Chris had been telling me his friend -- D. -- "can't do commas."
(I don't absolutely know Chris can do commas, by the way, though I think that, on the punctuation front, he's pretty much arrived. Will have to ask Ed, who's been advising Chris on history papers this year. Suffice it to say Chris knows enough about commas to be able to copy-edit D's papers.)
UPDATE 1/12/2014: Ed says Chris's punctuation is fine. It was basically fine by the time he graduated high school.
Anyway, I'd been mulling D's situation, and had decided I could probably fix all of D's comma problems in a couple of weeks, max.
The reason I was pretty sure all of D's comma problems could be remedied in a couple of weeks is that I've just about got sentence punctuation boiled down to the absolute, bare minimum of things you need to know in order to punctuate declarative sentences in college papers, and guess what?
There are only 8 basic sentence punctuation patterns.
That's not very many, eight.
To learn the 8 patterns, you need to know:
- Finite and nonfinite verbs
- Independent and dependent clauses
- Restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers (how to tell them apart)
- Subordinators (aka dependent marker words)
- Adverbial conjunctions (which I call "fancy FANBOYS" in class)
So I figured I could simply tell a smart kid like D. how to use commas in sentences, and he would know. His writing is good -- I've seen it -- it really is just the commas that are the problem.
So today Chris and D. did Hunter College's Exercise B, and I looked it over.
Turned out D. had never heard of "comma splices."
Or dependent clauses.
Never, in 13 years of public-school English class and 1 year of writing instruction at NYU (tuition $48k).
His only tactic for deploying commas was to listen for pauses as he wrote. Listening for pauses is a good idea as far as it goes, but, as D. pointed out, it's not going to fix comma splices. It's going to cause comma splices.
I suspect that listening for pauses may have caused both of the mistakes he was making:
- He was hearing the pause between sentences loud and clear, and was inserting naked commas* between sentences he wanted to join.
- He wasn't hearing the pause between opening dependent clauses and main clauses -- or, more likely, he was hearing the pause but was experiencing it, correctly, as softer than the pause between sentences. So he was failing to place commas after "introductory elements."
The instant I explained to D. that, generally speaking, in college prose you're not supposed to use commas to join sentences, he got it. He correctly punctuated the last four sentences on the page without further ado.
I'm pretty sure he instantly got introductory subordinate clauses as well. I told him that, with "introductory elements," you can just listen for the pause and use a comma or not, depending.
I'm pretty sure that observation is true (once someone tells you that introductory elements are usually followed by commas). At least, it seems to be true with my students, but take it with a grain of salt. Somehow, for native speakers, hearing introductory elements appears to be natural even for students who have never in their lives placed a comma after an introductory dependent clause. So it seems to me.
In any event, D. was having no trouble hearing the pause. He heard the non-pause that results when you move the dependent clause to the end of the sentence, too:
- When you get to the corner, turn right. [slight pause between clauses]
- Turn right when you get to the corner. [no pause between clauses]
D., by the way, is very smart. Had all 4s and 5s in multiple AP classes; wrote his friends' college admission essays. And didn't know what a comma splice is.
Someone should have just told him. It simply is not the case that smart people -- or good readers -- "pick up" punctuation by osmosis. We're not built that way. We're built to register the gist of a sentence, not the particulars.
Plus which …. there's nothing magical or even important about commas versus semicolons. Using semicolons instead of commas to join sentences is a convention; twenty years from now comma splices will probably be correct. So just tell students what the convention is and move on.
But somehow, telling is not possible.
Not even at the college level, not even in a full year of college-level writing instruction.
* "naked commas" meaning commas unaccompanied by a coordinator (and, but, or, so, nor, yet, for: the FANBOYS)