Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Spacing around punctuation

For years, my students wrote their assignments on paper with a pen or pencil. These days, I ask that almost everything be submitted electronically. One upshot of this is that I've learned that students either don't know or don't care about spacing around punctuation marks. Many students--typically, they tend to be writers of non-roman scripts--put no space after sentence-final punctuation, commas, semi-colons, or colons. Others put a space before these marks. I've seen open parentheses with a trailing space but no leading space and the mirror image on the other end. When everything was written by hand, these inconsistencies weren't obvious, but now they're stark.

The thing that frustrates me is that use tends to be inconsistent. The same student will write period space here, but space period there. If it were simply transfer from the first language (Japanese and Chinese, for example don't employ spaces), then you'd expect it to be consistent. You'd also think it would be quite easy to overcome, but despite my best efforts, many students continue the behaviour. The message I get is that they simply don't care. While I fight against believing this, it does get disheartening. If they can't even learn to space correctly around punctuation (if I can't even figure out how to get them to do this), then why should I believe it will be different with other aspects of their language?


Randy Alexander said...

I encounter this all the time and think that the best way to approach the problem is the be extremely strict about it. Make them rewrite until it is perfect. Emphasize it ten times more than you are doing. Give them some websites where educated people post every day (like Language Log, or Metafilter) and ask them to find examples of where the rules are broken. They'll have a difficult time -- if they find any it will take them some searching. If they look hard enough, they will be increasing their ability to pay attention to these details which we as writers of English have come to take for granted.

Also emphasize that ignoring punctuation rules marks them as not quite literate. I bluntly tell my students "people will think you're stupid", they will lose chances applying for jobs. People will judge them (and their intelligence and education) by how they write. There are so many immigrants who have mastered writing, that coming from another country is not a viable excuse anymore.

Thomas said...

It’s spelled „inconsistencies.“

Q Higuchi said...

Even with more advanced students, there are endless problems. Should there be a single space or a double space, after a full stop?

Is it 'pp.35-40' or 'pp. 35-40'? "Vol.1' or 'Vol. 1'? 'Chomsky (2005:23)' or 'Chomsky (2005: 23)'?

And so on and on.Oops,I didn't mean to do that .

The Ridger, FCD said...

Those examples from Q Higuchi are simply style differences. You pick a style manual for them to follow (if you care) or you shrug it off (as long as they're consistent) - and either way you make them aware that various publications will use various styles.

Matthew Forrester said...

Teaching relatively advanced students (and being a perfectionist), I have found some ways to see improvement here.

Firstly and obviously, put it into the mark scheme for some graded assignments. This is the logical implication of Mr Alexander's comments. I give the second highest grade for "correct punctuation with typographical errors", and the highest grade for "correct punctation."

Secondly, give students a handout showing how to switch their computers to English keyboard and language settings. If they're fighting against Word's autocorrect in another script, then this is a lost cause.

Thirdly, use a problem-solving exercise in the classroom. I put a paragraph with spacing and punctuation mistakes on the screen, using word processing software (not Powerpoint). They have to find the mistakes in pairs, and usually can do so. Then I show them how to change these using the software.