Dash It! We're All Trussed Up: Eating, Shooting, and Blogging

Taking our previous analogies for punctuation, what happens when it isn’t used? Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead…. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without there is no reliable way of communiating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. —Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & LeavesDash It! We’re All Trussed Up: Eating, Shooting, and Blogging (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

When I first taught this book in Intro to Literary Study last year, some student responses were negative. Truss adopts an insider tone, preaching to a choir of fellow “sticklers.” I worried that, since many of my students already feel inadequate about their punctuation skills, perhaps they felt that Truss was mocking them — and that, through my selection of a book, I, too was mocking them.

There are other books that speak more directly to a young American audience, but I liked this book so much I wanted to give it another try.

On Monday, when I introduced the students to the book, I gave a little speech about the importance of punctuation, and noted that it’s not their fault that they’ve gotten this far without being forced to learn it. I tried to reassure them that I understood this was new and challenging material, and I reassured them that even if they don’t know all the rules explicitly, they’ve developed an intuitive sense of punctuation. So most of the rules will simply codify knowledge that they already know on somelevel.

Still, I pointed out that if SHU were to graduate English majors who can’t punctuate, then I’m not doing my job.

As students blogged about their reading, Elyse paid me a high compliment when she asked, “Does this NOT remind you of Professor Jerz?” Amanda and Denamarie said they had steeled themselves to hate the book, but they found themselves pleasantly surprised. Andy said the book “does an excellent job of making ‘boring material’ (no offense) something fun and interesting.”

Kevin even made a paper badge that said “U.S. Punctuation Patrol” and wore it to class. Erin and Sarah both said they wanted to keep reading, and Amanda actually did keep reading.

A few students reported feeling paranoid about punctuation mistakes they might make on their blogs. That led to a discussion of formal and informal writing rules, and my expectation that a blog is somewhere between formal and informal. I’m pleased to stand by and observe as they notice their own proofreading skills sharpening. Nobody has ever accused me of a lack of enthusiasm, but I think I was even more enthusiastic than usual when I related the release of endorphins in the brain when one catches a punctuation error to the rush that one gets when besting one’s own score in a race or finishing a really good book. I said something like, “If you’re an athlete and you beat your own record, you feel a little rush of pleasure because your DNA is telling you that you’ve just done something that’s likely going to increase your chances of survival and making it more likely you’ll pass on your genes to your future children. If you feel that same little rush of pleasure when you catch a punctuation mark or finish a really good book, that’s your cells telling you that the literary skills you’re developing in this class are making you more likely to be successful in the world.”

Somewhere in there I managed to co-opt the lizard-brain hunting instinct (as opposed to the lizard brain-hunting instinct) and connect it to proofreading. I saw heads nodding, so I think it went pretty well.

Now I wish I had given them more chapters of Truss to read back-to-back. As I said, last time I got a bit of resistance when I introduced this book, so when I put the schedule together this year I figured I’d give them some time to absorb the first part of the book, and I’d gradually start increasing my expectations in the area of accurate punctuation. Now I worry it might be harder to restore the momentum, since Truss was hilarious in the introduction, but the body of the book doesn’t sustain quite that level.

I tried to shift the last part of class time to a discussion of their literary criticism papers, but coming down off of that punctuation speech, it was a bumpy ride. I ended up letting them go early.