How punctuation works

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 27 Comments

A lot of my students are annoyed by punctuation. They think it’s a bother to deal with commas, periods, dashes, hyphens, semi-colons and colons.

But then, I take them through two drills. And suddenly, they get it: Punctuation is a fantastic tool for self-expression! It’s the ultimate accessory for the style-savvy writer.

My drills come from fabulous moments in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” This 2003 bestseller is one of my favorite books. Every time I read it, something new sinks in.

I also get a kick out of author Lynne Truss. She comes across as a chatty, slightly batty, middle-aged British spinster who is simply orgasmic over grammar. And who can blame her? After all, punctuation is so, so exciting.

Drill #1 — Punctuate the following sentence:

Woman without her man is nothing


Hmmm, what does that look like to you? Maybe you did this:

Woman — without her man, is nothing.


Then again, maybe you went the opposite way:

Woman: without her, man is nothing.


Wow, look at that. Same words, but two totally different meanings. All because of punctuation.

This little exercise changes the mood. Suddenly, my students stop yawning (cover your mouth!) and fidgeting (don’t you dare take out that cell phone!). Now that I have their full attention, I tell them about the next drill.

“You’re about to read a letter that a woman named Jill has written to Jack,” I explain as I hand out the text of her letter. “Jill is from England. So take that into consideration as you read her words. She’s not writing American English. Just work with what she’s giving you.”

Drill #2 — Punctuate letter; don’t change a word.

Dear Jack I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours Jill

Now the classroom always gets very quiet. Not a bored silence — but an electric stillness that only happens when intelligent human beings are 100 percent engaged in their work.

“So what kind of letter is this?” I ask them.

“A love letter,” someone will call out. That student proceeds to read the letter out loud.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


At this point, some students are shaking their heads. One or two even start worrying that they’ve done the exercise wrong. Unlike the majority of their classmates, this minority group has created a letter in which Jill is extremely pissed at Jack.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?



I wish you could be with me when they we hit this point in the lesson. The other day when I finished Drill #2, a surprised murmuring rippled through the room. It was as if my students had just seen a magic trick and couldn’t believe their eyes…how could one text produce two polar opposite messages???!

Haha — now I go in for the kill. I launch into a passionate talk about dressing for a hot party. We all know what that’s like…

It’s never enough to have the perfect little black dress. A special shirt and cool jeans won’t do the job either. Man or woman, you need the right belt, footwear and jewelry. Earrings, people! We need good earrings!

To have The Look, you MUST style the accessories.

For writers, getting your words on the page is just one part of the writing process. Yes, you’ve chosen the equivalent of your basic garment. And that’s hard work. Bravo! But then, you need all those little dots and squiggly items to nail your voice.

So let’s hear it for accessorizing with punctuation!

So, let’s hear it for accessorizing with punctuation.

So — let’s hear it for….accessorizing with punctuation.

So. Let’s hear it for accessorizing with….punctuation.

So, let’s hear it for accessorizing — with punctuation.

So. Let’s. Hear. It. For. Accessorizing. With. Punctuation.




Update for Friday, April 1, 2011: You might be interested in the children’s version of this punctuation book.

It deals exclusively with one little item — a squiggle that I have found is a major problem area for college students and adults.

Thank you to reader Skye, for reminding me about this book. And thanks to the New School students who, at the end of  our semester together,  gifted me with a copy of this charmer.

Okay. So here’s an example from “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really DO Make a Difference!”:

After we left Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park.

After we left, Grandma, Mommy, and I skipped about in the park.


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Comments 27

  1. M. Skye Holly

    He wasn’t reading on the college level, I was reading to him! But you get what I mean. But he actually reads between the 6th and 7th grade level now. I get excited about that, but he could care less. He hates reading. He loves to draw and paint. But he likes to read some Greek myths and um, lately, The Twilight Eclipse novel. He’s Team Jacob…I could care less about that!

    How cute one of your classes gave you the children’s book!

    You give your classes a lot…I remember chimes, jokes and Kashi treats. That’s what I call higher learning.

  2. Post

    yes, skye, i have the children’s version too — it’s adorable! one of my new school classes gave it to me as a gift. judy might definitely like using it. as for your little one, amazing that he enjoyed our old class assignments. so he’s a fourth grader reading on the college level. haha!

    i didn’t know about wally shawn’s new essay. will have to look for them. thanks.

    vishi, the truss book has TONS about the semi-colon. worth checking out.
    yes, embryonique, we love our hyphens. we also love our geeky boys like daniel!

  3. embryonique

    Yes, punctuation is awesome, and essential–essentially awesome! :) It also helps you when you have strict word (Microsoft Word) limits–two words become one-word with a hyphen.

    @Daniel: that sounds so nerdy. ;) Probably works though!

  4. M. Skye Holly

    BTW, there is a version of this book for children as well! I just remembered this as I was reading. I volunteer with fifth grade classes and just thought that it is a great idea to have them to through those drills too. My son is a fourth grader and he is practicing at school for state exams this spring. Looks like it just dawned on me how I could help him out. He finds this stuff oh-so-boring. But I think Truss makes it fun. (Betty, when you first showed me this book, he liked the cover. That was it. But that season, I used to read him chapters from Reichl’s ”Garlic w/ Sapphires.” He got such a kick out of that! Probably because each chapter described new dishes. We loved reading about the disguises, also).
    Unrelated, I was at Barnes and Noble last night and noticed a book of essays by Wallace Shawn. Now in paperback. Have you read it?

  5. Post

    it used to bother me that so many college students and college-educated adults struggle with basic punctuation. but now i’m okay with it. hey, some of us just don’t get what we need earlier in life. and i feel really, really good when i can help.

    i like the idea that the same drills that work with the big folks will be used with fifth graders. haha!

  6. vishi

    haha this is cool..I used to feel like how some of your students felt. but the one thing i still don’t know or find annoying is the semi-colon im always told that my writing has a coma splice what ever that means. so i avoid the semi-colon unless the spell check on word thinks there should be a semi-colon instead of a coma.

  7. ingrid

    Great, Betty. I am a major fan, groupie, aficionado and compulsive where punctuation is concerned, even going so far as to contemplate the elusive raison d’etre of the semi-colon vs the comma and full colon. However, what really strikes me is that you have to do this for adults in professional writing course, when it should have been something that was ingrained in grammar school — along with all the other good stuff that seems to have gone by the wayside.

  8. Daniel

    I loved Lynne Truss’s book and the fact that she cares so passionately about those little things that can carry lots of weight. Being able to wield them effectively also shows that you care. Here’s an icebreaker I’m definitely going to use one day that I think Truss would approve of: what’s your favorite punctuation mark and why?

  9. Anna


    this is very helpful to me because I’m learning english, the punctuation between english and french is completely different, which is really confusing! I kind of knew the first example, during my German lectures in highschool (yes, we had 2 foreign languages…)
    thank you very much!!!
    I’m going to print your article and stick it on my wall :D

  10. Post

    that’s funny, bigwowo! i hope y’all share this post. everyone can benefit from developing a passion for punctuation. good punctuation instantly improves our writing. good punctuation also keeps out of out trouble with expensive lawyers — all that fighting over nuanced phrases in legal contracts and wills. who needs that?

  11. bigWOWO

    This is awesome!

    I remember once reading an Encyclopedia Brown mystery where a kid wrote a letter to a girl and got punched. Encyclopedia Brown figured out it was because his punctuation was bad, similar to that second letter above. Punctuation definitely is important.

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