Comma-splicitis: (comma-splice-i-tis) A severe punctuation disorder which leads to a total inability to discriminate between the entirely separate functions of the comma and the full stop.
Now that the flu season has finally retreated, English teachers can renew their assault on that other perfidious plague which remorselessly infects classrooms right across the land, comma-splicitis. Its symptoms are well known to all experienced practitioners, whether their students be children or adult returnees alike:
- an overwhelming terror of using the full stop;
- the consequent rationing of full stop usage to one or two, at most, per paragraph;
- a clear preference for desperately attempting to block the blatantly pregnant full stop pause (which, despite the condition, the sufferer still intermittently recognises) with a painfully inadequate comma.
This intractable complaint has certain severely life-diminishing outcomes:
- a chronic difficulty in obtaining a grade C in the all-important English Language GCSE;
- an acute inability to gain a university place as a direct consequence;
- a gut-wrenching incapacity to pursue an alternatively lucrative career path.
So what does this markedly disfiguring ailment look like? To the afflicted themselves, it is utterly invisible. When looking into the mirror of their own writing, the page will appear to be unblemished and, often, the sufferer will perceive an unwarranted healthy glow arising from his or her own creative outpouring. However, to the practised eye, it is an abhorrent disfigurement which blights any piece of prose regardless of its intrinsic literary merit… and which often leaves the hapless comma-splicer feeling crushed when their otherwise creditable effort receives a more than generous share of red ink as well as a disappointingly low grade to boot.
So, how to deal with the problem?
One method of redress is to approach full stop placement as a ‘musical’ rather than purely grammatical phenomenon. Simply to explain that a sentence always ends with a full stop (question mark or exclamation mark) does not appear to do the trick. However, encouraging students to read their own, and their peers’, work aloud and then to listen carefully for the ‘one second full stop pauses’ may help. Of course, this means discouraging them from dramatically loitering around commas. But then, those few star-struck prima donnas with serious acting ambition can always pursue fame and fortune once they have managed to put this seemingly elusive fundamental in place.
A second strategy is to make students aware of what their personal default sentence length looks like by initially focusing only on missing full stops when marking their written work. Three such corrected pieces should be sufficient for the purpose… but, of course, students would continually need to refer back to these diagnostic assessments when setting out on each new writing venture.
Finally, you might choose to project a suitably interesting narrative text consisting of an on-going series of full stop exercises onto your classroom screen at some point in every lesson for the foreseeable future (see downloads below). This will only take five minutes per period (pardon the pun),will involve no additional marking workload on your part, and could well be used for starter activities or to provide a welcome change of pace mid-lesson, thus re-engaging students whose concentration often wanders should any task be so bold as to progress uninterrupted for more than twenty minutes at a time. Needless to say, once started, students should complete the entire course!
Hopefully, if we beleaguered English teachers all pull together, we can severely limit the spread of comma-splicitis and, who knows, with a concerted national effort, we may even be able to bring this severely debilitating disorder to… yes, you guessed it… a complete and total full stop.
English Teacher and author
* The downloads which follow contain the kind of material which could be projected over a series of lessons and used as outlined above. The content should prove to be both interesting and educational for teenagers. It consists of one teenager’s dramatic account of how she was overtaken by the genuinely horrifying psychological illness, anorexia nervosa. This material has been used with the kind permission of the owner’s of the website: www.escape-from-anorexia.com The website owners are fully aware of its intended use within the classroom and are pleased that such usage will simultaneously enhance student awareness of the insidious nature of this terrible illness. They would also like to reassure both teachers and students that Helen, the teenager who wrote the account, made a complete recovery.
The ‘Finding the full stop pauses – Exercises’ download consist of thirty-five sections with missing full stops, question marks or exclamation marks but, so as not to confuse students by including both correct and incorrect comma usage, there are no comma splices – just an absence of appropriate end of sentence punctuation. The ‘Finding the full stop pauses – Answers’ download contains the same thirty-five sections, but with the correct punctuation in place.