Wednesday, May 22, 2019



“There must be deviations from the rules in order to express almost anything….However, only the man who is familiar with the rules may sometimes violate them, for he alone can know that, in certain cases, the rule is not enough.” – Andre Ernest Modeste Gretry 

When I first began to teach writing classes, I went into the job with the assumption that my students already understood the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, and for the most part my assumption was correct. However, the most disconcerting discovery I made was that such an assumption could not be made about every child.

Mary* was fourteen years old and what I would call a bookworm. She was an eager learner and highly intelligent. On the last day of my fiction writing course that year, each of my students were to bring a typed copy of their short story to share with the class.

Mary did not want to read her story out loud, so I volunteered to read it for her. When she handed me her story, however, I was flabbergasted to find not one single use of punctuation on the entire page. There wasn’t a period, comma, or quotation mark in sight. Not only that, but not a single letter was capitalized, every fifth word was misspelled, and the story had been written in one very long block of text. No paragraphs. I did my best to read it, but I struggled to know where to begin and end each sentence.

My class was not a grammar class. I was teaching the craft of fiction writing and expected the kids to learn the basic tools of writing at home. In this case, however, that had obviously not occurred.
When I had the chance, I pulled Mary aside and complimented her on her creative story. She had a knack for humor and character development.

“But,” I told her as gently as I possibly could, “there is no punctuation on the entire page.”
“Oh, I don’t need punctuation,” was her confident reply.

The truth is I am still stunned that anyone could honestly believe they don’t need to use punctuation when they write. I don’t know if her mother had told her that or if she had come to that conclusion on her own, but she was wrong, and I told her so.

Mary’s case was a bit extreme. The vast majority of students who have received any kind of writing instruction, whether at home or in a classroom, will have learned the value of punctuation, proper grammar, and spelling. But parents and teachers should not be lulled into the same easy assumption as I was and allow your child/student to get as far as high school without even being able to put a period in the right place.

Society often tells us, though flippantly, that rules are made to be broken. Writers and poets in particular are notorious for breaking rules.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, author Frank McCourt avoids quotation marks like the plague. Ernest Hemingway’s original works were littered with misspelled words. William Faulkner was notorious for his run-on sentences.

This bending and breaking of the rules in contemporary literature may give young writers the impression that the rules are irrelevant when compared to the creative process of writing. This could not be further from the truth. The rules of writing should not be broken, must not be broken, until they are first mastered. If Frank McCourt had written a quotation mark-free story for his college professor, he probably would have received a poor grade indeed.

Mary’s comment that she did not need to use punctuation is to writing like saying we do not need to obey traffic signals is to driving a vehicle. If we fail to stop at a red light, for example, cars will crash into each other, causing a lot of chaos and damage. The same thing happens to language without the proper use of punctuation and grammar.

In Mary’s case, my opportunities to assist her were limited. However, I did manage to teach her a few simple self-checks to help her get her writing under control. Look for these self-checks in next week’s article.

* Name changed for privacy.

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