I asked them to punctuate the paragraph pictured above, a dear john letter. They focused on the task and most of them came up with:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?
When I told them that with different punctuation, this love letter could turn into a hate letter, they didn’t believe me at first but they were intrigued enough to work to solve it. This version was a bit harder for them to figure out:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
They were thrilled and amazed that the very same words could be transformed so radically with just a few periods and commas. We also looked at the Oxford comma (see image at end of post) and “Woman without her man is nothing” (Woman, without her, man is nothing.)
Many of them went home and tried the letter out on their parents and siblings. One student said she was pretty surprised that both her parents definitely saw the hate letter, but didn’t see the love letter. I let that go by with an interested nod.
“I always hated grammar,” one student said, “but this is kinda fun.” I’m still not sure I have motivated them to use punctuation correctly, but at the very least I think my students are beginning to realize that instead of dry, purposeless exercises, grammar and punctuation are ways for them to exert more control over meaning.