Is Punctuation Really Necessary?

patrick stewart recently defended his dissertation at the university of british columbia

what was unusual?

he used almost no


which makes me wonder- is punctuation really necessary?

According to the Language Log linguistics blog, Stewart wrote the dissertation, which was on indigenous architecture, initially in Nisga’a, the language of his heritage.  He agreed to provide an English translation and did so, but in a particular way- almost without punctuation and with no capitalization.

Here’s how Stewart explains his choice:

“in my defense my style of writing is not laziness or lack of knowledge of proper usage of the english language it is a form of grammatical resistance as a deconstructionist in the manner of many writers especially american poet ee cummings he graduated with a master degree in english from harvard university and they called him experimental and innovative not words likely to be used to describe an indigenous writer who breaks all the rules of writing (the behavioural ethics board at the university of british columbia suggested that i hire an editor as it appeared that i did not know the english language) times though they are changing”

(Originally quoted here.)

I love this example and think it would be great to discuss with students.   With older students, or students who were ready for it, you might start by looking at an ee cummings or Walt Whitman poem and comparing it to, say, an Elizabeth Bishop poem.  You could ask why Bishop might choose to adhere to punctuation rules and particular poetic structures while cummings or Whitman don’t- or do so only partially.  This might get students to discuss why poetry and grammar “rules” might be constraining for some poets. Next, you might share a piece of Stewart’s dissertation as he wrote it, and then you might have students compare it to the same text, written in Standard Written English, or a different piece of text, also written in SWE.  You could have students do a comparison/contrast matrix:

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 12.03.41 PM

I’ve argued before that since traditional, drill based grammar instruction doesn’t work, we should use a “Why, How, Apply” strategy.  To recap briefly:

  • Start by explaining why a particular grammatical structure or aspect of mechanics, etc. is important or helpful to the reader
  • Then help students understand how to apply the concept through examples
  • End by asking students to apply the concept to their own writing.

What’s one way to get at the “why” question?  Look at examples of “correct” and “incorrect” usage together, and ask the kinds of questions I asked above.  Even if you’re not having students think about grammar as a form of resistance, simpler kinds of comparative analysis can still be useful because they help students get really clear about the purpose behind grammatical structures which can be really helpful for English Language Learners and struggling readers and writers.

You might take a look at this image:


And this one:


And then ask questions- “What’s going on here with the apostrophes?  What did the writer mean?  Why do you think the first writer got confused? Ultimately, does the error in the first picture really matter- why or why not?  Does it matter in some contexts, and not others?”  This might be an interesting, and possibly uncomfortable, discussion.  As an English teacher, grammar errors matter to me. But I think it’s important to interrogate that with students to get all of us to think more deeply.

It’s not enough to think about grammar as


or wrong


instead ask



why not


does it really matter?


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in English Language Learners, Grammar, Writing

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