Saturday, 16 April 2011

punctuation whats that

I readily admit that I couldn’t punctuate my way out of a paper bag. It wasn’t something that I was taught at school and I don’t seem to have really picked it up along the way. I remember when I first started teaching, I tried to memorize punctuation rules, but that didn’t go very well!

This week an advanced teenage student of mine asked me if she could use “however” in a mid clause position after a comma and before another one. I told her that my punctuation wasn’t up to much and that I’d double check with my friend Sally, who is most definitely, a punctuation “Stickler”.

I’ve just finished re-reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and, I can now safely say that the answer is a resounding NO. If you haven’t read this book I can heartily recommend it. It’s a witty, no-nonsense, zero tolerance approach to punctuation. I now know, that linking words such as “however” and “nevertheless” require a semi-colon.

The problem is, that I don’t think I’ve used a semi-colon since university, and even then, I think I may have just thrown the odd one or two in for luck. When was the last time you used a semicolon or a colon? Are they outdated and old-fashioned or are they the crème de la crème of punctuation?

Here are some facts from the Eats, Shoots & Leaves that tickled my fancy about punctuation:

• The earliest know punctuation dates back to 200 BC which involved a series of single points at different heights on a line.
• For more than a millennium the job of punctuation was to guide actors, chanters and readers-aloud.
• The first printed semicolon was in 1494.
• The exclamation mark was introduced by printers in the 15th century and was called “the note of admiration” until the mid 17th century.
• In newspaper circles the exclamation mark is known as a screamer, a gasper, a startler or a dog’s cock!
• The first word of a sentence was first capitalized in the 13th century but it didn’t become uniform until the 18th century.
• The question mark started out in the 8th century and was called punctus interrogativus.
• There is such a thing as an Oxford comma.
• The apostrophe dates back to the 16th century.

How many punctuation errors have I made in this post? Come on, you punctuation sticklers, I’m sure there are tonnes!


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss - Profile Books - 2003


  1. Hi Leahn, thanks for an interesting AND amusing post! I remember a student in an intermediate ESL class asking me to teach more about punctuation. I did, but felt that it wasn't going to help much when he, and most of the students in the class, had much more pressing issues with word order. I can feel an #ELTchat topic suggestion coming on :-)
    Lesley @cioccas

  2. Hi Lesley,

    It's true with so much to teach, where is the time to fit in punctuation? I always kind of hope that they transfer their knowledge from L1. I suppose it depends on their L1.... we might have to thrash this out on #ELTchat as you suggest!

    Why can't we do away with the possessive apostrophe?

    It's such a pain to teach and learn!

    Lesleys idea for an #ELTchat is a good one!


  3. Hi Leahn,

    I have never been very good at punctuation either. I don't remember being taught how to use anything other than full stops and commas at school, and suddenly, when I started university, I began to get red marks on my essays, correcting my use of commas and lack of semi-colons and colons. I sometimes throw in a few "semis" on my blog, without actually knowing if I should be using them. I once read the book you mentioned because I gave it to my mum fro Christmas, but I can't remember much about it - maybe I should try to get hold of another copy. One feature of punctuation that I totally overuse (due to my insecurity with colons and semi-colons) is the dash - my blogposts are just full of the little buggers!

  4. Oh, Michelle - I just love the dash - and overuse it too!

  5. Hi Michelle,

    Oh yes, uni and the red pen. I remember it well. The dash - I'll have to start using it!

    How DO you USE it?