Common Core Standards: ELA
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.
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.