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What Should I Know About Teaching The English Punctuation System?

Dani Barrow


When Vampire Weekend pondered, “who cares about an Oxford comma?” I was the voice in the crowd screaming, “I do!” Punctuation is important. And it’s not just stuffy English nerds who think so. The topic has become a popular Internet meme, inspiring muffled chuckles for office procrastinators everywhere. But let’s face it; English punctuation can be tricky. I spent four years in college studying this language and I still make mistakes that make AutoCorrect blush. So what are the really important things to pass on to your students?

1. Apostrophes are a b****.

They represent ownership, with the exception of when they’re used in contractions. They always go before the “s” but not when the subject ends with an “s.” In English, there are always exceptions to the rules and the rules of the apostrophe might be the most confusing of them all. It becomes particularly confusing with pronouns. There is a difference between “your” and “you’re.” “It” is somehow special and does not use the apostrophe for ownership, because it has to borrow it for the contraction “it’s.” Of course, one way to spare beginner students the confusion is to start out teaching formal English and avoid the contractions altogether. No you “can’t” in class, but you may certainly “cannot.”

2. The semicolon is your friend.

Do you have two simple ideas to express but you don’t want to sound like a prehistoric caveman? Semicolon. Do you have lists within lists? Go ahead and semicolon that list. Just don’t confuse it with its cousin the colon. The colon is used for two things: presenting a new idea and making a list of examples.

3. The hyphen believes in social order.

Adjectives must stick with adjectives. Do not try and convince a hyphen to connect an adjective with an adverb. It simply won’t do. But before you get angry about the hyphen’s prejudice against the innocent adverbs, you should also know that the hyphen doesn’t give a flip about proper nouns acting as adjectives either. The hyphen can be helpful when you want to express and idea within an idea—a different explanation—while giving a detailed description.

read as much English text as possible and the knowledge of when to use punctuation will become instinctual

4. Quotation marks speak volumes.

Depending on the student’s native language, they may be fairly aware of the rules for when to use quotation marks. However, most students might not know about the use of quotation marks in more casual contexts. English is a special language created by some very smug individuals so we’ve decided to appropriate quotation marks in our “subtle” sarcasm. There is no need to impose such cynicism in beginner students, but it’s fun to think about how deeply facetiousness is embedded in our language.

5. Care about Oxford commas.

If just to spite those Hamptons Hipsters, teach your students to use an Oxford comma. If being a grammar snob isn’t your hobby and you’re unsure what an Oxford comma is, it is the comma preceding the word “and” in a list including more than two subjects. Other things you should care about when it comes to commas include: not using them to create a run on sentence, they can be used as less distracting parenthesis, and never use one between a subject and its verb.

Of course, this is a very sparse list of the many, many intricate rules involving the English punctuation system. Not to mention that rules have a way of varying from culture to culture. The best advice you can give your students is to read as much English text as possible. Eventually, the knowledge of when to use punctuation will become instinctual. They’ll still make mistakes, but so do 99% of native English speakers, so that’s not a reason for them to feel discouraged.

What are the most common punctuation mistakes you see in your own students? Let us know below!

About the author

Dani is a writer and traveller living in Buenos Aires but is originally from Texas. She collects post cards, languages, and tattoos. She can also find her way around a kitchen.