When is it time to introduce the colon, semicolon, ellipsis and dash?

Many  teachers are happy to see bright students reading authors like Paul Jennings.  I am not entirely comfortable with it, and here will explain why.  Then I get really prescriptive …

Most humans learn from example – this is so basic that I won’t bother to reference it.    Once a child has understood if not mastered the real basics – { . , ? !} – it is time for them to practice reading them, to reinforce the learning from example, and also to practice using them.  Again, I expect this is unexceptionable.

This is my contentious proposition:  If teachers are going to assess  writing using a marking format which includes complexity of sentences and punctuation, they hve a duty to make available the tools the child needs to produce the desired complexity.  If they have students who are capable of complex thought, they have a duty to equip them for self-expression as early as possible… regardless of age.  If the child reads only simple texts, where is the learning by example?

Do the above basic introduction, to be sure.   As soon as possible after this, I bellieve that any child who uses complex sentences should be introduced to the ways of punctuating them.   Any text with frequent short sentences (including newspaper articles and classroom books) should be looked at as a literary piece: are there examples ambiguities that could be resolved, repetitions that could be avoided, or relationships that could be made more clear by the use of “advanced” punctuation?  These can be used to demonstrate editing.  By year / grade 5 the class as a whole should be used to the idea of asking “Why has the simple form been used here?”   

Aside: I get the feeling that many writers underestimate (even patronise) their readers, assuming they cannot hold three related concepts in one sentence.

I have seen a (slightly above average) 10-year-old, two weeks after an  introduction to complex structures (and reading, with support, several examples of complex writing) start to talk about how one of these “simple sentence” stories could be made better by combining sentences and weeding out  a few words.

There is, of course, a downside:  an 11-year-old taught this way got into H.P. Lovecraft (try The music of Erich Zann , if you’ve not read any of his work), while ves agemates were into “Goosebumps”.

Choosing the texts

So, what sort of texts do I recommend?  For younger readers, mostly books from before the 1980s –  I give an exerpt from an  Andrew Davies Marmalade Atkins book below,  to give a feel for the level students age 8 – 11 have enjoyed.  His  books are playful yet challenging, so I use them,  but there are many other fine authors for this age whose works an older librarian could recommend.   For older readers, there is a multitude of works over the past 200 years from which to choose.   If you want some history / S&E, try comparing a translation of  the original Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” with the Disney book.  I like Cherryh at the moment, with examples below,  but there are other excellent authors.

 Do, however, check their pattern of punctuation.  Tom Holt is an entertaining writier (see Alexander at the World’s End) , but uses semicolons where The Penguin Guide to Punctuation would recommend a colon.  Indeed, such a style is preferred by some publishers now, to the extent that some teachers consider the older form incorrect.   Therefore, when an opportunity arises, I like to point out the existence of the two schools of thought, and allow the students to choose – and use only – the approach they prefer.   I also (as here) remind teachers of the existence of the two approaches.   (But I give out mainly examples of my preferred style, naturally.)

Examples of texts

In the first piece,  I begin with an Introductory Reference : The Colon and the Semicolon Compared, by Larry Trask .  We then see what CJ Cherryh does with them, and debate her choices.  I do not assert that her choices are always ideal,  but they are worth discussing.  (If students want to see a wider range of her style, I suggest the Russalka series.)

For older students,  small groups try to write their interpretations given those rules (they are expected to look up any words they don’t know, and figure out which words name an ethnic group/ nation / region names);   for younger students a more structured explanation sets the scene, the words are part of word study,  and it is a supervised small group or full class discussion.

CJ Cherryh  Fortress in the Eye of Time

p 246 .  [Heryn,  Lord of Amafel, has been found to have been careless to the point of being criminal concerning Prince Cefwyn’s safety.   Cefwyn, soon to be king of Ylesuin (by Heryn’s treachery), cannot prove the carelessness was deliberate action, or that Heryn has been taxing his people heavily and passing little on to the King.    Cefwyn sits in judgement – in Heryn’s castle.]

“I must bear that, then,” Heryn said, and where sarcasm might have prevailed, perhaps, there was no apparent edge to his voice, only anguish.

Something must be done with him; the whole hall waited, anxious, sceptical of Heryn alike, perhaps embarrassed in Heryn’s fall from dignity, perhaps thinking of their own weapons:  Cefwyn knew the volatility of the region all too well; but he considered rejecting Heryn and his offer, and his tax records, a moment of two longer than he might ordinarily contemplate a move to fracture the peace.

But after such a delay, enough to make Heryn’s face go to pallor, he beckoned the man to rise, and, still frowning, gave him the formal embrace courtesy and custom demanded after such an accepted capitulation.

p 382. [ Idrys is Cefwyn’s spy master, and often goes into danger for him;  Emuin is Cefwyn’s wisest advisor.  The Marhanen are the ruling family, Cefwyn’s family.  Cefwyn has become King, and has made choices that go against his land’s and his family’s traditions]

He cast a frowning look at Idrys, and knew that there was yet another danger that Emuin did not reckon of:  Idrys’ loyalty, and Idrys’ perception.  Idrys had taken an oath of homage to him.  Of fealty to him.  But in the challenge to the Marhanen that those oaths had never anticipated, he found himself without sure knowledge what Idrys’ attachment was: to him, as king; to the realm; to whatever man Idrys served – or to his own unexpressed sense of honor.  Idrys measured things by some scheme that had never yet diverged from his personal welfare.

[Note: from context, I suspect that the “his personal welfare” there is the king’s, and that she would have written “his own” had it been Idrys’ welfare. ]

p 399.  [People from a neighbouring kingdom are invading across Amefel – and the Lord of Amafel and some nobles have recently been executed for treason.  Cefwyn considers what his warlike and successful grandfather had taught him.]

It meant, of course, that the Elwynim disrupted their own harvest by taking men away from the farms, but if in years previous they had had the foresight to hold reserves of their grain, they could bring it from Elwynor, managing the extended supply that Grandfather had declared was the most important item to have secured: Never rely on the farmers for food, was another of Grandfather’s  rules; it makes the farmers mad, gives your enemy willing reports, and it never amounts to what you think it will once you most need it.

Grandfather was silent on the problems of feeding the farmers of Amafel while the armies of five provinces and all the enemy camped on their fields and their sheep-meadows – when the Amefin were farmers and shepherds of the chanciest loyalty in all Ylesuin.  As well the King did stand on their pastures;  holding Amefel otherwise would not be possible.

The next piece is good to read aloud, stopping if necessary to write up and define any unknown words.   There is then the opportunity to hand out an unpunctuated copy, for small groups or pairs of students to choose their own punctuation before seeing how Davies has done it.  This allows discussion of ways of punctuation, and thought about choices, before discussing how the piece was actually punctuated – and then discussing  how he gets away with breaking so many of the formal writing rules  (Lessons:  A  sentence can be very long and yet easy to read, if you punctuate clauses carefully.  A sentence fragment can be a paragraph – if you are writing in an informal style, and if you set up the situation correctly in your readers’ minds .)

Andrew Davies   Marmalade Atkins’ Dreadful Deeds

pp 18 – 19

Torchy was a fat white pony who went round with a secret smile on his face.  He was a very nice pony to ride if you didn’t mind stopping every few yards for him to have a snack.  The other thing he liked to do was roll on his back kicking his legs in the air, and most people found it best to dismount while he was doing this.

And then there was Rufus.  Rufus had come with the farm and nobody knew how old he was.  He wore an old straw hat that didn’t suit him but nobody had ever dared take it off, because although Rufus usually looked half asleep, there was a certain look about his half-shut eyes that warned you not to take liberties with Rufus or his hat.

After his hat, the next thing you noticed about Rufus was his coat, which was rough and thick, and several kinds of red in colour.  There were sandy tufts, and gingery tufts, and carroty whorls, and pinkish stubble.  His coat was of several different lengths, and grew in several different directions, and he looked as if he had just paid a visit to a drunken barber’s.  Despite all this, he seemed a nice old thing, and people who didn’t know him  would cry out: “Oh, what a sweet little donkey!  Isn’t he a love!” and people who did know him would clear their throats and change the subject, and Rufus himself would throw back his head and let out a sarcastic “Hee-haw!” in his very loud and vulgar voice, and if you looked into his sleepy old eyes you could see his crafty old brain ticking over, working out something bad to do.

Because Rufus was a pretty diabolical donkey.

Rufus liked to give people surprises.  One way of doing this was to come up behind them and give them a very gentle nudge with his nose.  Usually they would stroke his muzzle saying “What a sweet old thing!”  Then he would give then another nudge, a bit harder, then a very hard nudge indeed.  After about three nudges, most people fell down, and Rufus would stand on them.  Donkeys look small, but they weigh at least twice as much as your fattest auntie, and it is no joke being stood on by a donkey like Rufus.

Marmalade’s mother would try to smooth the situation over by whacking him with a twig and saying “Don’t be a bore, Rufus!” or “It’s only his way of showing he likes you!” but people who were stood on by Rufus wished he could show his affection in some other way; and those who looked up into his wickedly gleaming eyes thought, but didn’t like to say, that Marmalade’s mother was quite wrong and that Rufus did not in fact like them at all.

And in this they were usually right.

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