Monday, October 21, 2013

Comma Confusion and the Rise of Grammarian Discord (Blog 8)

Everyone knows that grammar is not only taught by teachers but also by the family members who raise you. I do not recall being taught in school that you should place a comma in a sentence anywhere that you would naturally pause in speech. However, my mom taught me this rule while she was helping me complete by composition homework in grade school. Needless to say, my teachers eventually noticed by habitual overuse of commas and retaught me the correct means of grammatical comma use. It was at this point in my life that my mom stopped helping me with my homework as I had the means to complete it without assistance.

Fast forward several years.

I distinctly remember a day in high school where I had my mom proof read an essay for my English class. She handed the paper back with a few corrections but I noticed she inserted quite a few unnecessary commas. I asked her why she would give me suggestions like that and she told me that she was always taught to place commas where she would pause in speech. I remembered her teaching me this as a young girl but I also remembered by teachers taking great pains to break me of the habit.

I engaged my mom in a long discussion over the grammatical rules of English and watched her surprise in learning that she had been wrong her entire post-grade school life. Not only had she had one teacher educate her on this grammar myth, every English teacher she had emphasized this as proper comma usage. Ergo, she taught me the same concept believing she was only helping me improve my understanding.

I cannot help but draw conclusions about the state of grammar when she was in grade school. My mother attended public school in Tuscola, Illinois – a small town of about 4000. Though I have not researched the state of public school curriculum in Illinois in the 1960s-1970s, I do know that her school was not considered to be academically rigorous or challenging. Especially after reading Hartwell’s, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar”, I wonder if the consistent teaching of grammar myths and false formal grammar instruction created a generation of scholars who – confused by the poor instruction – decided to question formal grammar instruction as a whole.

In any case, both my mother and I understand the proper grammatical uses of commas. I have also used my position as Writing Center Tutor to dispel students of their preconceived notions of grammar myths and engage them in proper grammatical rules on commas and beyond. 


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