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Common Core Standards: ELA

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language CCRA.L.2

2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Text-speak and Internet abbreviations have done more to kill this generation’s practice of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling than anything else, unless it’s being forced to eat their peas. But these three elements of English grammar are every bit as important as using the right homophone or making sure all the verbs match in tense.

Example 1

Sample Activities for Use in Class

1. Punctuation. The overwhelming majority of punctuation mistakes in the English language involve the comma, that little tadpole-like critter that hangs off the bottom of certain words. Ask the average college- or career-goer what the rules are when using commas, and most will offer some version of the “rule” that commas “should be put in wherever you would normally breathe in a sentence.”

...Close, but totally wrong.

In fact, the comma’s main purposes are to join two complete sentences, to set off objects in a series, and to indicate when certain information in the sentence needs to be set off from other information in the sentence. This explanation makes even less sense to most people than the comma itself. The following examples should help clear things up.

Commas That Connect Two Complete Sentences

A complete sentence = subject + verb + object (optional). If more than one of these groups appears in a sentence, the sentence needs a comma plus a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, yet). For example:

Subject + verb +object 1: Mary lost her umbrella.
Subject + verb + object 2: She borrowed one from me.

1 + 2, with a comma and a conjunction: Mary lost her umbrella, so she borrowed one from me.

Remember: if you’re connecting two complete sentences with a comma, always use both a comma AND a conjunction. If you don’t want to use a conjunction, replace the comma with a semicolon.

Have students make up their own simple sentences, then connect them with a comma and an appropriate coordinating conjunction. Or, have students create simple sentences, then pass them to another student to be connected.

Commas in a Series

Compared to the other uses of commas, this one is pretty easy. When you have three or more things in a list, a comma goes after each one to separate it from the others. For example:

Jose and I went to the store to buy pineapple, jam, bread, pudding, and peas.

Without any commas at all, this sentence gets confusing very quickly:

Jose and I went to the store to buy pineapple jam bread pudding and peas.

Without commas, it sounds like you and Jose went to the store to buy two things: (1) peas, and (2) some mysterious not-at-all-yummy-sounding product called “pineapple jam bread pudding.” Maybe you did, in which all the commas can stay out. Or maybe you and Jose bought pineapple jam, bread pudding, and peas. It’s the commas that make the difference.

Have students make lists of their own, then give other students the chance to insert commas into the list. Because different arrangements of commas produce different results (see the examples here), the results can be hilarious as well as instructive.

Setting Off Information in a Sentence

Unlike the writers of the Declaration of Independence, not all information in a sentence is created equal. To insert throw-away information, you could introduce it by writing “by the way” before you put it in - if this wouldn’t clutter up your page and confuse your reader. Luckily, commas can do the same heavy lifting without confusing or annoying your audience. Observe:

My grandmother, who is eighty, owns 1,012 porcelain cats.

In this sentence, “who is eighty” is the “by the way” information. you could take it out and have a sentence that reads “My grandmother owns 1,012 porcelain cats” and it would make just as much sense (except to the person who has to dust all the cats, but that person will never understand why your grandmother has so many porcelain cats in the first place). According to this sentence, you are talking about one grandmother, who is eighty, and who has 1,012 porcelain cats.

On the other hand, suppose that the sentence had no commas at all:

My grandmother who is eighty owns 1,012 porcelain cats.

Now, instead of being an “oh, by the way” moment (what Shakespeare would call an “aside”), the phrase “who is eighty” provides a crucial bit of information as to which grandmother we’re talking about. Because the sentence identifies the eighty-year-old grandmother as the owner of the 1,012 porcelain cats, it implies that you have another grandmother as well, one who is not eighty and who, presumably, collects something way cooler than porcelain cats.

Students can practice using commas in this way by writing simple sentences, then trading with another student and filling in “oh, by the way” information, with proper commas, about the subject of each sentence.

(Fun trivia: unlike written works, sheet music does occasionally contain a comma that does tell the reader where to breathe. Because the rules of comma use aren’t confusing enough as it is.)

Capitalization and Spelling

Luckily, capitalization is a great deal easier than punctuation. Unluckily, spelling is a great deal harder.

Capitalize the first letter in a sentence and the first letter in a proper name, unless the proper name belongs to someone who routinely leaves out the capital letters (like e.e. cummings, bell hooks, or k.d. lang). It’s really that simple. Oh, and never type in all caps when sending an email. It looks like you’re shouting.

As a student exercise, remove all the capital letters from a passage of text, then have students re-insert them. Bonus points to students who know better than to capitalize “bell hooks.”

Standard English spelling, however, is a Catch-22: there are standardized spellings (the “right” way to spell) for every word, but there are precious few rules for English spellings. Students may learn a great deal, however, from reading the following poem by Jerrold H. Zar (available from the English Spelling Society, englishspellingsociety.org) and replacing the words the spell-checker did not catch with their standard English counterparts:

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it's weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o'er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker's
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we're lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault's with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word's fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw's are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Jerrold H. Zar.

Quiz 1 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. How would you put these three sentences together, using commas correctly, to make one sentence?

     I have one sister.                                                                                                                                                                                                  She is five years old.                                                                                                                                                                                          She swallowed a marble.

    Correct Answer:

    My sister, who is five, swallowed a marble.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Without commas, the phrase “who is five” is restrictive; it indicates that the sister the speaker refers to is the five-year-old, as opposed to the twenty-year old.
    • (e) - Here, “who is five” is additional information about the sister, not a primary identification of her. Removing it from the sentence does not change the sentence’s meaning, but it does offer less information about the speaker’s sister. *correct answer

  2. Your roommate sends you to the store. You know you need to buy six different things, but your roommate hasn’t bothered to put a single comma in your grocery list. Which of the following lists, commas included, is the one your roommate meant to give you?

    Correct Answer:

    salad, tomato, banana, cream pie, spaghetti, squash

    Answer Explanation:

    This list is the only one with six items.

  3. Which of these sentences has correct punctuation?

    Correct Answer:

    Nigel tried to knock on the castle door, but the lion-shaped door knocker bit his hand.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (c) - “Nigel tried to knock on the castle door” and “The lion-shaped door knocker bit his hand” are two separate independent clauses. Therefore, they must be connected by both a comma and a coordinating conjunction (“but”). *correct answer 
    • (e) - A semicolon attached to independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. “Bit his hand” is not an independent clause.

  4. One of the underlined words in the following sentences is spelled incorrectly. Which one?

    Correct Answer:

    When I saw the enormous blue ribbon she won, I exclaimed, “Congradulations!”

    Answer Explanation:

    “Congratulations” is spelled with a t, not a d. Remember: if you got a D, you wouldn’t deserve congratulations.

  5. In the following sentences, which underlined word should be replaced with the word in bold that follows each sentence?

    Correct Answer:

    The 500-year-old church still has its original marble alter. altar

    Answer Explanation:

    An “altar” is the flat surface used in religious rites. To “alter” is to change.

  6. On your first day as an English teacher, you ask the students to write down one “fun fact” about themselves. Looking over their papers, you realize you’re going to have to do a lesson on spelling. Which of the following five sentences is the only one in which every word is spelled correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    I want to be a professional glassblower, but my mom says I’ll wind up doing nuclear reactor maintenance just like my dad.”

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - “Refuse” and “definitely”
    • (b) - “to” and “equipment”
    • (c) - “height”
    • (d) - “millennium”
    • (e) - *correct answer

  7. Which of the following sentences shows how to use a semicolon correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    My little brother is always running off when we go to the zoo; I never know which animal I’ll find him tormenting next.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This uses a colon correctly, but a semicolon not at all.
    • (b) - Two complete sentences joined with a semicolon and no coordinating conjunction: just right. *correct answer 
    • (c) - There should be no punctuation before “and” at all.
    • (d) - Should be a comma with “but” or a semicolon without “but.”
    • (e) - Simple series take commas, not semicolons. use semicolons for series in which a comma appears within one or more elements in the series.

  8. In the sentence “stacey and i knew our parents would never approve, but we bought plane tickets and went to las vegas, nevada for our spring break,” which of the following words does NOT need to start with a capital letter?

    Correct Answer:


    Answer Explanation:

    It’s not a proper noun, so no capitalization is necessary.

  9. Which of the following is NOT a rule for using capital letters in standard written English?

    Correct Answer:

    It is always better to write a word in all capital letters than it is to use bold, italics, or an underline to emphasize the word.

    Answer Explanation:

    Writing in all caps usually comes across as yelling when it’s done online, and it’s unprofessional in any setting.

  10. Which of the following sentences uses quotation marks correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    Bill said, “I don’t know where to buy a goldfish, but I bet I can look it up online.”

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Quotation marks should only be used for direct quotes. *correct answer 
    • (b) - Quotation marks should not be used around summaries of another person’s words.
    • (c) - Neither of these words needs quotation marks.
    • (d) - The quotation marks should encompass the entire phrase “Apple’s 2 for a dollar,” not just “2” and “dollar.”
    • (e) - Same problems as (c) above.

Quiz 2 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. In the following sentences, which underlined word is spelled incorrectly?

    Correct Answer:

    She always says one thing but does another, and I’m getting really sick of her hippocracy.

    Answer Explanation:

    “Hypocrisy.” A “hippocracy” would be a government by horses or possibly hippopotamuses.

  2. Which of the following sentences conveys the same idea as “Some college students do not write well. These students need to take the remedial class”, and also uses commas correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    College students who do not write well need to take the remedial class.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - The commas here indicate that the phrase “who do not write well” applies to all college students, but it should refer only to those who don’t write well, not to those who can write well.
    • (e) - Here, “college students who do not write well” is a subgroup of college students, and is the group that needs to take the remedial class. * correct answer

  3. Which of the following sentences uses an apostrophe correctly to show ownership?

    Correct Answer:

    I had already finished Katie’s hair, and it was fabulous.

    Answer Explanation:

    (The other examples all have errors related to apostrophe-usage; they either slip an apostrophe in when there shouldn’t be one, or omit them altogether. This sentence is the only one that uses the apostrophe correctly. Remember that contractions use apostrophes, too! For instance, sentence A has the word “didn’t,” which is a contraction of “did not.” This question, however, is asking you to find an apostrophe that shows ownership.

  4. Which of the following sentences uses quotation marks correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    “Let’s go to that shop over there,” said Steve, pointing across the street. “Their sign says they have fresh fruit too.”

    Answer Explanation:

    Quotation marks should be used to show ownership.

  5. Yesterday, while raking leaves for your neighbor Mrs. Smith, you found a rare orchid. Today, you want to tell your biology teacher, Mr. Johnson, about the orchid. Which sentence correctly expresses what you want to say?

    Correct Answer:

    Mr. Johnson, my neighbor has a rare orchid in the front lawn.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This sentence indicates Mr. Johnson is your neighbor, not Mrs. Smith.
    • (c) - The comma indicates that “Mr. Johnson” is a form of address and that the neighbor is the one with the orchid. *correct answer
    • (e) - The second comma is unnecessary.

  6. Which of the underlined words in the following sentences is spelled correctly?

    Correct Answer:

    Since Bill has never beaten me at anything, for him to get a better Spanish grade than I have would just be weird.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - “pronunciation”
    • (b) - “supercede”
    • (c) - *correct answer
    • (d) - “cemetery”
    • (e) - “library”

  7. The underlined words in the following sentences are all spelled correctly, but which ones are used incorrectly?

    Correct Answer:

    Whenever I’m tie-dying a T-shirt, the smell makes me cough like I’m dyeing.

    Answer Explanation:

    “Dying” is to run out of life; “dyeing” is to make something a different color - not the other way round.

  8. At a dinner party you’re attending, the host announces loudly that he’s going to fire his butler immediately. Which of the following sentences uses the correct punctuation to explain why?

    Correct Answer:

    The butler called the guests names

    Answer Explanation:

    Without the apostrophe, the sentence says that the butler insulted the guests, not that he called them by name.

  9. Which of the following sentences expresses the same meaning as “a clever dog knows who the dog’s master is”?

    Correct Answer:

    A clever dog knows its master.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - “Its” is possessive, meaning the master of the dog. *correct answer
    • (b) - “It’s” = “it is.” This dog knows the dog, not the master, is in charge.

  10. Which of the following sentences contains NO spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or usage errors?

    Correct Answer:

    Then I decided I couldn’t stand to miss any party if my crush was there.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - “aloud” should be “allowed,” and there should be a comma before “so”
    • (b) - “a lot” is two words, and there should be a period or semicolon after “street.” “Gina” should be capitalized.
    • (c) - Needs quotation marks.
    • (d) - *correct answer
    • (e) - No comma, because “ran down to the end of the block” is not an independent clause.

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