Students don’t even know what a grammatical sentence is – no wonder they can’t punctuate.

The idea of ‘grammar’ is useful, but confusing. It is confusing both because it means different things in different contexts, but also because, even in the same context, experts disagree as to what exactly it should mean (both points are true of many important words – in my experience, the most unhelpful people in many situations are those too rigid in their conception of their own language to recognise this).

In my writing I typically take grammar to have a very broad meaning, encompassing all of the possible structures, rules and conventions which make linguistic meaning possible. For those who complain about students ‘not knowing grammar’, though, the word is probably being used to refer to what linguists are more likely to call ‘syntax’. A narrower and more precise word than grammar, ‘syntax’ refers to the set of expectations which shape the way that words can be combined into bigger units. These expectations are often described as ‘rules’, which is a helpful starting point. When we break expectations radically, we do create structures which are so confusing that they seem to be somehow out of bounds – they ‘break the rules’ (though pretty much anything goes in some genres).

But it is important to understand that these are not rules in the sense of a settled and uncontroversial system which we are straight-forwardly and inevitably obliged to ‘obey’. Language is a socio-historic institution, meaning that its rules are constantly evolving – what was acceptable 100 years ago may seem wrong today, and vice versa, and, crucially, at any given point in history, there will be murkiness around exactly what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not.

From the point of view of syntax, a string of words is typically categorised as a sentence if it meets all four of the following conditions: first, it contains at least one finite (a verb, in most structures either ‘do’, ‘have’, or ‘be’, which serves to index the clause to the present moment); second, all of its elements are connected to each other following the various rules of syntax; third, no element is ‘missing’ some other element which is syntactically required, and, fourth, it is not connected syntactically to any other material. The following examples are not sentences in this sense, because they fail to meet the condition specified:

1. Attacking the opponents’ goal with ferocious determination!

(includes no finite)

2. I happy did

(does not follow typical word combination rules)

3. She put the watch

(misses a required element)

4. I made up with her and we went home

(connected syntactically with other material – in this case by the conjunction ‘and’)

Taking these rules on board, it does not take long to realise that the formation of sentences in speech is almost certainly not a good guide for writing. When people talk, they often tack together large numbers of clauses into what is, technically, a single grammatical unit – a ‘full sentence’ – but which bears little resemblance to the sentences of typically ‘good’ writing:

I think I did see her when the bell rang that time we were all late, and she was still working here, but now I think she’s gone back to the first place cos there was nothing here for her really, and she must have got tired of waiting for a chance, and I would have too, really, if it had been me.

This is a syntactic sentence as it meets the four conditions set out above: it has finites (“think”, “did” etc), all the clauses are joined onto others using legitimate syntactic connections, nothing is missing anything that it ‘needs’, and it is not part of a larger structure. You might think that this style of speech sounds ‘common’ or uneducated, and that this is a problem. Well, perhaps it does, and perhaps it is, but neither of these points, even if valid, has any bearing on it being a sentence or not.

Conversely, I have read one language curmudgeon claim of Enoch Powell, the very brilliant and very reactionary English politician, that he ‘only ever spoke in full sentences’. Assuming the definition offered above, this is almost certainly untrue. When Enoch was offered a cup of tea, did he never once say something like ‘Yes please’, or ‘Yes I would’ or ‘Yes I would rather, thank you’, or ‘No thank you’, or ‘Yes, but with milk please’? None of these are full sentences in the syntactic sense, and yet are quite evidently ordinary and perfectly clear usages of language. The idea that anyone does, or could ever, speak only in sentences is frighteningly, ambitiously clever, but ridiculously – in fact dangerously – muddled. A bit like Enoch Powell himself, in fact.  

As a result of these difficulties, some linguists refuse to even use the word ‘sentence’ with regard to speech, feeling that, for reasons of social prestige, is has been inappropriately imported from the world of written text. This can be confusing, so I prefer to refer to two types of sentence: orthographic sentences, which are the familiar written phenomena defined in terms of full stops and capital letters, and syntactic sentences – the idea we have been discussing of a complete syntactic unit. To keep things clear, we can also define a ‘good orthographic sentence’ as a written string that is generally considered acceptable in formal writing. Perhaps, then, with this clearer terminology, light may be shed on how grammar knowledge might help students avoid poor punctuation.

From the get-go, it’s worth saying that there has almost certainly never in the history of the language been a written text composed entirely of orthographic sentences which are each one and only one syntactic sentence. Even the most formal and precise of texts contain headings and titles, which usually lack finites. Still, it’s fair to say that people who say things like ‘students don’t know what a sentence is’ don’t have headings and bullet points in mind. The real problem, we are told, is that the body of young people’s prose contains failed sentences. The two outstanding examples of the sort of thing that people worry about are illustrated below:

1. Arriving late due to the fact that the bus was delayed. She had no chance to check her coat in.

2. I was going home, she was going out.

But compare these ‘bad’ examples to the following, which are generally taken as acceptable:

3. I arrived late. But it didn’t matter.

4. She was all over him like a bad rash; it was kind of cute, really.

Some readers are likely to be confused by 3, since the second orthographic sentence starts with a conjunction, and they remember being told that sentences should not do this – not ever. In fact, Standard English writing – sometimes even in formal texts – frequently includes initial conjunctions. The King James version of the Bible – one of the foundational texts of written Modern English – contains hundreds – if not thousands – of orthographic sentences of this kind (‘And God said, let there be light…’).

What these four examples demonstrate is actually rather startling: sometimes an orthographic sentence can be an incomplete syntactic sentence (as in 3) and it’s OK, but sometimes it’s not (as in 1). And sometimes an orthographic sentence can include two separate syntactic sentences (as in 4), and it’s OK, but sometimes it’s not (as in 2).

The issue, then, is not that those who struggle with punctuation don’t understand grammar (in the strict, syntactic sense). They – like all competent speakers of the language – know very well how to form syntactic structures which are meaningful, in both speech and writing. The thing that poor punctuators don’t know how to do is, unsurprisingly, use punctuation.  While good use of punctuation does indeed require – among other things – an implicit grasp of syntax, the relationship between a full syntactic sentence and a good orthographic one is far less straight forward than fulminating journalists and politicians are usually willing to admit.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that punctuation is less clear-cut than what is typically meant by ‘grammar’ – syntax. Syntax is reasonably mathematical: notwithstanding the murkiness referred to above, it’s generally possible to determine objectively whether all the right syntactic bits and pieces are in place or are not. It is for this reason, I suspect, that many commentators are drawn to syntax as a stick with which to beat both students and their teachers: it offers the illusion of certainty and control that appeals to a certain kind of mind.  But punctuation is in many situations simply a question of style,  and style is intolerably democratic.

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