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Does It Really Matter Where I Put the Comma?

Two Fairfax Teachers Take a Stand for Punctuation.

By Kathleen Schenker and Yvonne Surette

Recently a student told us his science teacher said when writing lab reports they were “not to worry about grammar or anything like that.” She wasn’t interested in whether the commas, semicolons and colons were in the right place; only the scientific data mattered. After promptly swooning and being revived with smelling salts and a strong tisane (herbal tea for those who are not fans of Victorian literature), we quickly assured ourselves that the student was not enrolled in the high school where we teach.

However, we decided to take another look at the pesky problems of punctuation and grammar, and whether only English teachers should concern themselves with what seems to be a dying art. For example, can scientific data be accurately communicated without correct punctuation?  

Our first thought was that punctuation is, of course, next to cleanliness, which is, of course, next to godliness. The Internet abounds with examples of incorrectly punctuated passages that might lead to humorous or even disastrous results (for instance, on a cover of a magazine for pet lovers, readers were informed that chef Rachael Ray loves cooking her family and her dog). But does any of this have relevance to our overworked high school student trying to avoid having to proofread his lab report so he has more time to study his German irregular verbs?

Our answer is an unqualified yes!—and most particularly in school subjects that require the most precision. English teachers expect, no, we demand, clarity. Shouldn’t subjects such as science and math insist on this even more? How can the presentation of data in math and science be done well without clarity in writing? In fact, shouldn’t every subject, in this age where “critical thinking” is one of the goals of the schools, require correct grammar?

As much as teachers need to improve their students’ critical thinking skills and prepare them for college, we must also prepare them for the real world (why academia is not the real world puzzles us) where commas count. A 2009 United Nations conference on combating global warming resulted in a lengthy debate because one comma, “the contentious comma” according to one website, allowed both sides to interpret the text to their advantage. One comma can change the meaning of any sentence, any text. Science, that most precise of disciplines, should strive continually for accuracy, not leaving texts open to differing interpretations.

Even the United States Supreme Court has faced cases where the meanings in statutes were open to varying interpretations because of one or two comma inaccuracies. In United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises (1989), the 5-4 decision was based solely on the placement of a comma: That’s how important to textual meaning they are. 

Several years ago, our proofreading skills were sought out by two different people with doctorates, one in chemistry and one in pharmacology. One was applying for approval on a product to be deposited in toilets to neutralize harmful chemicals. The other was writing an article on the amount of veterinary chemicals that leach into soil when pig manure is applied as a fertilizer. We were able to offer a number of suggestions, which made the writing much more comprehensible and readable, although we never understood the chemical formulas they were writing about. As English teachers, we were completely unable to resist the alliterative potential, so we bestowed the sobriquet of Princesses of Poop upon ourselves and gratefully accepted the organic vegetables from one of their gardens—grown, we hope, without porcine end products. More importantly, we appreciate that these two very intelligent people recognized that their work would not receive the critical approbation necessary were it submitted without the necessary changes, and we feel confident that now they extol the virtues of a well-placed comma to all of their students.

In the 1990s, a very effective movement called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) promoted the idea that writing helps students reason more effectively, process information better, and express their ideas more clearly. WAC was implemented at many colleges, helping students become better scientists, mathematicians and writers.

What happened in the high schools? For a brief golden age, WAC seemed to be becoming a fixture there, as well. However, No Child Left Behind brought about its demise, even though the teaching of writing as the way to skillful and critical thinking is more important than ever. WAC’s principles make clear that:

• Writing is an important tool for learning and discovery, as well as for conveying what has been learned and discovered

• Students gain proficiency as writers when they have frequent opportunities to write in courses across the curriculum, addressing a range of audiences and practicing the genres typical of their majors and the workplaces they will enter.

• In other words, students will learn their material and be able to communicate what they have learned when they have the maximum opportunity to write. When they write frequently, students will absorb and internalize their subjects.

Even when our Standards of Learning don’t specifically call for it, many Virginia teachers still require writing in their classrooms. These teachers recognize the value writing offers, and they’re aware of college expectations which can only be met by requiring their students to write often and precisely while giving full attention to punctuation. Universities currently find that more students must be placed in remedial writing classes before they can enter regular college classes. It’s clear that all high school subjects, including English, need to step up writing instruction.

President Obama recently announced the launch of a new Master Teacher Corps to develop – with one billion dollars in funding – 10,000 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) educators over the next four years. While that move is necessary and laudable, we think there is something missing. As English teachers, they think they know a way for STEM educators to help students acquire the reasoning and higher-level thinking needed to be competent in science and math:  Teach the kids to write.

Schenker and Surette are members of the Fairfax Education Association and English teachers at South Lakes High School.


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