m guessing is that part of what’s going on here is that fewer and fewer students are bothering to revise their sentences.

First drafts of sentences are naturally loose and wordy. When we start formulating a sentence, we’re often unsure of where it’s going—which is why spontaneously spoken sentences often look garbled in written transcripts. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s safest not to commit yourself to a particular subject. Prematurely committing yourself to a particular subject may prematurely commit you to a particular predicate: a predicate that may be at odds with what you actually end up wanting to say. So why not procrastinate by placing the topical material in some sort of introductory modifier–“In such and such a book,” “When talking to so and so…,” “For those people who…..” Then, when you get to the main clause, you can use some sort of pronoun or placeholder (like “it” or “there”) as the subject as you start thinking your way through the rest of the sentence.

That, at least, is my explanation for these loose, modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences that predominate in the absence of revisions. As for the other phenomenon–why are students no longer revising their sentences?–this brings us back to one of the reasons why Catherine and I are writing this blog in the first place: the demise of sentence-level instruction.

Doug and Ana on handwriting & the SAT

I hadn’t thought of this (from Doug):

One of the many advantages of the days when secondary schools had shop classes was that among those sort of practical, skill-based classes was drafting. And a part of drafting was learning to letter precisely and carefully.

Of course, those were also the days of explicit and meticulous handwriting lessons in grade school.

And I love this from Ana:

My brother was always a math wiz in school, but one high school teacher gave him B’s–the horror! It was entirely due to neatness. He straightened up quickly, aced the class and went on to major in math in college.

With Ana’s brother, I have to think there’s a connection between the initial Bs for sloppiness and the math major in college — if only because discipline breeds discipline.

Our unconscious minds are a subject of endless fascination to me. I’m pretty sure that we ‘observe’ ourselves unconsciously in some way, so that if we see ourselves taking care we conclude that we do care.

Ana’s nephew may have seen himself taking pains to write his numerals and symbols neatly and concluded that math mattered.

Perfect handwriting, perfect score

An SAT tutor tells me that three of her students have had perfect scores on the SAT essay.

All three were L2 students (English as a second language), and all three had perfect handwriting.

Perfect. Handwriting.

That’s the key. Or a key.

(And great tutoring, in this case.)

My thought: every student who will be taking the SAT should buy a copy of Write Now: The Complete Program For Better Handwriting and start practicing.

The before-and-after samples of physician handwriting are a stitch.

(I marched C. through half the book when he was in 5th grade, I think it was. I should have  marched him through the whole thing, but I didn’t have the strength, what with the daily math re-teaching and MegaWords. My own handwriting improved tremendously, however.)