The Academic Circle of Life & Excellent Usage of Commas

by Laura Yeager

There is a great circle of life that occurs at the university.

Years ago, when I was in graduate school at Iowa State University, I was studying with Jane Smiley.  I had won a fellowship (The Pearl Hogrefe Creative Writing Fellowship) for my first year of study; to finance my second year of school, I was given a teaching assistantship.  Essentially, in addition to taking classes I taught two college writing classes.

Jane was also my thesis advisor, so she read all of my writing.  She noticed that I did not know the rules for punctuating restrictive and non-restrictive elements.  She told me that if I didn’t learn the rules, they might have to take away my teaching assistantship.  (I think she really wanted me to understand grammar, and she thought it was important that all of the teaching assistants be versed in proper punctuation.)

Immediately after she told me this, I began to weep.

Not used to a 23-year-old woman crying like a baby in her office, Jane got a little flustered.

“Oh, Laura, don’t worry.  I’ll help you learn the rules.  We won’t take away your assistantship.”

During her lunch hours, Jane typed up restrictive/non-restrictive punctuation handouts.  She typed these on her old manual typewriter, the kind with the keys that are very hard to press.  Klunk, klunk, klunk.  Jane typed away, creating example sentences for me to punctuate.

commassavelivesThe most memorable two examples were these: “The man who robbed the bank was arrested.” vs.  “Bill Smith, who robbed the bank, was arrested.”  In the first instance, “who robbed the bank” is restrictive, and therefore, the sentence should not be punctuated with commas.  In the second example, “who robbed the bank” is non-restrictive, and therefore, should be set off with commas.

These two examples made the rules clear for me.

Example after example, drill after drill, Jane Smiley taught me punctuation.

Over the weeks, her lessons sunk in. During this time, Jane showed great kindness in holding me by the hand and leading me into the world of the more obscure punctuation rules.  I am forever grateful to her for this.

Flash forward thirty years.

I’m now teaching writing at Kent State University.  I have a class of very poor comma users.  None of them uses commas correctly.  They don’t even know the basic comma rules (rules for introductory phrase commas and rules for commas between two independent clauses joined by a conjunction), never mind the ones for restrictive/non-restrictive clauses.

Well, the first thing I do is what Jane did to me: I threaten them.

“You will not get ‘As’ if you do not know how to use commas.”  (My threat isn’t as harsh as hers was, but it gets the point across.)

In short, on the first paper, students earns mostly grades of B-.

They are disgruntled until I tell them that I will personally take them by the hand and teach them these comma rules just like Jane Smiley did for me.

I tell them the whole story about my university days where I almost got kicked out of school over a couple commas.

The great circle of life at the university.  Now I was the teacher, and they were the students, who needed a lot of help.

I set to work typing out comma handouts.  I used sentences from their papers as examples of what not to do.  We went sentence by sentence, trial and error, until they got it.

And they did get it.  By the second paper, there were very few comma mistakes.

At this point, we could move on to higher level topics such as transition usage and how to write good topic sentences.

The circle of life does exist at the university.  We start out “babies” needing help with everything, and we grow into adults, who then assist the kids in their needs.

I am proud and honored to be a part of this circle.

Long may it live.

P.S.  Professors, what is the deeper moral of this tale?  Never underestimate the power of a good threat or a properly placed comma.

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