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05:46 am: rules are easier to teach than nuance (rambling rant)
And 8-year-olds may not be the best audience for nuance.

But still.

Teddy's huge pile of homework (mostly work he hadn't completed in class, which has never been an issue before but I'm feeling Teh Guilt because it's a recent issue probably because I'm working at an office for the first time in his memory and he's adjusting :breathe: ) included one sheet with four sample sentences to which commas were supposed to be added as needed.

Each sentence was two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

The rule given was that you must always insert a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a sentence with two independent clauses (slightly dumbed down for second-graders).

This is, of course, bullshit.

All right, so it turns out it's not entirely bullshit.

I tried to explain it to Teddy, dumbing it down too much myself by saying, more or less, "in these sentences, you can use a comma before the ones with 'but'; putting it in before the ones with 'and' is stupid and wrong."*

The sentences were things like "I went to the store and I got bread." Really, really short and simple sentences. You could've said all four of them with one long-ish breath.

And while punctuation isn't just to create pauses in speech, one reasonable rule of thumb is not to introduce a pause that feels awkward. It should be a sign that Something's Off.

So Teddy put commas in the sentences with "but" and no commas in the ones with "and." And I wrote a note to his teacher (whom I love) saying that I was concerned he was learning rules that are incorrect. And she sent it back saying it was correct and she didn't know where he got the idea it wasn't (that would be from me, which I thought was obvious?).

Appalled, I looked it up in a bunch of reference books, which I should've done in the first place, as my note would have been more, er, nuanced.

Even more appalled, I found that she's right. Sort of.

I'm very, very rarely wrong about grammar (English major, couple of decades of experience as an editor, etc.). I do not argue points of which I'm not certain.

But I was and I did. SORT OF.**

My argument (still) is that
- Using a comma before the "and" between two short, independent clauses is unnecessary.
- Using a comma before the "but" between two short, independent clauses reinforces the change in tone (and the resulting pause) created by the negating conjunction.
- Using a comma before the "so" (and "because" if you argue for its being a coordinating conjunction in some cases, which is a contentious but valid argument) reinforces the logical (not grammatical) dependency between the clauses.***
- Using a comma before any conjunction between two long, independent clauses is often nuts, because most sentences long enough to need punctuation ought to have a semi-colon without the conjunction or should be broken into two sentences, because who the hell wants to have to diagram a fricking sentence when all you wanted to do was fricking read? So while it might be grammatically correct, you really ought to re-write the damned thing anyway.

However, I will concede that his teacher was right to teach a rule that 8-year-olds can follow, even if it is fundamentally flawed.****


* The correct version of this should have been "...because it's stupid, though technically right," I suppose. Dammit. And what I should have said (and eventually did say) was "Mommy was wrong about this and it's a lot more subtle than it seems. We'll talk about that when you're a little older." I expected these conversations on, y'know, sex and religion and money and politics. I did not expect them on grammar. I've been stupid longer than I thought.

** I'm not so good at the being wrong.

*** One of the issues with the simplified rule is that any editor would use a semi-colon or two sentences instead of a comma before a "so" used to mean "in addition to" (as in "I'm an idiot; so are you"). The one I'm talking about here is the "so" that means "thus" (as in "we were in town anyway, so we picked up the mail").

**** That she clearly believes it, through and through, disappoints me but is not altogether surprising. She's been teaching second grade for a long time; grammatical subtlety is probably too much to wish for.

Current Mood: crankycranky
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Date:June 1st, 2013 04:14 am (UTC)
Learning is like a sandwich: learn in layers and enjoy the tasty treat after the whole thing is assembled. Poppy seed bun is optional.

Is that right? I'm confused.

From time to time, I discuss with our editors about the use of a serial comma. I have learned that discussing anything about a comma is a giant waste of time. Especially when you're talking about commas, semi-colons, and other grammatical concepts. I may have meant to write commas, semi-colons and other grammatical concepts; I'm not sure.

Edit: other grammatical concepts, and I'm not sure?


In conclusion, bitch to the school board. It's the American thing to do. :)

[User Picture]
Date:June 3rd, 2013 11:34 pm (UTC)

I believe in the serial/Oxford comma

Because It's the Right Thing to Do.
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