“Comma knowledge”: Some points about punctuation in EFL

punctuation

by Alex Moore

A Quiz

Can you match these eight sentences to their writers’ L1s? They were all written by either an Arabic, Chinese, Polish or Spanish native speaker, and contain a characteristic punctuation-related mistake.

  1. ¿When are you coming?
  2.  He said,,I don’t believe you”.
  3. I went with my friends to Indonesia a beautiful country.
  4. Hi! How are you. Are you OK.
  5. Tell them, that you’re not a baby any more, and you can go alone.
  6. Isabelle said don’t worry, it isn’t important, so I felt better.
  7. I go with (sic) Underground to Marble Arch station. And go to restaurant.
  8. 1.000 Japanese yen is 8,80 dollars.

(Smith/Swan, Learner English, and my students IK, AA, CL, MF, TM and KW)

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Answers & Comment

  1. Spanish. English beginners may carry over the characteristic inverted question or exclamation mark.
  2. Polish. Opening quotation marks go below the line.
  3. Arabic. “The use of full stops and commas is freer than in English. […] Connected writing in English tends therefore to contain long, loose sentences.” (Smith/Swan)
  4. Chinese. Question marks are a relatively recent import into Chinese, and are still considered optional because the statement/question distinction is grammatically obvious without punctuation.
  5. Polish. “One of the most common usages of the comma [in Polish] is to denote the boundary between clauses or the ends of sentences embedded in other sentences.” (de Gruyter, 1975)
  6. Spanish. Inverted commas are not used to report speech. A dash, or nothing, is used instead.
  7.  Arabic. It is common to begin sentences with “so” and “and”.
  8. Polish. Like in several other European languages, commas separate decimal groups and full stops separate thousands, the opposite of English. (Gabryanczyk, 2012).

How did you do? More importantly, did you recognise patterns from your students’ writing?

My Experience

Last summer, I worked with a multilingual Pre-Intermediate group. I noticed the gap between over-users of punctuation and under-users. Few were in the Goldilocks zone of conventional, appropriate use, so I scoured several series of textbook in the school library, looking for resources to help them. I found, where they dealt with punctuation at all, it was usually swiftly, at Beginner or Starter level, and it became assumed knowledge from then on.

Punctuation is as vulnerable to L1 interference as any other area of learners’ interlanguage and so deserves better.

An Obstacle

It doesn’t help that punctuation is misused by native Anglophones. Bill Bryson – a former copy editor at The Times, as well as one of the funniest living writers in English – is absolutely right to observe that “many people are not merely unacquainted with the fundamentals of punctuation, but evidently don’t realise there are fundamentals”. Instead they treat marks as “condiments that your sprinkle indiscriminately through any collection of words”.

Many native speakers don’t punctuate properly, and yet lead functioning, happy lives. So why should we expect or want learners to?

Why it Matters

Donn Byrne, in Teaching Writing Skills, writes: “It is precisely because the reader expects sentence boundaries to be marked […] and because he expects questions to be signalled with a question mark […] that these conventions cannot be ignored.” Similarly, Jeremy Harmer writes, in How to Teach Writing, that misuse of punctuation can “make a negative impression” and “make text difficult to understand”.

Cambridge Assessment’s marking criteria requires candidates to produce “well-organised and coherent” writing “using a variety of cohesive devices and organisational patterns”. Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, organisation and cohesion must surely include punctuation.

“Needed because expected”

These cases build towards what I call the “needed because expected” argument. We might privately want to break convention, experiment and “stick it to the man” when it comes to punctuation, but Cambridge, Trinity and IELTS examiners, not to mention state exam departments worldwide, are traditionalist. They apply a high standard of what is currently considered correct, and by “currently”, I mean when they were educated. Like it or not, this means we should too.

Organising Thoughts

Extrinsic reasons like this can feel depressing. We teachers don’t like being advised to teach a certain way because we need our students to jump through hoops. To cheer us up, I’d offer a more intrinsic reason for punctuating well.

In Uncovering Grammar, Scott Thornbury provides this example conversation:

A: Would you like some of this coffee?
B: Yes, I would like some of that coffee, please.
A: Do you take milk? Do you take sugar?
B: I don’t take milk but I will take one sugar, thanks.
A: Would you like some of this toast?
B: I’d prefer not to have any of that toast, thanks.
A: Can I offer you some of this juice?
B: Yes, I would like some of that juice.

He points out that the interlocutors sound like “excessively polite and partially-sighted people” and their exchange can be shortened dramatically while retaining its functionality.

A: Coffee?
B: Please.
A: Milk? Sugar?
B: No milk, one sugar. Thanks.
A: Toast?
B: No thanks.
A: Juice?
B: Mmm.

Thornbury is making a different point here, but when I read this I was struck by how many words – roughly 80% – were extraneous, but how little of the punctuation was. Only three (or five, if we count the apostrophes in “I’d” and “don’t”) out of 16 marks are sacrificed.

Conclusion

This suggests two things: Firstly, that punctuation helps organise the thoughts in written text. Think about my student who wrote “Isabelle said don’t worry, it isn’t important, so I felt better”. Which words and feelings belonged to whom? Secondly, the teaching of punctuation should focus on its function. If students have trouble accepting punctuation as a matter of convention, focus instead on what it does. Finding out what it does in their L1 is a worthwhile starting point.

Reference

  •  Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling, Doubleday, 2015.
  • Donn Byrne, Teaching Writing Skills, new ed., Longman 1988.
  • Daria Gabryanczyk, Polish for Dummmies, John Wiley and Sons, 2012.
  • Walter de Gruyter, Polish Reference Grammar, Mara Zagórska books, 1975.
  • Jeremy Harmer, How to Teach Writing, Pearson Longman, 2004.
  • Bernard Smith and Michael Swan, eds., Learner English, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Scott Thornbury, Uncovering Grammar, Macmillan Heinemman 2001.
  • Cambridge Assessment marking criteria, www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/first/exam-format/
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