Punctuation confusion

As the semester opens, next week, I don’t know what to tell my students about punctuation. Authoritative books, such as A Writer’s Reference, The Everyday Writer, and the latest edition of the Modern Language Association handbook on my shelf, the 6th, have almost identical lists of rules about commas, for example, yet the series of punctuation articles recently published in The New York Times throw the rules in my source books into a cocked hat.

Which of these two examples is correct?

In my opinion this is correct./In my opinion, this is correct.


Frankly I don’t give a damn./Frankly, I don’t give a damn.

University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda write in his recent NYT article, “A modifying or transitional phrase at the beginning of a sentence can be followed by a comma or not, depending on your personal style, the meaning of the particular sentence and the length of the phrase. So would you put a comma in the following sentences?

By this time tomorrow I’ll be in Poughkeepsie./Generally speaking the Republicans win the Western states./Late at night the visibility can get pretty bad.

There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!”

The reading diet of my freshman writing students consists of emails, Facebook, and snippets from blogs and yahoo. I don’t disparage this – they have been creative with language, and perhaps have established a personal style for extremely casual writing, but they cannot use this style in academic essays. They are in need of some parameters, some order, some discipline. Leaving punctuation “up to you” is a recipe for slush.

Professor Yagoda shies away from rules regarding some of the most basic comma practices. He writes: “Referring to the Philadelphia Phillies outfield as ‘Pence, Victorino and a left fielder-by-committee’ would be fine in [The New York Times] but not in The New Yorker, which would change it to “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee.” Notice the comma after Victorino, or not.

All three of my source books would deem the New Yorker version “correct.” A Writer’s Reference writes, “Use a comma between all items in a series” The Everyday Writer writes, “Use commas to separate items in a series,” The MLA Handbook writes “Use commas to separate words…in a series,” and gives this example:  “Boccaccio’s tales have inspired plays, films, operas, and paintings” That series of nouns scans like “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee” to me.

Okay. Fine. What do I tell my students? Yagoda’s article shuns “precision and clarity” by using phrases such as “There’s no right answer!  It’s up to you!”

The student’s ear is perhaps the best guide to good writing, but if he or she stumbles into an awkward or incomprehensible sentence, and has only the ear to depend upon, the corrected sentence may be equally awkward or incomprehensible. Freshmen need some rules.  I tell them “When you write for The New Yorker or write a published novel, you can make your own rules. Let’s learn the rules first, then you can break them.”

Punctuation changes over time, so does syntax, accent, and every other aspect of language; but you have to start somewhere.

One student may use creative punctuation, and it may work. He may be the next e e cummings. Professor are not robots – we can act as editors. If I cannot understand what a student means, it’s time to go back to the book and review the rules. If the student’s prose soars, give her an A. This does not mean that “There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!” It means that once a student gets precision and clarity in the muscle memory of her brain, she can soar into her own space.

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