Sunday, November 23, 2008

Focus on minor rules or meaning?

By Anthea Tillyer - City University of New York, USA

I am a little surprised by how concerned some teachers are about "comma splices". It seems to me that this is a tiny, tiny (and very insignificant) problem that second language writers have in English.

In fact, if my class of second language learners had this as their biggest problem when writing English, I would consider them (and me) a huge success and would take them out for a drink to celebrate.

I think this concern with "comma splices" is a typical example of teachers applying to second language writing rules that were applied to them (as first language learners). But the fact is that English is a MEANING-DRIVEN language and "comma splices" rarely interfere with meaning, especially when considered next to all the other problems that second language writers have trying to create clear meaning to their writing in English.

Another reason for the focus on comma splices by some teachers is that they are easy to teach about. They do not require any interaction with the students' ideas or writing. They are just rules. Some teachers feel much more comfortable teaching "rules" than actually dealing with meaning, ideas, and feelings.

Finally, I should point out that in the Englishes other than American, the use of the phrase "comma splice" is virtually unknown, and the reason for that is that other Englishes have no problem with sentences like

"He was not the president, he was the prime-minister."

Or this,

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness;" (Dickens).

In short, less worry about details of rules and more focus on meaning and clarity are in order. It is also useful to be less US-centric and more aware of other Englishes.


Anonymous said...

"When you get down to it, what an audience wants to hear from a novelist is how he writes". William Golding

Finally, the obvious truth!!!

...By the way, those very big, but insignificant "comma splices" were my ID.

Charles Nelson said...

I don't disagree, but what do you do when you have 1 sentence covering 1-2 pages?

Teacher Joe said...

In response to Charles Nelson: When students write long, undecipherable sentences, the focus still should be on communication. Encouraging students to break up sentences into smaller, more comprehensible chunks is part of getting them to think about meaning rather than rules. When my students share their work with other students, and their partner then has to summarize what they have read, we all find out very quickly what is comprehensible and what isn't.