When I told a friend recently that my second book, a humorous tale of animate punctuation marks, was coming out soon, he guffawed. "Well, we all have our delusions. But really, no one cares about punctuation any more." Naturally, my first reaction was that punched-in-the-gut feeling. My next reaction was to take him off my friend list! But of course I couldn't ignore his words. Was I writing about a totally lost skill?
I recognize that I am a word and language geek, and I love grammar and punctuation. I was the only person in my college to ever take Grammar 101 as an elective. Not only that, one of my most favorite assignments as a young government lawyer was researching whether Congress had repealed what was believed to be a long-standing banking law by virtue of a missing quotation mark (that case, by the way, ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court). So, as you would expect, I can't give up easily on punctuation.
I also recognize that the rigorous grammar I was taught in school, complete with sentence diagramming, is not being taught in elementary schools. In fact, it's not being taught in high school or college either, so that those who are recent graduates of college and entering the teaching profession these days have been schooled in only the basics—parts of speech. The lack of education in the more complex rules of grammar does, in fact, diminish the ability to punctuate and to teach punctuation. After all, if you don't know what a dependent versus an independent clause is, you can't very well absorb the rules of punctuation that apply to separate them! Not only that, but the fact that so much communication takes place in the form of email, instant messaging and texting has made spelling, un42natly, somewhat irrelevant. So was my former friend right?
Then it hit me. Despite the move away from teaching grammar, despite the abbreviated language of texts and emails, kids and adults both still routinely use basic punctuation, and, in particular, the final punctuation marks—periods, question marks and exclamation points. Why? Precisely because of the abbreviated nature of modern communication. Phrases can be subject to many interpretations. For example: "My house @ 5" could mean, "Do you want to come to my house at 5?" or "I'll see you at my house at 5." or "Be at my house at 5 or else!" And the only way to know which meaning applies is to punctuate the phrase, to give it an emotional context. And that's when I realized that punctuation's not dead: it's more important than ever!
So what does that mean for teaching punctuation? Well, tying punctuation to the rules of grammar is impossible. Usage examples like those above can be helpful for older kids. But for those in elementary school learning the rudiments? I suggest my approach—animate punctuation marks with distinct personalities that match their function. Once you've met the question mark who is a newspaper reporter, or a cheerleading exclamation point, will you ever have trouble remembering how to use these marks? I don't think so. In fact, I'm sure of it!