Punctuation Stories are pouring in on WCenter
I subscribe to WCenter, the unofficial but widely-used listserv for writing center professionals. Lately, a lot of stories about seemingly random punctuation have been pouring in. Not only are the stories fun to read, but they remind me that writers almost always have reasons for the choices they make. In no particular order, here they are:
I once tutored a student whose punctuation was wildly erratic. Sometimes, it would be right. More often, it would make no sense. I could not discern a pattern, no matter how hard I tried.
Finally I asked her how she determined where to put punctuation. Well, it turned out that she was a graphic design major. That punctuation carried any meaning was news to her--she had believed that punctuation marks were decorative elements, and she had been applying principles of design to her choices of where to put them. Her choices made sense--they were just completely out of context.
I have something of a story, too, but it isn't mine. This was told to me by a colleague at another school. She was teaching research and documentation to a Freshman Comp class. She reviewed the first drafts of their research papers, then returned them for revision.
On one girl's paper, she had written "Too many quotes." When the student turned the final draft in, she had removed all of the quotation marks!
A student athlete I tutored at Sam Houston State University while I was in grad school (remember this was BC [before computers]) put a period at the end of every line whether or not the sentence was complete. The right-hand margin of the paper was a straight line of periods! He said a teacher had taught him to do it that way.
We had a student in the Writing Center whose draft was full of sentence fragments. The tutor asked him to explain why he was ending sentences in mid-thought, and he explained that he'd looked at the sample essays in his text, and calculated the average sentence length to be about 20 words. So he just stuck in a period after every 20th word.
I have another story to add to this collection. Oh so many years ago when I worked as a peer tutor at Mobile College, I had a student come in to work with me on a regular basis. One day when he was drafting in the center as we brainstormed ideas, I noticed that he was marking things off in the left-hand margin. When I looked more closely, I saw rows of commas, periods, and semi-colons, with a few colons thrown in. He was marking these off as he used them in his paper. When I asked him about it, he said that he had worked up a formula for how many of each should be used in a good paper so he was making sure he met the formula.