Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Commas, or, Why Do the Rules of Grammar Hate Us So?!

I have a confession to make.  I do not like teaching grammar and punctuation.  There are so many rules to teach a child who really isn't interested (at least in my case), and so much practice required to commit it all to memory.  To make matters worse, this difficult subject matter is incredibly important.  College professors, future employers, and even Facebook friends will one day judge my son's grammatical proficiency.  Fortunately for me, there are some wonderful resources out there to make it easier to understand and teach grammar.  

I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger Nikolas Baron, who has written a fabulous post on teaching correct comma usage.  I've been known to sprinkle commas pretty much anywhere, and Nick's clear explanations have been very helpful to me as a blogger, and as a teacher.  Enjoy!

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On Commas, or, Why Do the Rules of Grammar Hate Us So?!

Commas. Ugh. No one likes commas, especially English teachers. They're difficult to teach, and students rarely use them correctly. We can sit and teach students the rules of the comma, but they'll usually end up ignoring them and dropping commas wherever they think a comma should go. This rarely turns out well, usually resulting in a paper with either no commas or too many. How do you even begin to teach such a complex topic to students that honestly don't care?
The primary difficulty is in the complexity of comma rules. Some people argue that there are only four rules for comma usage, while others break those rules down into further rules, increasing the complexity. For example, the Modern Language Association lists a total of 11 comma rules, which is just silly: not even a professional writer can keep track of 11 separate comma rules; what hope do any of us have? What hope do our students have?
In my work with Grammarly, I study the tools writers use to become better writers, and while I wish there were a fool-proof way to teach commas, there just isn't. The best you can hope is to simplify the rules enough that they're easy to understand, and then use some activities to help them practice.
Let's start with rules. In my belief, there are only five comma rules that are crucial to teach:
  1. A comma is used before a coordinating conjunction that separates two independent clauses.
    • Example: “I sat on the couch, and I watched TV.”
  2. A comma is used to offset additional information that describes a noun, called an “appositive.”
    • Example: “The speaker, a world-reknowned author, took the stage.”
  3. A comma is used to separate like items in a list.
    • Example: “I've written for a blog, newspaper, and TV station.”
  4. A comma offsets an introductory clause that comes before the subject of the sentence.
    • Example: “In his right hand, he held his drink.”
  5. A comma separates a quotation from the rest of the text.
    • Example: “She pulled him aside and said, “This is important.”
As previously mentioned, there are certainly more comma rules, but I believe these are the most important. Once your students seem to have a good grasp on these rules, it's time to put them into practice. While you can certainly provide worksheets with sentences that need commas, I feel like worksheets do little to teach the practical use of the rules. To provide practice, I believe we should use activities that encourage our students to think critically about how commas should be used in real situations. Try the following exercises with your students to help them practice the five rules above:
  1. Write three sentences for each comma rule on separate strips of paper. Have your students categorize each sentence by the comma rule it uses.
  2. Have your students write a paragraph using five sentences. Make sure that each sentence uses at least one of the comma rules above.
  3. If you have multiple students, have each one write a paragraph that uses the above rules but does not include the commas. Have your students trade paragraphs and add the commas in.
These three exercises are simple ways you can have your students practice the proper ways to use the five comma rules. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how good your students get, no writer is perfect. Comma errors will always fall through the cracks. That's where Grammarly comes in. Over at Grammarly, we offer a comprehensive grammar check that examines a text for over 200 grammatical errors. With good comma practice and a little extra help from Grammarly, you can not only make sure that your students learn about commas, but also ensure that they will always use commas correctly.
Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children's novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

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