GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: semi-colons

The post today is going to explore my most favourite of the misunderstood punctuation marks: the semi-colon. If ever a punctuation mark needed someone to champion its cause, it is the humble semi-colon, so often abused, so little understood. And if ever an English teacher liked to jump on a cause, I am that English teacher, championing the underdog. You may, by the way, want to call it a semicolon (but I think that looks ugly) or a semi colon (which I think looks like it’s in danger of drifting away from each other … semi    colon …. semi               colon …) and so I have hyphenated it because, well, I can. That, my lovely readers, is why punctuation is so flipping fun and so very individual. As long as you pick one version and stick to your guns, you are on safe ground. You might prefer semi colon or semicolon; that’s your prerogative. You know already my love of the hyphen.

I’ve written before about the semi-colon and you may find that post helpful at elucidating the numerous reasons why I love this dainty little marriage of a punctuation mark. So far, I’ve looked at how you can use hyphens and colons to help improve your technical accuracy mark, and the semi-colon completes the unholy trinity of trouble-makers.

In essence, whilst students may dash to use a colon, stuffing in lists hither and thither, they tend to leave semi-colons well enough alone.

I don’t know why that is.

Can you use the word ‘and’ to join two sentences together?

If you can do that, you can use a semi-colon.

So what do you need to know about the semi-colon?

First and foremost, it functions as a coordinating conjunction. That may well be meaningless to you. If I ask you if you know the word ‘and’, however, you’re sure to nod. If you know where the word ‘and’ goes, you are on the way to understanding the function of the semi-colon.

Coordinating conjunctions, then…

What those bad FANBOYS do is connect simple sentences of equal merit, weight or rank. The FANBOYS, by the way, are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. They join two simple sentences together to form a compound sentence.

You know simple sentences, I know. One verb and one subject.

Remember, find the verb first.

Sometimes that’s tough when they’re little auxiliary verbs like am, is, are, was, were and so on.

When you’ve found the verb, ask yourself ‘who or what [insert verb here]?’

Who or what was?

It was.

The passage continues with another simple sentence. One verb, had been, the pluperfect of ‘to be’, if you are of an enquiring mind. Who or what had been? School had been. 

When you stick two simple sentences together, you have a variety of ways to do it. One is with a FANBOYS.

Here, writer Betsy Byers has used the conjunction and – that most popular of FANBOYS.

Now, you’ll notice she’s used a comma before the coordinating conjunction. You may well have been taught that you don’t use a comma before the word and. And you don’t, if you’re British and you are writing a list. Or if the second bit relies on the first.

Comma headache.

This is why I hate the little beggars.

Can you see why?

Why, for instance, would it have been weird to write:

And you don’t, if you’re British, and you are writing a list.

An explanation for another time, I’m sure.

Anyway, back to the and.

Because a semi-colon is used to join two separate clauses (that means they could be sentences on their own if you replaced the , and with a full stop as they were earlier) you can use it wherever you’d use a , and. So Betsy Byars could have written:

I do, in fact, prefer the , and version to be honest. Just because you can use a semi-colon doesn’t mean you should. I think the semi-colon makes it sound more abrupt whereas the comma-and makes it sound more slow. That’s just my explanation. It sounds more natural with the and.

But you could use a semi-colon and it wouldn’t be wrong.

You can, of course, use and to join together two complex sentences. You can, of course, use them to join more than two simple or complex sentences, but that is where your head will start to implode and that really is to be avoided.

What does a semi-colon do that and does not?

First, it avoid repeating the word and. I mean, we get through a lot of those when we write. There are times when it’s purposeful or unavoidable, like if we’re writing a list or we want to make that list drag on.

One example comes from the David Mitchell article in The Guardian that I was using as an example of colon use:

There are two types of cosmetics, in my analysis. Lipstick and mascara. Oh, and blusher. Hang on: and powder and eyeliner and moisturiser and perfume and hairspray. Blimey, there are loads. And styling mousse and hair dye and spray tan and unnecessary surgery.

Why then does he use all of these ands? Surely he knows how to write more properly than this? That gives me a clue. It’s for effect. He wants those ands there. They act as little exaggerators that separate out all those types of cosmetics. They heap ridicule on his first assertion that there are only two types of cosmetics. They add to his feeling of astonishment that “there are loads”.

That is a time that I want an and. Also it’s a list, and you can’t have semi-colons in this type of list. It would be weird and ugly.

He does, by the way, include two semi-colons in this article. You can look for them if you are that way inclined. I’ll give you a clue: he’s using them properly in a list.

So where DO you use a semi-colon and where would it be appropriate to replace a FANBOYS?

It’s appropriate where you don’t want to imply an order or priority to the ideas. For instance where you are giving equally important facts. In a story, it’s loosely chronological so an idea can’t get upset just because it comes after another one. No offence to the other ideas that follow, it’s just how things happened.

Now let’s take non-fiction and non-chronological writing.

If I write:

The full stop marks the end of a completed thought. The semi-colon marks a continuation. 

The idea that comes second is quite literally second best. When we order our ideas in non-narrative writing, we choose a sequence or priority. The first one to show up is the most important, simply because it got there first. Unless we signal that our second, third or fourth ideas are the most important, through discourse markers such as more importantly, then the second-best idea may get hurt feelings if you put them second.

You’re laughing of course. You have never had to write an article about local florists that ended up causing a war.

Hearts and Flowers, based in Edenfield, provide bespoke wedding centrepieces and bouquets. Magnificent Blooms in Haslingdon cater for large events and are happy to provide aisle decorations, pedestals and even wedding arches. 

Can you see how going second might not make my fictional ‘Magnificent Blooms’ quite so happy? You think I’m joking, but you’ve never had to face a 40-minute tirade from an irate business who really didn’t want to find themselves second.

A semi-colon stops some of that aggravation. It says, quite simply: THESE THINGS ARE EQUAL.

So for that reason, if you are trying to show that the idea following is only there because one of them has to come second, but that doesn’t imply that it is of lesser importance, the semi-colon is what you are looking for.

Semi-colons are great little pivots that provide balance and equilibrium in a sentence:

‘Storm on the Island’, written by Seamus Heaney, explores the power of nature in a land torn apart by unmentioned civil unrest; ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen makes more direct reference to the backdrop of war but focuses on the soldiers’ battle against an all-powerful Nature which seems intent on killing them all. 

A semi-colon tells your reader that you are comparing or contrasting ideas.

So how do you use them safely?

Firstly, you need to make sure that what you have on both sides is a full sentence. There are exceptions to this, but you need to work with stabilisers on for a bit before you ride solo.

Secondly, it can always be replaced by a full stop.

Thirdly, you should be able to replace it with an ‘and’. Or a ‘but’. Or any of the other FANBOYS

So if you abide by those three simple rules, you should be safe. Remember that the semi-colon replaces the FANBOYs: you don’t need both.

You also need to remember not to over-use them

A colon directs you only one way – forward, into an explanation or embellishment. A semi-colon can direct you in any number of ways: a comparison, a contrast, a balance, a pivot, a twist or two (or more) parts of a single idea. Semi-colons imply a close relation between ideas, which a full stop does not. A full stop is a divorce of ideas; a semi-colon is a marriage of them.

You can also use them before discourse markers such as however, nevertheless, also, consequently, therefore and so on – as long as there are two full sentences on either side.

I tried the beef and onions, as you suggested; however, they disagreed terribly with my digestion.

The film was a tawdry romance with dialogue verging on saccharine at points; nevertheless, I enjoyed it all the same.

I found I could not get on with Thackeray; therefore, I abandoned ‘Vanity Fair’ and took up with Dostoyevsky.

These ‘conjunctive adverbs’ need a semicolon before them in ways that the FANBOYS have a comma before them when they join two independent clauses together. Now there’s a nonsensy tech sentence I never thought to write.

You can find more conjunctive adverbs and some examples here and here

Next time, I go in search of the strategies you can use at GCSE to improve your use of sentences. Make sure you sign up if you want regular emails with these posts.

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GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: hyphens

In the last post, I was looking at punctuation in general, including the requirements for punctuation at GCSE for English Language.

To hit Level 2 or above, you will need to show growing accuracy in a range of punctuation.

At Level 2 (5-8 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 4), you will need to show you have some control a range of punctuation.

At Level 3 (9-12 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 7), you will need to show you can use a range of punctuation mostly successfully.

And at Level 4 (13-16 marks out of 16, up to the top of Grade 9), you will need to show you can use a wide range of punctuation with a high level of accuracy.

In stories and descriptions, however, you may find that you are hampered by what you are writing. After all, it’s not like stories or descriptions necessarily lend themselves to a wide range of punctuation in the same way that Paper 2 does. Indeed, in the extract I use about sentence forms from best-selling writer Lee Child, there were really only four punctuation marks used over 300 words: full stops, commas, omissive apostrophes and hyphens.

Hyphens are sadly overlooked. They have the power to change meaning completely.

Think about this sentence:

No smoking restrictions are in place

And this one:

No-smoking restrictions are in place

That hyphen has the power to mean that a) you CAN smoke or b) you CAN’T smoke.

Or this sentence:

A government monitoring programme will be set up.

How does it compare to:

A government-monitoring programme will be set up.

Well, in the first, the government are doing the monitoring, and in the second, the government are being monitored.

Hyphens also help with pronunciation.

The football player resigned

And:

The football player re-signed

Again, very different meanings.

A hyphen is word glue. It glues words together or glues on prefixes to change meaning. It glues words together that you don’t want separated, or that you want people to consider to be one single thing.

There aren’t really guides as such, or definitive rules, but there are places where you’d definitely need a hyphen to make meaning clear. My rule is that I’m happy for them to be left out as long as meaning is clear, but it’s a sophisticated writer who thinks to include them where the meaning is clear but the words should be considered together.

Times move on, and words that used to be hyphenated, like tool-box, are no longer hyphenated. In fact, it looks rather quaint. Old-fashioned hyphen use like this is probably not necessary.

You can also use them to split up words if your word is going to drop off the end of the line and you ran out of space because the word was longer than you thought it was. Not their best use, but a use nonetheless. If you ever go into the world of typesetting and printing, you’ll need to know this stuff, but not if you just want a good grade at GCSE.

In terms of pronunciation, you wouldn’t usually use a hyphen unless the sense is confusing. That’s going to happen most where there is a word spelt the same but with a different meaning, like re-signed and resigned. Recreation and re-creation are another pair of examples. You can also use it with double letters such as re-examine, because reexamine looks hideous.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve got things before a noun and the first alters the meaning of the second, use a hyphen:

  • a well-read book
  • a little-used cup
  • a well-known brand of coffee
  • a three-year-old boy
  • a much-needed holiday
  • a best-kept secret

But if those adjectives come after the noun, then you don’t need a hyphen.

  • The book was well read
  • The cup was little used
  • The coffee brand was well known
  • The boy was three years old
  • The holiday was much needed
  • The secret was best kept to himself

You also find them in colour blends, like amber-gold, yellow-green, snow-white IF they come before the noun as well, like an amber-gold sunset, but not the sunset shone amber gold. They are quite fabulous for Paper 1 description or descriptive bits in narrative.

Fractions (two-thirds of a mile), times (a half-hour wait) numbers that modify an adjective (a third-floor apartment) also have them. Again, you don’t have them if they come after. The apartment was on the third floor doesn’t need one.

You can see the pattern, can’t you?

If you’ve got an adjective and it’s changed by another adjective, and they come before a noun, you’re going to use a hyphen.

To be honest, at GCSE, I’m just looking for them if you’ve used well, little, much or best before another adjective before a noun. I’m also looking for them if the sense is confusing.

You can see how in this example, panic buy is confusing…

Clearly something is needed to make it clear that they weren’t told ‘Don’t panic! Buy petrol!’ and ‘Don’t panic-buy petrol’ would be clearest. Clearer still would be ‘Don’t buy petrol in a panic’, but since this is a headline, you can see why there is a need for brevity.

Sometimes, a missing hyphen can cause confusion, as you have seen already.

Bernard was having extra marital sex.

Was he having an affair or had his marriage just picked up a notch? Yes, I know what they mean. They don’t mean he was having a lot of hanky-panky with his missus. They mean he was cheating. But if they mean that he was cheating, they really should have put a link in it.

His poodle is a well behaved dog.

Let me get this straight… his dog was well, or it was well behaved? If it was well behaved, it needs a hyphen. If, however, by bizarre and poor English, it was well and behaved, then that’s okay then.

The carriage was followed by six foot men.

So Cinderella had six servant guys or she was followed by an unspecified number of men who were six feet tall? You can, of course say footmen if you mean the kind of guys who follow carriages about in fancy old-fashioned clothing.

He was a rare cheese maker.

So he made rare cheeses or he was a cheesemaker who was rare?

Joyce Carol Oates was a short story writer.

She wrote short stories or she was short and she was a storywriter?

Now you don’t care about my silly examples of very deliberately chosen carelessness with hyphens. But I do care to give you some real-life examples. Without further ado, here are forty examples from the four things I am reading at the moment…

  • real-life version; self-reliant cook; rightward-slanting handwriting; co-authors; an upper-middle-class family; real-estate holdings; pinky-red rare; a bride-to-be’s cooking course; our day-to-day lives; pale-blue airmail paper
  • middle-class; socio-economic; semi-Dutch parentage; grand-daughter; non-Prussian areas of Germany; semi-secret; the one-time editor; far-reaching duties; mid-December; so-called
  • grid-like; deep-red tiles; a worm-eaten chest; ochre-washed farmhouses; bomb-damaged buildings; Burt Lancaster’s over-muscled physique squeezed into a leotard; blood-red poppies; there was nothing run-of-the-mill about the building; long-dead; vice-like
  • one of the world’s best-known figures; high-heeled boots; a bald-faced liar; it’s effort-free; rent-free; self-employed; aimed at eight-to-fifteen-year-old girls; two-thirds of UK children; Seventeenth-century Britain; a series of one-line paragraphs

As you can see, if you turn your similes around and put -like after, you need a hyphen. It’s also good for things where you stick on a -free after a noun. Definitely useful with numbers and colours. Actually when I did this exercise, I found hyphens everywhere – they littered fiction and non-fiction alike. I didn’t have to flick through pages and pages to find them, either.

Not a one of the examples is particularly confusing without a hyphen, but a hyphen helps all the same. Also, since they’re fairly conventional and rule-bound, they’re the kind of thing I like to look for if I’m trying to find a range of punctuation in writing, or if I’m trying to justify a Level 3 for punctuation or above. There is an element of personal style there (wait until we get to semicolon, semi colon and semi-colon) but there are times when it’s much more of a convention, like in old-fashioned or high-heeled than in others like toolbox.

Some further reading:

Grammarbook

Grammar Tips

Now get out and get practising!

Up next: colons.

 

 

Improving your technical accuracy for AQA GCSE English Question 5

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at how to plan for the descriptive and narrative tasks on AQA’s GCSE English (8700) Paper 1 Question 5.

As you know, there are 40 marks available for Question 5, and 16 of those marks are for technical accuracy.

Today I’m going to walk you through the marks given for punctuation and explain how those work. It’s a little difficult to pull out the punctuation strand on its own, so it will inevitably get bound up with sentence forms and demarcation.

Why I’m focusing on punctuation is that it is one way, along with variety of sentence forms, that you can really shape up your marks. Most secondary-age students have had little revision or discussion of punctuation, with the majority of the work about punctuation being done in primary schools. It’s a shame not to revisit it, because it’s a simply lush way to improve your mark.

It has another bonus, as well.

It doesn’t just pay off for the marks for technical accuracy, but it also pays off for the mark on content and organisation, since how you write is very much about ‘control’ at the top end. It affects how engaging your writing is because it’s one of those things that helps to make your writing interesting and compelling.

There are six strands to the 16 marks for technical accuracy:

  • demarcation of sentences
  • use of punctuation
  • range of sentence forms
  • use of Standard English
  • spelling
  • vocabulary

You can see how the way in which you use vocabulary is a kind of ‘double whammy’ since it is also rated for the 24 marks for content and organisation. However, it is not one of the things that helps me fix a level for technical accuracy. It helps me refine a mark, of course, but it is not the main priority for me when I’m deciding how technically accurate a piece of writing is.

Punctuation and sentence demarcation/variety are the main ways I decide on what level a piece of writing is coming in at.

The other stuff – Standard English, spelling and vocabulary – help me refine my mark within that level.

In other words, punctuation, demarcation and variety help me decide if you’re Level 1 (1-4 marks) or Level 4 (13-16 marks). And then Standard English, spelling and vocabulary help me decide whether you are 1 mark or 4 marks if I’ve decided you’re Level 1, or whether you’re 13 or 16 marks if you’re Level 4. In other words, the most atrocious spelling might stop me from thinking you were at the top of the level, but it wouldn’t make me think your work was very weak and only in Level 1. Spelling is a very superficial skill: easy to identify, hard to categorise and the bane of our lives. I’m still on a journey towards spelling perfection. With a heady mix of weird Latin, old Norse and Germanic throwbacks, we English writers are a little challenged compared to, say, the French or the Spanish. Punctuation and sentence variety don’t give us such a rough ride as spelling does. They’re easier because there are fewer of them.

And in actual fact, as you’ll see from this post and the one that will follow, punctuation can be really easy to improve, as can your sentence variety. I don’t know why more secondary teachers don’t focus on it.

Part of the problem is that students don’t always understand what is easy when it comes to punctuation, and what is challenging. Semi-colons and colons have taken on almost mythical proportions of breath-taking complexity, when in fact they are relatively straightforward and rule-driven. Commas, on the other hand, fox even the best linguistic minds I know. Also, and I HATE this with a passion, so few people now seem to understand semi-colons and colons that they seem to get relegated to writing lists. I would ban colons in lists on Paper 1 completely and utterly. They hurt my eyes and are wrong in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

Punctuation is not only hard because it’s not always taught post-primary, but also because much of it is about personal preference.

Plus, there are things that are 100% right or 100% wrong, like apostrophes and hyphens, and then there are rules that you can choose to live by or choose to ignore, depending on your preferences and even on your nationality. You think I’m kidding? Don’t get me started on the Oxford comma, for instance. The comma that divides the USA from pretty much the rest of the English-writing Punctuation World… that comma could cause wars among proof-readers, I promise.

When it comes to it, punctuation has a brief history and not even that much to learn. Some things, admittedly, have lots of rules and sub-rules and things you can ignore or not depending on your own style, but much of it comes down to you can’t use this here vs you could if you want to. Sometimes you get the occasional you should or you shouldn’t use such-and-such a piece of punctuation, and there are times when you get an absolute you need to.

That’s maybe what makes it all seem so very complicated.

Up until the last 1400 years or so, punctuation was kind of Do-As-You-Please. Text would all run together a bit like this and nobody bothered with spaces:

LOVESEEKETHNOTITSELFTOPLEASENORFORITSELFHATHANYCARE

Then some people started putting stuff in to make it a bit easier, like spaces and even some punctuation which has been relegated to the history books, like the little-known diple. Curious, by the way, that other languages don’t have the same marks we do and don’t always use them in the same way. Punctuation is cool.

It was only with the invention of the printing press and the bringing of reading to the masses that punctuation, like spelling, became more regular out of necessity.

You don’t care about that, I know. You just want to know which marks will get you a Grade 1 and which will get you a Grade 9…

The fact is that the markscheme doesn’t have a hierarchy. I wish it did. It would be so nice.

Full stops = Grade 1
Speech marks = Grade 4
Semi-colons = Grade 6

That would be lovely and easy to mark. It would be lovely and easy to teach.

But the fact is that there is a hierarchy of sorts. A hierarchy of what’s easy and what’s hard. That doesn’t mean you get extra marks for what’s hard or fewer marks for what’s easy. It just means that from your perspective, it’s worth knowing that there are some you can learn quickly and get right 100% of the time because there are clear, comprehensible rules that make sense and apply 100% of the time. It also means that there are some that you’re going to find a challenge because they have about thirty ifs and buts.

But most students have the hierarchy wrong, and don’t understand what they need to do with their punctuation to get into each level.

So here’s what the markscheme says you need to do to get into each level:

Just a reminder… the markscheme talks about levels. It doesn’t talk about grades. Nobody can say “this is Grade 9 punctuation” and don’t believe anything you read that says otherwise. As a rough guide, you may consider Level 1 to be around Grade 1-3, Level 2 to be around Grade 3-5, Level 3 to be around Grade 5-7 and Level 4 to be around Grade 7-9, just to help you know where you are working. But that is just my approximations to give you a bit of a guide and I’m only doing it because I know those levels 1-4 are meaningless to you.

So, what do these mean?

Some evidence of conscious punctuation… let’s talk about that word ‘some’… ‘some’ is not 1. One purposeful full stop at the end is not ‘some’. ‘Some’ might be 2 punctuation marks, but is more likely 3 or more. That means that I’m looking for at least 3 punctuation marks that have been used on purpose. It’s not even really 3 different punctuation marks. It might well be three full stops. That would be some.

What does ‘on purpose’ mean? Well, it doesn’t really mean ‘right’ or ‘correct’, just that they’ve been used deliberately. For example:

Are they any ? old legends attached to the castle asked conrad of his sister conrad was, a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently. practical family

Can you see how random those punctuation marks are? They’re conscious though… definitely on purpose. The ‘are’ at the beginning suggests a question. You have to think about a question mark in order to stick it in the wrong place. There are three punctuation marks in this answer, and they are a bit accidental, but they are there. This is the kind of punctuation we might see in level 1. Usually, it’s not that random. It’s more like this:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle? asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

What you get at Level 1 are some full stops in the right place and the occasional comma splice. A  comma splice, by the way, is where you use a comma instead of a full stop. Some students use an ‘and’ instead of a comma or a full stop and their sentences are spliced by connectives. Comma splicing is widely, largely indicative of fairly low level of control. Kind of Level 2ish. If I were teaching a class with comma-splicing habits, I would definitely, definitely be trying to weed that nasty habit out. It is, in my opinion, the biggest reason students don’t get more than half marks for technical accuracy.

Another example of the same bit, just punctuated differently:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle, asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

In short, you have to have a vague nod towards the notion of punctuation and sentences to be working at Level 1.

Most students come in at Level 2 or 3.

Level 2 states that you have some control of a range of punctuation. 

So, some is more than 1 out of 3 being right, isn’t it? As a kind of percentage of accuracy, it’s probably around 30% – 50%. It’s more than ‘occasional’, but less than ‘more’. I do so hate these qualitative adjectives. In other words, if you use commas, sometimes, they’re in the right place sometimes.

Now the other word in there that is interesting is ‘range’.

A range is not one type of punctuation. A range is probably not two, either. To be safe, a range is probably three.

In descriptive or narrative, that probably means commas, full stops and apostrophes. I do a lot of work on sentence fragments using a passage from action writer Lee Child, and over the 300 words of the passage, there are commas, full stops, some apostrophes and a couple of hyphens. That in itself is not horrible. I’m sure best-selling writers don’t get their work returned by stroppy editors saying ‘Lee, this is a Level 2. You need a wider range of punctuation.’

On Paper 2, however, you’re going to find it more natural and more easy to use a wider range, but we’ll get to that.

So, in essence, if you’re looking for 5-8 marks out of 16 for technical accuracy, you’ll have 3 or more types of punctuation and you’ll be using them right sometimes. 

But you don’t want Level 2. No, you want to know how you can get more than half marks.

So what does Level 3 mean?

This also says a range of punctuation is used. So we’re still looking for that 3 or more. And this says ‘mostly with success’. So… if you were 50:50 at Level 2, what does ‘mostly’ mean?

For me, 4 out of 5 is ‘mostly’. Or 8 out of 10. Roughly.

Now when I’m marking, it’s really reductionist. I look at each type of punctuation you’ve used and I ask myself, ‘Is this wrong?’ – if it’s not wrong, then it’s acceptable. It falls into that ‘mostly successful’.

I’m not asking myself if I would have used it.

I’m not asking myself if it’s the best choice.

I’m not asking myself if it really should have been a colon, since what follows is an explanation.

I’m asking myself if it is wrong, like that Level 1 question mark. If it’s wrong, it’s not successful. I’m asking myself if it’s acceptable or not. Does it work? Is it okay? In that case, it’s successful. If you’re at around 80% accuracy overall, then you’re ‘mostly accurate’. That’s a very rough number, and I’m not a bean counter sitting there weighing up percentages of being right for full stops vs being right for commas vs being right for apostrophes, then trying to balance them out and arguing in my head that commas must be worth more since they’re harder. I would never, ever finish marking. But it’s largely how my impressions are formed. I might take three random apostrophes and if two are right and one is wrong, then that’s ‘mostly’. If the wrong one is in it’s which a lot of professional writers get wrong, then I may even say you’re Level 4. This is why they’ll never teach computers to mark English because you have to balance out about a gazillion choices.

Suffice to say you have still a big margin of error if you need it at Level 3. You can still hit those notional Grades 5-7 with a fair few mistakes.

As for Level 4, the level to which we may all aspire, then you can see ‘wide range’ comes in there, and ‘high level of accuracy’. Now, if 3 is a range, what’s a wide range? Are we saying 5 or so? For me 5 or so is definitey a ‘wide’ range. There are about 14 marks in common use, and 5 is a wide range for a story or description.

Using a wide range is not a be-all-and-end-all though. Not at all. You can’t just say “I’m going to use 5 different types of punctuation” and expect to fall in Level 4. Plenty of students who try to use all 14 regular punctuation marks are going to still be in Level 2 or 3 if they aren’t used accurately or in the right place.

What I hate, by the way, are the responses from my students where they’ve done a little tick-list at the beginning and they’re forcing in a colon and a semi-colon. I hate that. I wish the word ‘natural’ was in there with ‘wide range’. A part of me dies inside when I see a punctuation checklist. You can’t reduce a Level 4 to a checklist.

What you get when people try to force in ALL those punctuation marks is this:

.,:;?!”” – ()’ — …

And then a diligent attempt to include them in a description or narrative.

We went upstairs. In the bedroom, there was: a bed; a cabinet; a wardrobe; a rug, and a rocking chair.

Ouch.

Just ouch.

First off, I never, ever want you to force punctuation into a piece of writing just to meet some notional idea about what a ‘wide range’ means.

Never, ever.

Secondly, if the only way you know how to use colons and semi-colons is in using a list, you need to go and have a word with your teachers. I don’t ever want to see a list in a story unless you are supremely gifted and a Grade 9 is a walk in the park. There are a multitude of lovely ways to use colons and semi-colons in writing, and you may well find yourself drawn to use them (appropriately) on Paper 2 by introducing a bullet-point list if that is in keeping with the form you’ve been asked to write in, but when I see them in a narrative or description, it makes me want to set fire to my eyes. Really.

Now, let’s get back to the punctuation I expect to see right and those where I’m less fussed if you make an error.

What we have to work with:

  • full stops
  • question marks
  • exclamation marks
  • ellipsis
  • omissive apostrophes
  • possessive apostrophes
  • speech marks
  • commas
  • dashes
  • semi-colons
  • colons
  • hyphens
  • brackets
  • paired dashes
  • paired commas

Basically, four kinds of category: those that mark the end of a sentence, those that float in the air, those in the middle of a sentence or splicing sentences, and those which add extra bits.

Let’s talk about which are hard and which are easy. Which do you expect students should get right and which are devilishly difficult?

Most students’ lists of ‘easy’ punctuation and ‘difficult’ punctuation looks a bit like this:

Ironically, this is loosely the order these are taught in at primary school.

But this is a bit of a false picture. In fact, when you think about easiness and difficulty in punctuation, the picture looks more like this:

In other words, what you think is difficult and what is actually difficult are very different.

I will explain. Omissive apostrophes (like won’t and don’t) are either right or wrong, on the whole. They are few in number and a limited number of places they can go. They are so easy that word-processing designers can teach word-processing software to identify where you’ve made a mistake, and your spellcheck software will tell you with that nasty little underlining and a ‘Do you mean won’t ?’ even if you meant wont. It’s a word, I promise. I look to omissive apostrophes as the most simple thing. Few rules. Few uses. Right or wrong. So if someone’s getting them wrong, then they’re not up in the echelons of “mostly successful”.

Speech marks are also fairly easy. They’re usually right or wrong. They have simple rules about where they go and what needs to go with them. I can look at a story and look at the dialogue and say, “Yes, this is fine!” or “no theyve not quite got it yet” (and if you’ve got eagle eyes, you’ll have seen where I made errors in that last bit of speech!) and it’s a good benchmark of Level-Three-Ness or Not-Level-Three-Ness.

Also, coincidentally and most fabulously, omissive apostrophes and speech marks are going to help you get a “wide range” because they crop up naturally in stories and description, and now you know that they are super-easy with few rules and clear ‘yes/no’ places to go, then you’ll be more interested in using them.

After that, question marks are also pretty easy. They have few rules and as long as you know how to form a question, you can get it right fairly easily, can’t you? Are there students who don’t know how to invert a verb and subject? What if they don’t know about question words? Perhaps they don’t get that it’s just about tone?

Possessive apostrophes are harder than omissive apostrophes, simply because you’ve got to know about plural nouns and not sticking an apostrophe in before (or after) every s at the end of the word. But there are rules. They are right or wrong. There’s a bit of a debate (if you’re an editor extraordinaire) on ridiculously complex things like whether you’re using words as adjectives or nouns, but by and large, there are clear rules and yes/no answers. Like if you’re writing about Emma’s blog, it’s going to have an apostrophe before the s and if you’re writing about the dog’s dinner, it depends on how many dogs (the dogs’ dinner or the dog’s dinner?) but if you mean one, it goes before and if you mean two it goes after. Okay, there are confusions about names and nouns ending in s (James’ bike or James’s bike?) but there are still rules.

Ellipsis are pretty easy too… I call them the ‘bumper car’ of punctuation. It’s pretty hard to actually use them wrongly… you can overuse them, sure, but … well… hard to get in a big, nasty catastrophic crash with them…

By the way, if you’re a master of the simple omissive apostrophe, speech marks, question marks, ellipsis and possessive apostrophes as well as full stops, you’ve got a ‘wide range’ of… duh duh duh… exactly the kind of punctuation that regularly crops up in narratives.

Nice. The easy stuff is actually the useful stuff. No need maybe for those brackets or semi-colons.

But you want a few more under your belt maybe?

Exclamation marks are a style thing, but again they have rules! Emotional outbursts might need them. Orders could have them. Some people over-use them, and others don’t use them enough. I once responded to an email like this:

!!

Because they said everything that needed to be said.

Personally, I think you can easily overdo them, but you shouldn’t leave them out altogether. Some people these days are like the Exclamation Police and would rather remove them from everything. Still, I can tell you if you’ve over-used them or if you’ve used one in the wrong place. So they’re easy-ish. Too many and it’s like being repeatedly slapped in the face, though. If your writing is peppered with ! and !! and even !!! then you need more drama from your words and construction, not your punctuation.

After that, we fall into the realms of ‘kind of complicated’, with full stops. Yes, I know we use them most of all, but loads of the time people get them wrong. Hence students who think a comma splice is okay. To understand full stops, you also have to know about sentence structures, have an understanding of grammatical stuff like subjects and verbs, objects and clauses. Very easy to get them wrong. Also, there are ‘rules’ like sentences should have finite verbs, and then there are sentences that break rules, like sentence fragments and minor sentences, which I love. Because they are so ubiquitous, they are hard and students make mistakes with them.

You’ll notice I’ve put colons and semi-colons on the same line. It’s my humble opinion that these should be taught more frequently and used more frequently. After all, if you can use ‘and’ to splice two sentences together, you can use a semi-colon. I’ll come back to these again and give you some more guidance, as I appreciate it’s not enough to say ‘they’re easy’ and leave it to you.

Hyphens are also a very under-rated punctuation mark. Again, simple rules, places where they aid meaning, and often very natural in most writing. Most of my students come to me not knowing when and where to use a hyphen, and that’s a travesty. Even Lee Child used a hyphen in his spartan, pared-down narrative. If you’re struggling for a ‘wide range’, a hyphen will definitely help you reach your five a day. For that, they too deserve a post of their own.

After this come the parenthetical punctuation marks – the punctuation that we use when we add additional information. Now these are not a one-size-fits-all type of punctuation: there are clear places where you’d use brackets over parenthetical commas, and much of that is to do with tone, text type and purpose. I know that may sound ludicrous but you are more likely to use brackets in information or explanation writing than you are in a story, for example.

Dashes are highly underrated and one of my favourites; I use them frequently. I don’t know why. I guess I think they add a bit of a zip. However, they can often do the work of a semi-colon, colon, ellipsis or comma – and for that reason, you’ve got to understand a lot of rules before you get to them. That said, they are – like the ellipsis – pretty hard to make errors with. They are definitely influenced by tone, register and purpose though – so you can’t go using them willy-nilly. And yes – they are definitely different from a hyphen.

Finally, we come to my bête-noir… the punctuation mark I despise. The comma. Why do I hate you so, little tadpole? Well, frankly, it’s because there are SO many rules. So many. They are used in so many ways, like with stacked adjectives and in lists. It separates clauses and marks off funky, fancy things like fronted adverbials. It’s used to clarify meaning when you repeat words next to each other. They mark out certain adverbs, moreover, but not others. So they have hundreds of rules to learn. That is not the be-all-and-end-all of this hideous little thing. I’m not even going to refer back to comma splicing which blights the end of sentences with weak and woeful punctuating. That horrible little mark causes wars, I tell you. Wars. Just get an editor from Chicago together with an editor from London and present them with this:

The Oxford Comma: discuss.

I mean, they can’t even decide if it’s the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma. If you’re not in the know, it’s whether or not you can put a comma before an ‘and’ in a list. People just have to agree to disagree.

And that’s what makes the comma the hardest, if you ask me. It’s a style thing. It’s got hundreds of rules, which you may or may not want to abide by. It’s so easy to get them wrong and so hard to get them perfect. Yet most students sail blithely through Question 5 with ne’er a thought about whether or not their comma use is acceptable or not. Commas are often the second mark used by students in a story, and one of the marks I use to justify to myself whether there is a range or not, yet most of the time they are very hit-and-miss in terms of accuracy. Often, they are the defining mark that make me decide whether a script is Level 3 or not.

So… I will do a further insight into semi-colons, colons and hyphens, since they are often so poorly used. I’ll also take you through some of the complications of punctuation in my next post and look at how you can use punctuation to really marshall and shape your words.

Before I leave you though, it’s important to say:

  • Include a range of punctuation by all means, and be conscious of having a range. Don’t be tempted to force that range though, and if you put in a list of objects to find a use of a colon in a story, don’t be surprised to find yourself with a Level 2.
  • Capital letters are not really punctuation. They’re typography and almost akin to spelling. A capital at the beginning of a sentence is related to sentence demarcation, not to punctuation, so if you ask me, an upper-case letter is not a punctuation mark. I won’t be counting it to make up a range if I get a story or description that relies only on full stops and commas.
  • Don’t overlook the humble hyphen. They should be used more than they are.
  • Absolutely don’t mess up your it’s and your its. I know ‘professional’ writers that do this and it is SO easy to correct. Plus it’s 100% right or 100% wrong. I don’t expect errors with omissive apostrophes if I’m going to award Level 3. Personally, I wouldn’t employ someone to write anything for me if they don’t know it’s and its.
  • Revise your punctuation and practise it! There are 14 or so marks in common use. Even if you decided to perfect your comma use and learn (and practise!) every single rule, it’ll take you less time than it would to try and improve your spelling.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking semi-colons or colons are difficult, or that full stops are easy.

If you’re a teacher or a parent, be pedantic and persistent with punctuation. There is no reason for sloppiness. Carelessness with comma splicing is worse than not knowing how to spell handkerchief or conscience. In about five hours of hands-on teaching and practice, you can see real dividends in terms of grades, and it’s the most simple way to secure a Level 3 or bump up to a Level 4.

Next time, a look at how you can use punctuation in practice, rather than me waxing lyrical about it.

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Precision: semi-colons

To some people, the semi-colon is a hideous creature. Poet Michael Rosen is one of those people. He says the semi-colon is “neither fish nor fowl”. He means it has no point, no purpose. It’s neither full stop nor comma.

Now, I disagree.

A semi-colon is a beautiful, beautiful mark. Perhaps it is the most beautiful of all the punctuation, if you ask me. It is a pivot. It’s a beautiful little balance that joins together, marrying sentences together like an efficient vicar.

Of course, at the base of it, it sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second.

Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants you to read something. It can add a little something (like when you want to put in additional thoughts) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read. Punctuation governs. It marshals. It is a busy little sheepdog rounding up all the crazy words that hang around a lexical field and makes them jump through hoops. It nips at their heels. It sends them in whatever direction you think they should go in.

Capiche?

Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

And the semi-colon has a beautiful purpose. Its purpose is to marry two ideas together. It reflects ideas. And it is beautiful. Make no mistake about that. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them.

A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder.

It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can check out the centuries-old arguments about the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.

Consider:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens. See how he uses the semi-colon to reflect the ideas from the first bit into the second? It’s perfect for comparing two things.

So… rules (because the semi-colon has them!)

  1. You must always ask yourself if you can replace it with a full stop. If you cannot, you need something else. It has a little bit of that full stop in it.
  2. You should also ask yourself if you want to connect the two main ideas in the two bits on either side. Could you use and or whereas? If you can, a semi-colon will be perfect.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to write a list in order to show that you can use them. It looks rubbish and never works.

And those are the rules. Simple, aren’t they?

Now, bearing in mind that As and A*s write beautifully-crafted and governed sentences, you can see why this piece of punctuation can contribute to over-all A*ness. It’s all about making those words do what you want them to do, and punctuation is a deft way of controlling them, like a sheepdog around sheep.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? ;)

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.