Before the 1960s, grammar and punctuation were taught as foundation blocks for writing instruction. In the 1960s, some research questioned the value of teaching grammar, and new ways of teaching grammar cast doubt on the traditional methods. In the midst of all this change, the baby was thrown out with the bath water where grammar was concerned, and when the 1970s rolled around, a new generation of teachers had not been trained to teach grammar and punctuation.I find this remarkable.
I am a member of that new generation of teachers, and a product of a writing education with little structured or sustained lessons in grammar. Thankfully, one of my teachers believed in teaching grammar and punctuation through sentence diagramming. Before this instruction, I lacked confidence in my writing because I didn't know for sure if my sentences were really sentences.
I can still remember the great "aha!" feeling I had when I realized that I could analyze a sentence without the teacher's assistance--I could mentally diagram the sentence to determine if it was grammatically correct. What a sense of power that gave me!
Mary Hefty earned a Masters degree in English and then worked as an editor in a research laboratory, but as a child (or teen?) she could not tell whether she had or had not written a sentence.
She goes on:
When I left the research laboratory to become a college professor, teaching English composition and technical writing, I noticed during the first term that many of my students' papers were riddled with grammar and punctuation errors. I didn't know how to add the necessary instruction in grammar and punctuation skills to our limited class time without letting it take over the class like a weed. Typically, I tried a band-aid approach to teaching grammar and punctuation. When I saw sentence fragments in the students' papers, I talked about sentence fragments. When I saw comma splices, I talked about those. It didn't take long to realize that many of my students didn't recognize a sentence, so they couldn't solve the sentence problems. My students were just like I had been--needing structure and an organized way to learn grammar and punctuation without having the approach overwhelm them or make it difficult for them to learn the writing process in class.A lot of my students -- these are college freshmen -- "punctuate by breath."
In several classes, I decided to discard the band-aid approach and devote 10 percent of the class time to teaching the students grammar and punctuation, starting with the basics--What is a simple sentence? How do you diagram it? And guess what? It worked.
I've been teaching sentence diagramming in some of my courses for eight years now, and the students who begin my classes not being able to identify or define a simple sentence leave the class with the vocabulary and knowledge to identify simple, compound, and complex sentences; fragments; run-ons; and comma splices. Most importantly, the students have a foundation that enables them to learn more--without my help--after they leave the class.
Surprisingly, my university students don't mind having to learn grammar and punctuation through sentence diagramming because this approach quickly gives them the skills and confidence to fix the problems in their papers on their own. I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from my students to know that sentence diagramming works. For example, one of my former students told me that she was asked to edit letters for her boss. She said that before taking my class, she just put in the commas in where she thought she heard a pause and just guessed that the sentences were correct. "Now I know for sure, and I can really help," she said.
Punctuating by breath is OK as far as it goes, I think. Now that I'm learning the formal rules of punctuation, I realize I've been breaking some of those rules for decades. I've been breaking the rules because a) I didn't know them, so b) I've been punctuating by breath.
Having thought it over, I've decided to carry on punctuating by breath when the occasion calls for it. If I want or don't want a comma somewhere, then a comma there will or will not be. I'm the decider.
Still and all, the reason this works for me is that I have never, ever, in my entire adult life, failed to recognize a complete sentence. Nor have I failed to write a complete sentence if that's what I wanted to write.
I have come to the realization that a course about writing is a course about sentences.