The Stylish Semicolon: Teaching Punctuation as Rhetorical Choice.  English Journal (forthcoming).


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When taught as stylistic or rhetorical choice, the semicolon reveals to students that punctuation and grammar are more than rules in textbooks.  Thoughtful analysis and use of the semicolon enables students to understand the words of other authors and to communicate better with their own readers.


I have a confession to make.  I am a grammar addict.  Yes, it’s true.  I can spend hours reading handbooks that outline the intricacies of English grammar and its related topics of punctuation, usage, and mechanics.  I enjoy discerning the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive phrases.  I am proud when I can figure out whether to use or omit a comma between two independent clauses.  Of course, my addiction may be a lonely one.

Consider, for example, the following words: grammar, punctuation, mechanics, usage.  These four words can strike terror into the hearts of the most steadfast lovers of English.  According to Ron Featheringill, these words call up the “horrible specter of English grammar” for students and instructors alike (85).  Anyone who has taught subject/verb agreement or the uses of the comma can attest to the glazed expressions that cross students’ faces as soon as subjects, predicates, and comma splices are mentioned.  Teachers themselves are not immune to grammar’s power to induce boredom and frustration.  Addicts excepted, Featheringill asserts that he has “seldom” met a teacher “who enjoys teaching grammar in the traditional manner” (85).  This aversion to grammar manifests itself among English instructors in various ways.  For example, researching this article, I found few works on grammar and related topics in the top journals in English, composition, and reading.  However, I did recognize the specter of grammar in articles like Gregory Shafer’s, which adamantly rejects “discrete rules of competence . . . prescribed rules and formats” and “monolithic ideas of writing or correctness” in writing programs (10).

Given this resistance, what is a grammar addict to do, especially in the classroom?  Ironically, Featheringill offers a solution, suggesting that the problem with grammar is not the subject itself but the “traditional manner” in which the topic has been taught—through the rigid rules and formats that Shafer rejects.  For this reason, I propose a form of instruction that departs from these methods, one that captures my own reasons for becoming a grammar addict.  Specifically, when teaching grammar, punctuation, usage, and mechanics, instructors can introduce these topics as more than discrete rules, void of context.  Rather, they can introduce these subjects as what Devan Cook calls “purposeful rhetorical moves” (154).  In this way, students discover that grammar and its related topics are not ancillary to language but represent language in action.  Students realize that these patterns for use form the backbone or skeleton of language, that they are part and parcel of, according to I.A. Richards, the way that “words work” (23), not in isolation but rhetorically and in context, in the give and take between author and reader.

What follows is just one example illustrating how teachers can create reading and writing activities that emphasize how words work through grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage.  Specifically, I describe a workshop that highlights a single punctuation mark: the semicolon.  More rhetorical or stylistic choice than grammatical requirement, the semicolon defies rigid rules for use and is therefore ideally suited for instruction that defies traditional ways of teaching grammar.  When introduced as a matter of choice, the semicolon brings the patterns of language to life for students, whether that language is the student’s own text or the work of another author, and even when that language is tied to the “horrible” specter of grammar. 


Theoretical Rationale: Why Teach the Semicolon as Rhetorical Choice?

Addressing the teaching of grammar, Sonja Launspach and Martha Wetterhall Thomas observe that what students and instructors “often understand to be grammar” represents “a group of language features that includes spelling, punctuation, and mechanics as well as . . . grammar” (233).  Thus, although more precisely a matter of punctuation, the semicolon is often subsumed under the larger category “grammar.”  Grammar nuts notwithstanding, Tina Good and Leanne Warshauer correctly identify this area of instruction as one of the more “painful parts” of teaching and learning language (xi).  Nevertheless, no matter how we define grammar or how painful it is, this aspect of language profoundly influences teaching and research in areas such as reading, writing, and language arts.  Grammar instruction, moreover, remains a highly controversial topic in these disciplines.

For example, Patrick Hartwell argues that the “grammar issue” has dominated composition scholarship for “the last seventy-five years” (320).  Hartwell adds that despite these years of research, grammar remains “complicated” and “controversial,” papers regularly appearing that either attack or defend the teaching of grammar, especially traditional or “formal” instructional methods (318).  Recent developments in language studies reveal that this seventy-five-year preoccupation—and controversy—continues.  My own state of Texas, for instance, mandates assessment in grammar, punctuation, usage, and mechanics at every level of the state standardized test or TAAS.  So prevalent are these tests and their emphasis on grammar that a growing number of language scholars (McClaskey; Nelson; Thomas) bemoan the nation’s increasing interest in standardized testing and the traditional, drill-and-kill grammar instruction that these tests sometimes encourage.

If we judge from this continuing obsession with grammar, it seems that grammar instruction is here to stay, and despite valid concerns, this preoccupation is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, Judith Cape Craig’s survey of employees in occupations from entry-level to professional illustrates how highly these individuals value the “correct” use of language.  Eighty-four percent of Craig’s respondents cited “correct spelling, grammar, and mechanics” as “very important,” Craig adding that not one respondent identified these abilities as “unimportant in their line of work” (48).  Grammar, punctuation, usage, and mechanics: these form the foundations of communication, and echoing Craig’s respondents, Sean McDowell sums up grammar’s importance to our students:  “Without fairly sound technical expertise, even the most brilliant students cannot express their ideas completely or effectively.  If teachers do not add to students’ expressive resources, they perform a disservice” (254).  An expressive resource, grammar is indeed here to stay, and teachers have an obligation to help students navigate the patterns of use that enable communication with others.

But how can students best learn these patterns?  As Deborah Dean observes, years of research and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that traditional methods of grammar instruction simply do not work.  In trying to figure out what does work, a number of scholars, many of them teachers, have offered several approaches.  These approaches range from methods grounded in linguistics (Hartwell; Launspach and Thomas), rhetorical theory (Cook; Dawkins; Kolln), the teaching of editing and revision (Cook; Harris and Rowan), and the recognition of patterns of error (Shaughnessy) to streamlined approaches that tackle students’ most common grammatical problems (Featheringill; McDowell; Sitler) and playful methods that teach students grammar without their knowing it’s grammar (Dean).  Each of these methods has merit, but the one informing my work with semicolons is rhetorical.

Specifically, the workshop that I will describe introduces students to the semicolon not through sets of rules but as a matter of style: the thoughtful choice of the semicolon to create rhetorical effect in an audience.  One of the most prominent twentieth-century rhetoricians, Kenneth Burke describes language as “the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard” (23).  Burke’s image takes language—and students and instructors of language—far beyond the dry rules and contextless examples that have permeated grammar instruction.  His comments inform the workshop outlined in the following section, a workshop that illustrates how words, even semicolons, work and help us to negotiate this human barnyard.


The Semicolon: More Rhetoric Than Rule

Among marks of punctuation, the semicolon is something of an oddity.  Variable as they are, punctuation marks suggest certainty—the required use of the mark in specific situations—and handbooks present punctuation in this way.  Each punctuation mark has exceptions, but marks such as the comma, period, and apostrophe are required to make meaning clear to a reader.  Without these marks, most strings of words will simply not make sense.

Semicolons, on the other hand, are more akin to other oddballs in the world of punctuation—colons and dashes, for example.  These marks are useful and increase readability, but for the most part they are not essential to creating meaning.  While commas and periods are required to mark beginnings, endings, and transitions, most sentences that employ semicolons, colons, or dashes could be rewritten to eliminate the mark and still make sense.  In the semicolon’s case, this mark could be eliminated entirely from the English language and the language would remain comprehensible, though far less rich.  In the end, marks like the semicolon signal matters of choice and, therefore, are more issues of style and rhetorical effect than precision and correctness.

Handbooks hint at the semicolon’s stylish place among its fellow marks of punctuation. For example, like many handbooks, Andrea Lunsford’s Everyday Writer presents the semicolon as weaker than a period but stronger than a comma and lists the following guidelines for using this punctuation mark:

    • Use semicolons to link closely related independent clauses.
    • Use semicolons to link independent clauses joined by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.
    • Use semicolons to separate items in a series containing other punctuation. (326-27)

In each of these cases, the semicolon is useful but not essential.  Independent clauses, including those joined by adverbs or phrases, could just as easily be linked by a period or comma plus conjunction.  Moreover, determining whether two clauses are closely related remains a matter of opinion and not grammatical fact, this decision based on the author’s sense that the clauses are related or the desire to link the clauses in the reader’s mind.   As for using semicolons in series, even this guideline is more choice than requirement.  Semicolons certainly render series more readable, but commas in series are just as technically correct as their more understandable counterpart.  Lunsford and other handbook authors suggest inserting semicolons to increase coherence and clarity; once again, though, these decisions stem from choice, not grammatical absolutes.

            When writers must make decisions about their language, they leave behind rules and enter that rather nebulous arena called “style.”  Difficult to define, style often signifies the amorphous area of writing made up of word choices, sentence structures and rhythm, tone, voice, verb tenses, and other features not easily reduced to rules in textbooks.  William Strunk and E.B. White, for example, define style loosely as “what is distinguished and distinguishing” in language.  In fact, Strunk and White caution readers that their famous text Elements of Style enters areas of “high mystery” where there “is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing.”  For these authors, style is “the Self escaping into the open” through idiosyncratic language choices (66-67).  Another arbiter of style, Richard Lanham agrees, adding that our style or writing choices “enhance and expand the self, allow it to try out new possibilities.”  According to Lanham, a properly chosen style “clarifies, strengthens, and energizes” an author’s language and renders these words “rich, full, and social” (98).

            Never absolutely necessary or bound by hard-and-fast rules, the semicolon belongs to this mysterious arena called style.  And, as an issue of style, the semicolon emerges as profoundly rhetorical, one of the available means of persuasion that, according to Aristotle, speakers and writers use to move an audience.  Indeed, for all his talk of self and style, Lanham positions style outside the self, as rhetorical or in the relation between author and audience and in the author’s ability to “take the position of the reader” (98).  When writers must make stylistic choices that will reach their audience, they enter this realm of rhetoric, the barnyard of language where words work to connect readers and writers.  Part of this mystery, the semicolon encompasses more than the rules that try to fix its use, and a semicolon workshop can introduce students to this mystery.


The Stylish Semicolon: A Workshop

One common complaint about grammar instruction stems from its lack of context—its reliance, for example, on abstract rules and bare examples.  While these stark examples clarify grammatical ideas, they fail to capture language, including its grammar and punctuation, in action, in the real-life texts that surround us.  For this reason, the workshop that I propose incorporates the actual texts that students read or compose on their own.

The text that my students and I use for our semicolon workshop is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Frequently anthologized, this popular text appears in many student textbooks and readers, and typically, instructors use King’s letter to spark discussions of equality, race, U.S. history, political activism, and civil disobedience.  However, King’s text also teaches students about the semicolon and one author’s use of a seemingly insignificant punctuation mark to express ideas.

The workshop begins after students have read King’s letter and discussed its ideas and historical context.  I then ask students, now familiar with the letter’s content, to work either alone or in small groups to search out as many semicolons in the text as they can find.  Owing to different editors, the copies of King’s letter included in anthologies exhibit slightly different punctuation and phrasing.  Nevertheless, these varied texts demonstrate fairly consistent punctuation, including semicolons.  Taken from an edition that my classes use, the following are examples of semicolons that my students frequently cite:

·        We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.  (King 157)

·        Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?  Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.  (159)

·        There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.  In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  (166)

·        Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.  Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here.  Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.  For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.  (167)

Although powerful on their own, these isolated examples risk seeming as void of context as the examples in handbooks.  However, these samples differ from those in handbooks in that students have read and discussed King’s entire letter.  In other words, they analyze King’s punctuation in context, as the rhetorical work of an author trying to connect with an audience that may or may not agree with his political protest.  One subtle stylistic device that King uses to reach this audience is the semicolon, and examining King’s semicolons leads to rich discussions about this punctuation mark.

            As Cook points out, these discussions ask students “to read in a new way, focusing on stylistic effects and how they are achieved” (155).  Most students have never read punctuation in this way, and for the first time perhaps, they must ask questions like: Why did King use a semicolon here instead of the stronger period or weaker comma?  How does this semicolon shape the meaning of its sentence, its paragraph, the work as a whole?  Does this semicolon help King to reach his audience?  Why or why not?  Questions such as these can spur useful conversations about areas of grammar and writing related to semicolon use—for example, parallelism, repetition, and contrast.  Just as important, these questions introduce students to punctuation as an integral part of writing, requiring as much thought and care as any other stylistic or rhetorical device.

            For example, my students and I often consider the following excerpt from King’s letter:

·        I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.  I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.  I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.  (167)

Complex and powerful, these lines represent style at its best.  When asked to read at the level of style (words, syntax, punctuation), most students quickly point out the repetition of “I doubt” in the first and second sentences.  Here, King’s words pound home his point, the repetition grabbing—and holding—the reader’s attention.

            In addition, students note the three semicolons that link the subordinate clauses (“if . . .”) in the second sentence.  Instead of writing two or three short sentences, King wrote one long sentence, the clauses running on and on, as though the grievances described overwhelm and cannot be contained.  My students have observed, though, that King cuts short these abuses with his direct final sentence: “I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.”  To the point and dominated by one-syllable words, this sentence serves as King’s line in the sand, declaring that the racial abuses, once so overwhelming, “stop here.”  However, powerful as it is, this short sentence’s effect depends on its contrast to the longer sentence that precedes it and, thus, on the semicolons that extend the previous sentence.  King’s style—

semicolons alternating with periods, short sentences alternating with long—gives his lines their power, and this rhetorical force hinges on the author’s punctuation.

Beginning writers cannot learn to use semicolons in this way from the guidelines and examples that many textbooks offer.  Only by exploring language in context, written for a particular time and place, can students discern the subtle ways that punctuation affects meaning.  And, once students understand these stylistic choices in others’ writing, they can make these choices in their own texts.  For example, once my students and I finish analyzing the semicolons in King’s text, we turn to their own decisions about when to use this punctuation mark.  First, I ask students to search once again through King’s text, this time looking for instances in which King does not employ the mark.  I ask students to imagine that they are the letter’s authors and to identify places in the text where they might insert a semicolon. 

One passage that students often highlight concerns King’s discussion of just and unjust laws:

·        How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?  A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.  (159)

When asked where they would insert semicolons, my students typically respond that they would add a semicolon either between the two sentences beginning with “A just law” and “An unjust law” or between the pair that begins with “Any law.”  My students argue that the two clauses in each pair are closely related and that a semicolon would strengthen the contrast (a just law; an unjust law) or more effectively drive home the point made through repetition (any law; any law).

Exercises like this one encourage students to engage with another author’s text on two levels.  First, as readers, students must ask themselves why King selected periods rather than semicolons in these lines.  Why did he make this stylistic choice?  Next, as potential writers, students must consider what they are trying to accomplish rhetorically by choosing semicolons instead of periods.  The decision to use semicolons must spring from more than a vague sense that the clauses could be related.  Why are they related?  What rhetorical advantage does the author gain by linking the clauses in the reader’s mind?  What rhetorical advantage does the writer lose by abandoning the short, abrupt stops that periods create?  Students participating in this semicolon workshop have not yet applied what they are learning to their own texts.  Nevertheless, experimenting with another author’s text will help students to consider more carefully the stylistic choices that they make when they sit down to write.

After all, this semicolon workshop aims to help students become not just better readers but better writers.  For this reason, a semicolon workshop can continue well into the semester.  For instance, like Cook, I ask students to carry what they have learned about the semicolon’s rhetorical power into the writing that they do all semester.  Echoing Cook, I encourage students to find one or two places in their drafts where they could insert a semicolon.  If students can select these semicolons thoughtfully, then they will understand how they can use this or any mark of punctuation to reach out to their audiences.


Conclusion: Semicolons, Words, and Work

            Richards states correctly that words work.  Through words, we shape and make sense of the world.  Through words, we express our thoughts and ideas.  Words connect speakers and writers to their audiences and enable these audiences to respond, becoming speakers and writers themselves.  According to Richards, the study of how words work is called rhetoric, a field that explores the different choices that language-users make and the consequences that these decisions bring.  For too long, punctuation, grammar, and related topics have been perceived as beyond words and choice, mere rules memorized from textbooks.  King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” however, demonstrates that even the smallest punctuation mark signals a stylistic decision, distinguishing one writer from another and enabling an author to move an audience.  Only when we, as teachers, present grammar and punctuation as matters of style and rhetorical choice will students truly understand just how powerful words are, even when these words are the dots, dashes, and curves that make up punctuation.


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth.  A Rhetoric of Motives.  1950.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Cook, Devan.  “Revising Editing.”  Teaching English in the Two-Year College 29.2 (2001): 154-161.

Craig, Judith Cape.  “The Missing Link between School and Work: Knowing the Demands of the Workplace.”  English Journal 91.2 (2001): 46-50.

Dawkins, John.  “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool.”  College Composition and Communication 46.4 (1995): 533-548.

Dean, Deborah.  “Grammar without Grammar: Just Playing Around, Writing.”  English Journal  91.2 (2001): 86-89.

Featheringill, Ron.  Ideas Plus: A Collection of Practical Teaching Ideas, Book Eighteen.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.

Good, Tina Lavonne, and Leanne B. Warshauer, eds.  In Our Own Voice: Graduate Students Teach Writing.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Harris, Muriel, and Katherine E. Rowan.  “Explaining Grammatical Concepts.”  The Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers.  2nd ed.    Ed. James C. McDonald.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.  345-364.

Hartwell, Patrick.  “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.”  The Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers.  2nd ed.    Ed. James C. McDonald.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.  318-344.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  1963.  A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers.  5th ed.  Ed. Lee A. Jacobus.  Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.  153-169.

Kolln, Martha.  Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects.  3rd ed.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Lanham, Richard A.  Revising Prose.  3rd ed.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1992.

Launspach, Sonja, and Martha Wetterhall Thomas.  “Beyond Grammar: Linguistics in the Composition Classroom.”  Good and Warshauer 232-241.

Lunsford, Andrea A.  The Everyday Writer.  2nd ed.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

McClaskey, Janet.  “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad TAAS? Rethinking Our Response to Standardized Testing.”  English Journal 91.1 (2001): 88-95.

McDowell, Sean.  “To Grammar, or Not to Grammar? The Question and an Answer.”  Good and Warshauer 251-261.

Nelson, G. Lynn.  “Writing beyond Testing: ‘The Word as an Instrument of Creation.’”  English Journal 91.1 (2001): 57-61.

Richards, I.A.  The Philosophy of Rhetoric.  New York: Oxford UP, 1936.

Shafer, Gregory.  “The Process of Change in a Community College Writing Program.”  Teaching English in the Two-Year College 29.1 (2001): 7-15.

Shaughnessy, Mina P.  Errors and Expectations.  New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Sitler, Helen Collins.  “Solutions to Mechanical Errors in Writing: Usage Scans and Fix-It Pages.”  Teaching English in the Two-Year College 29.1 (2001): 72-76.

Strunk, William, and E.B. White.  The Elements of Style.  4th ed.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Thomas, P.L.  “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think.”  English Journal 91.1 (2001): 63-67.



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