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· My Students Find "Interesting" Punctuations ·

"There are some punctuations that are interesting," said Gertrude Stein, "and there are some that are not." Stein's judgment, quoted from Joseph M. Williams's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, I have long found helpful in my teaching. The marks we silently take for granted, I've discovered, make for useful classroom conversation.

Typically, after introducing my students to the two chief means of grasping punctuation ("regulatory" and "syntactical" I call them), I turn everyone loose diligently looking for "interesting" punctuations. My students take to the task well, finding in what they have first read for pleasure larger lessons in compositional technique.

For fun I have thought to share two such finds. Each comes from a now-dated class textbook handy for reference, Lynn Bloom and Edward White's Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader. You, too, might find my students' punctuations "interesting."

Begging what I call "regulatory" questions, the first comes from Mike Rose's short essay, "'I Just Wanna Be Average'":

We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal effect), "I just wanna be average." That woke me up. Average?! Who wants to be average? Mike Rose, 'I Just Wanna Be Average,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 72-73.

You can imagine my students' response. They like, of course, Rose's hyphenated boredom ("blah-blah-blah"), his paused, adjectival aside ("with studied, minimal effect"), his one solecism ("wanna"), and, mostly, his equivocal end-punctuation on "Average?!" "But is that right?" they ask, and I reply: "But of course! Was Rose here following some stuffy, single-minded grammarian's 'pointing rule'?"

My students take even more, however, to John Updike's "syntactical" stretch in his fine autobiographical essay, "At War with my Skin":

My mother tells me up till age six I had no psoriasis; it came on strong after an attack of the measles in February of 1938, when I was in kindergarten. The disease — "disease" seems strong, for a condition that is not contagious, painful, or debilitating; yet psoriasis has the volatility of a disease, the sense of another presence coöcupying your body and singling you out from the happy herds of healthy, normal mankind — first attached itself to my memory while I was lying on the upstairs side porch of the Shillington house, amid the sickly, oleaginous smell of Siroil, on fuzzy sun-warmed towels, with my mother, sunbathing. John Updike, 'At War with My Skin,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 50-51.

You can imagine my students' take. After traversing Updike's semicolonized lead sentence ("Svc; svc" is his pattern), they "gasp" inquisitively at a writer's deft style dashing their hopes for some subject-verb closure in his longer second sentence ("S — svc; svc — vc, c, c, c"). "Can Updike do that?" they ask, amused by his lengthy, comma-filled sentence ending. "Well, he did, didn't he? It's a stretch," I say, "but — hey! — if your old skin is rather inelastic, why not limber up your syntax? For Updike it's verbal gymnastics."

Students of course get my point, as they get, too, Victor Borge's in a still more stylish take on punctuation, happily recorded (even if without his accompanying story) partially online. Do enjoy.

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Thanks for a Friday afternoon "period," Styles. Victor Borge — what fun!

Posted by
Mary Lee Donahue on January 23, 2004 01:45 PM



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