There’s an article in today’s Guardian about how a good grade in GCSE English may depend on punctuation. Part of me is saying, “Focus on the content”, but part of me is also saying, “’Bout bloody time”.
I’ve been traipsing around the web for about ten years now and probably most of what I’ve seen written on line displays an abysmal use of punctuation. It seems that almost anything can end a sentence, including the complete absence of punctuation. Commas double as full stops; elliptical dots do much the same; apostrophes are random embellishments.
I must come from a different era of education, because when I was at the equivalent to GCSE level, I knew what I was doing with punctuation. All right, it would’ve mostly been full stops and commas, the occasional question mark, and maybe a colon or two. The semicolon was a bit of a mystery, but I seemed to be able to function without it.
But I’ve been changing my punctuation habits recently. I was once told by a friend of mine that when I wrote mail messages, I wrote like I spoke. These days, I think the spoken voice in my head is more noticeable. [That explains the straitjacket, the medication, and the padded room. –ed.] Once upon a time, I’d use semicolons to join lists of clauses together; now, I’ve started using semicolons to join sentences because I don’t hear full stops. Rather, the new sentence has a slight pause before it and the idea it contains is closely linked to the previous sentence. A full stop would be too abrupt.
Of course, the way I write here tends to be semi-formal. I guess I always keep in mind the maxim that if you can read something out loud without tripping and stumbling over the words, then it should be all right when read silently. In other words, readers should hear the voice in their heads. Or my voice in their heads.
Chinese punctuation is a different matter from English punctuation. In fact, it’s more like the punctuation I see on line from English speakers. Chinese is much lighter on punctuation than English, and they’ll use punctuation marks such as the dun-comma where I’d use a full stop in English. My pupils often use commas for full stops, and because Chinese has no capitalisation, new sentences in their English will start with lower case letters.
“Because” is the bane of my life here. The problem seems to be with what my pupils have been taught about answering the question “Why?” In spoken English we’d naturally say “Because…”, but they have no idea that such an utterance implies a main clause. “Why did you do that?” “(I did it) because it was there.” So, the moment “because” pops up, my pupils slap a full stop in front of it because they think that they’re starting a new sentence.
They might occasionally be right if the subordinate clause precedes the main, but that’s accidental and rare.