Do you really put a comma where you pause?

Group of students sitting


By Melody Pickle, Kaplan University Writing Center, Writing Specialist, WAC

The following is a true story and a great teaching moment.  

This took place as I was helping my eight-year-old son (second grade) compose a sentence in a reading journal for school.  He had asked me to check his work (like our students ask when we teach and tutor writing).  He was supposed to answer questions in a complete sentence.  The sentence he wrote was, “No I dont want to live in the past.”  I told him about the comma after “no” and reminded him about the apostrophe needed in “don’t.”  (He learned contractions last year.)  So he made the changes: “No, I don’t want to live in the past.”

This conversation happened after he  wrote the comma after “no” in the sentence above.

Son: “Do you really put a comma where you pause?”

Mom: “Did your teacher tell you that?”

Son: “Yes”

Mom: “Well, yes and no.”

Son: Confused look

Mom: “There are rhetorical commas and grammatical commas.”

Son: “What is a grammatical comma?”

Mom: “Grammatical commas are commas that are not optional.  You need them for the sentence to be punctuated correctly, so your reader will understand your meaning.  For example, if I put two sentences together  . . .

Son Interrupts: “Like a run-on.”

Mom jumps for joy inside her heart that he knows the word “run-on.” He is only eight.

Mom: “Yes, like a run-on.”  She writes on a piece of paper and says aloud, “I am going to the store, and I am doing my homework.”  When you join two words with the coordinating conjunction “and,” you need a comma before it to be grammatically correct.”

Son: “What are the other coordinating conjunctions?”

Mom almost faints and thinks, “How does he know there are more? No matter, I am seizing this learning moment.”

Mom writes and says: “and, or, for, nor, yet, but, so.”  Mom stops writing and says, “But, most people remember it by FANBOYS.”

Son grins: “FANBOYS” that’s funny.”  He says each word aloud as he reads it.

Mom thinks his interest in commas is about gone.  He is squirming in this chair; the moment is past.

Mom: “So, yes, there are some commas that go where you pause, and those are the rhetorical commas.  They are optional commas that might help a sentence as you read it aloud.  But, the other commas are required.”

Son: “Mom will you teach me about commas?”

Mom: has confused look then smiles “Sure, honey.”  She is certain this interest in commas is momentary. 

Later that night as the son reads in bed.

  Son: “Mom, you HAVE to read some of this book.  The sentences are grammatically correct.”

Mom picks up the Chima Lego™ book.

Mom: “Which part?”

Son: “Any of it.”

Mom reads and finds that he is pointing out a comma after an introductory clause in one sentence and a comma preceding additional information in a second sentence.  He was right.  The sentences were well done and grammatically correct.  Interesting though, they were different from the types of commas discussed earlier in the day.

He was reading and paying attention to commas.  

Later, while still reading, he pointed out another comma that he did not think seemed right, and we discussed it.

 It was an odd sentence: “There’s the Chi, ours for the taking.”

 Since what came after the comma was the word “ours,” it seemed like a new subject, but he knew by his internal grammar (a conversation for another time) that it was not a complete sentence.

We did not run into a serial comma on that page.

We have not discussed commas again in the several weeks since this day.

So much of learning is paying attention and seizing the moment in which the student cares.  It is also about being ready with our best answer.  It is also true that we don’t always know what are students do with these brief moments of learning.  I suspect that we should have some confidence that some of these moments do stick in one way or another and become part of their learned knowledge.

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3 Responses

  1. I love seeing how a “yes and no” answer here leads to a series of teaching moments between mother and child! Many students who come to the writing center have heard this rule of “Place a comma where you pause in your speaking,” and while there are occasions where that is true, spoken and written language are indeed different. I try to meet students where they are by saying that commas come from the caesura, which indicated where a singer should pause when performing a poem/song, so it is natural to see commas in relationship with how we speak. Still, there is more to punctuation, isn’t there? If a student needs a grammatical comma, as opposed to the rhetorical commas we can see easily, I try to use an example of spoken language that does not include a pause but does include a comma in written form. Many compound sentences work for such an example. Sometimes in these conversations we can address several comma issues at once, including run-ons missing commas before coordinating conjunctions or sentences with parallel phrases missing commas. (Now I find myself wondering whether the sentence immediately before this one needs a comma before “or”! What do others think?)

  2. Teresa Kelly says:

    I love this! It reminds me of a post I make called the worst fake comma rule ever. I explain to students that spoken and written language are different. Spoken language can be influenced by many things from location to history of the area. Being from the deep south and having a mother from Brooklyn, I live that juxtaposition every day.

    Written language has rules that in academic writing we follow regardless of spoken patterns.

    My niece is five. She’s surrounded by teachers who correct her grammar at home (she asked what an adverb was at three), a cop father who could care less, a grandmother from Brooklyn, and class mates from the rural south. It is a good think that you correct her once and that is all it takes.

  3. lisarpetty says:

    I LOVE this blog. It reminds me of many conversations I have had with Sergio.

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