Semi-colons, sentences, and apostrophes

erv, of Science Blogs, has a post celebrating the death of the semi-colon. erv is clearly not an English teacher. I have seen a veritable explosion of semi-colons in recent years, scattered throughout freshman compositions, often in the most inappropriate places.

There are two reasons for this. One is that at least one of the recent versions of Word’s grammar checker wanted to put semi-colons in all kinds of places they didn’t belong, and my freshman students were not confident enough in their own writing to tell it no.

The other is the rather more complex obsession with the comma-splice (using a comma instead of a conjunction or semi-colon to put two complete sentences together) on the part of those of us who teach freshman and remedial English composition. After getting papers back with c-s marked several times on each page, students who aren’t really sure what a complete sentence actually is, start sticking in semi-colons almost at random. As a reader of British mysteries, I have noticed that British editors do not seem to share this concern about comma-splices, they’re all over the place, and don’t particularly interfere with clarity. This leads me to wonder if this is a battle we should be fighting.

A far bigger problem, in my opinion, is that many of my students seem to have no clue what a sentence is, or perhaps more accurately, what is not a sentence. They’re okay with a simple declarative, but as soon as they try to express a more complex thought, they produce a tangle of words that isn’t a sentence, and worse, does not communicate. I’m not sure why this is. I do know that few of my students read. I don’t mean that they are illiterate. They can read a job application, and even work their way through the assigned reading in college-level textbooks, though they will avoid this if they possibly can. But they don’t voluntarily read anything but text messages and emails, which do not give them the deep, automatic sentence recognition that a lifetime of reading books and magazines would, and do not prepare them to express complex ideas in complex sentences.

College is too late to fix this. High school is too late to fix this. We have to make reading fun in elementary school, and standardized tests won’t do that; they won’t even help us measure that.

As for the apostrophe, the other punctuation mark erv mentions, I must disagree. I can easily live without semi-colons, but apostrophes do aid understanding and readability. Don’t, I recognize and understand immediately; dont is a pothole in the road. It’s jarring. Instead of moving smoothly through the sentence, my eye catches on it, and I have to take that fraction of a second to recognize, “Oh, she means don’t,” before I can move on. That interferes with communication, and, like other persistent mis-spellings, will cause enough annoyance that I probably won’t keep reading unless the subject matter is interesting enough to overcome the annoyance, or it’s a paper I have to grade.

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