Punctuation is evolving too fast for curricula to keep up

Here’s the results most parents expect from a good English curriculum:

  • being a competent speller
  • being well read
  • being familiar with the five-paragraph paper
  • being conversant in the rules of grammar

But just forget all that. That English curriculum is cancelled.

We don’t need to teach spelling because we have autocorrect. I noticed all college applications advice specifically tells students they must use spellcheck. It’s expected. Which means good spelling without spellcheck is not necessary.

We don’t need kids to be well read because there is no agreement on what that means. The University of Chicago used to be the gatekeeper of the literary canon. To underline how irrelevant that canon is now, the University of Chicago has turned over their whole English department to studying Black literature. Which would mean, I guess, that most of us are no longer well read.

We don’t need to teach the five-paragraph paper because no one writes like that anymore. They are too long to be relevant online, they are inefficient stylistically when we have links to our sources. Moreover, I did not see one instance in the whole college testing and application process that required knowledge of a five-paragraph paper.

We don’t need to teach grammar because kids learn grammar from the books they read and the people they talk to. My mom would say people with whom they talk. But even as kids my brothers and I knew she sounded weird. Andrew Heisel says today’s fast-moving grammar is “a prescriptivist grammarian’s authority-free nightmare.”

If you want to teach your kids grammar, teach them to philosophize about grammar. For example, we’re in a Golden Age for the em dash. Which means you can throw it in everywhere like the ghost of Emily Dickinson. Or you can coddle the em dash like Noreen Malone: “Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

It’s a bad time for the ellipses which is in the same category as two spaces after a period: the mark of an old-timer. Grammar can age you as fast as a cheap photo editing app.

We’re at a turning point where the old uses of a single quotation are antiquated with the use of links as a way to show direct quotation. Heisel documents the demise of the quotation explaining that today singular quotes mark irony and emphasis rather than dialogue inside dialogue.

And, YouTubers, showing mastery of the spoken essay, use air quotes to undermine authenticity. So today quotations can convey both absolute authenticity and suspected inauthenticity, irony or doubt. Example: picture at the top is a friend’s daughter ‘walking her rabbit’.

The shift from handwriting to typing also influences what is acceptable punctuation.  One Millennial told Heisel: “It’s also one key-press cheaper for me to type a single as opposed to double-quotes (shift + quote key). I can also amortize the cost of the two key-presses out over longer phrases, which seems to justify the effort.”

Don’t go off about handwriting now. There’s no evidence that all kids should spend time to learn handwriting. And handwriting is such a non-issue today that colleges don’t even know which kids use typewriters for college exams because the kids can’t write by hand.

Also, Anne Trubek wrote a great piece about why great writers love to type. Typing “allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: we want more time to think.” That was a five-paragraph essay to me. In just one sentence. Try teaching your kids that.

13 replies
  1. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    This is accurate. Capitalization has also gone out the window in marketing materials. I wonder how long it will be before it’s gone from essays, etc.

    I’m old school. I still say “me, too” when I text. Handwriting may not be essential but it brings a certain quality of life. A note handwritten with love definitely has more of a person’s essence than a typed text or email. My grandmother used to write me a lot and I heard her voice (and accent) through her distinct script. I loved just seeing her handwriting.

    New era, new rules, new mentality and new culture. Let’s see how things look in ten years.

    Btw:. Tolstoy’s wife copied his novel, “War and Peace” I don’t know how many times. It’s my favorite novel, hands down. Imagine the self discipline to physically write that much. Almost no one these days wants to read that much! (Which makes me wonder what Obama was thinking when he wrote his volume 1 memoir in 800 pages.) “War and Peace” has been out of the canon for a long time and may never have officially been in it.

    This post should be read far and wide. People need to face the facts, but each family can still have their own standards. Freedom to choose your grammar preferences. Fragmented sentences like that are also acceptable now. Viva la preference!

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I was just thinking about War and Peace. It’s such a modern tome — in the sense that you can pull different parts out, and talk about that specific aspect in the same way that we link to one part of something to talk about it. I’m thinking Obama wrote his memoir the same way — thinking of it as a reference piece for future writing.

    We need more reference pieces, I think. So much of the internet today (see, no caps, I think that’s okay here :) is people cross referencing cross referenced pieces and we get new connections but not as many new ideas to connect.

    It’s hard to have a new idea. I always look in the comments section for those — so thanks for adding one today, Katarina.


  3. Terri Torrez
    Terri Torrez says:

    I totally agree, especially on handwriting. My son is dysgraphic. These days the only time people even notice is with math. (He uses LaTex so teachers sometimes think he’s copying from something.) I taught some grammar in 8th grade to try to improve the readability of his run-on sentences. Now he writes grammatically-correct sentences that are just as long. I guess he’s just a wordy kid.

    Our English curricula are generally – pick a topic, read books, discuss books, write research papers. Research and analytical thinking are more important skills than any of the ones you listed so that’s where we put our time. And I don’t think it matters what they read, as long as they read. One of the Ivies on our list encourages “an emphasis in the Classics” so we’ve tried to include a fair number of Western classics. But my kid actually likes things like The Iliad and Livy so we’d probably read a lot of that anyway.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My kids both have dysgraphia and they both have strong analytic skills. I wonder if it usually goes together. My initial thought was to make them write well because I love writing by hand. But when I saw how long it was going to take the cost-benefit analysis tipped way in favor ignore handwriting. I want you to know that my son is applying to colleges this year, and he’s not a perfect applicant, but his imperfections have nothing to do with poor handwriting. In fact, if I had to say the cause of his shortcomings as an applicant I’d probably say it was me sidetracking him from his interests because of my worries that we are “not doing school right.” Or should that be not doing school ‘right’. Yes the second is better. I’m learning!


      • Terri Torrez
        Terri Torrez says:

        We’re still learning too. After stressing both of us out beyond all bounds we decided to do 5 years of high school. So that we can jump through the college hoops and still study the things he enjoys at the pace he needs. We didn’t have to choose between Calculus and French and he actually remembered that he enjoys both. This year has already been slower even with SAT practice dragging out an extra 9 months. But now that we’ve jumped through most of the hoops, we’re both looking forward to the remaining 3 semesters and trying to narrow down all the things he still wants to learn.

      • Sue
        Sue says:

        I would love to see a post where you cover lessons learned while homeschooling. I’m homeschooling my 2nd grader because of covid, but he is thriving academically and we’ll likely continue even though I still haven’t figured out how to get work done without relying on roblox and minecraft. I came hear searching for your posts about video game research to ease my guilt.

  4. A. B.
    A. B. says:

    Spellcheck doesn’t always save you. Someone at my company left out the last “s” in “assess” in his first major Powerpoint presentation.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Something we learned from AP tests is that you get a 5 by doing a formula for the essays. So people who write the most cogent, well written essays don’t necessarily get 5’s. It’s not how the essays are graded. I don’t think I would have actually believed this unless I had a grader show me how they grade the essays. The graders need less than a minute to score an AP essay. It’s pretty impressive.


  5. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    1. Brilliant piece, so many great lines I need to copy out in my hand written Best Lines Album and pore over
    2. Is War And Piece out of the canon? That is news to me. I very happily devoured A Suitable Boy, too. Took me an entire summer holiday and many sighs from my husband
    3. Very witty piece in the New Yorker about middle aged selfies!
    4. I don’t agree with any of your statements but I love your contrariness, PT.

  6. CIndy
    CIndy says:

    Slightly off topic, but this post has me thinking about spoken grammar and class. It may be true that lot of “old school” writing and English rules have gone out the window and evolved. But, this makes people think that proper English and words don’t matter anymore. The way you speak will immediately typecast you.

    I’ve been a business owner for 11 years. I come in contact with a variety of people looking for work. I don’t need to meet them in person for the first interview. A resume has the power to impress me, but it is a piece of paper. Give me two minutes on the phone and I can tell a lot more about them. Grammar habits are very revealing.

    A great vocabulary always makes me think that person has a decent level of intelligence, no matter the level of schooling. I hear, “I seen”, and I know what the limits are.

    I do realize spoken grammar isn’t a problem for the people on this page. It is a problem for the people who may come to them looking for work. These days, it may be true that “anything goes”. It’s also true, that it can also hold you back.

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