Punctuation Confusion

Sometimes my son comes to me with questions on his homework.  “Sure, I can help,” I answer, convinced I can assist with a third grader’s assignment.  It’s a huge blow to my ego (not that I had a big one to begin with), but he had to explain what they were doing in math because I had no clue based on the paper I held in my hand. 

“Math isn’t my strong suit, anyway,” I rationalized.  “Besides, I still count on my fingers.”  Being numerically challenged, I’ve come up with all kinds of excuses.

All right, I’ve established I’m not a math whiz.  Bring on the writing questions.  Surely I can nail that, right?  Sadly, my eight-year old gave me the answer:  not quite.  I wrote out quiz questions for each chapter of his book.  In one sentence, he needed to write a list of three things:

“They would stare into space, cry or sob.”

The above sentence is how my teachers taught me when I went to school (I won’t tell you when that was, because that would make me, well, older than I care to acknowledge.)  In school, they instructed us that we did not have to put a comma before conjunctions (or, and, but). 

“They would stare into space, cry, or sob.”

My son put the comma before ‘or’, so I asked him about it.  He looked at me like I lost my mind and he informed me that “yes, you are supposed to put the comma before ‘or,’ ‘but,’ and ‘and.’

“Oh.  Okay, they changed that,” I had to admit.  “Do they still call them conjunctions?” I asked.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t they?”  I saw it in his eyes; the child who just yesterday thought I was so smart began to realize he’d been duped.  I imagine he will have the same look when he figures out Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. 

I don’t know who “they” are, but someone out there gets a kick out of changing punctuation rules.  I remember my own parents helping me with my homework; they were taught to put the commas before conjunctions (just like my son).  So, I’m making a prediction now that my grandchildren will be taught that the commas aren’t necessary.  I can confidently make this prediction because the rules seem to change for each generation.

The realization that I don’t have a clue about punctuation is a little disheartening because I want to be an author…and authors are supposed to know these things, right?  Yeesh.  I wonder what else I thought I knew, but it turns out I don’t? 

Oh, he wants me to quiz him on his spelling words tomorrow.  I’m terrific at spelling.  At least word spelling hasn’t changed…has it?

Have you noticed changes in grammar/punctuation rules?  Is there a rule that gives you nightmares?    (For instance, my hang-ups happen most often with that vs. which and who vs. whom.  Grammar Girl has to bail me out every time) 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Punctuation Confusion

  1. darksculptures September 16, 2010 / 5:29 AM

    Ouch, that strings. I remember each moment when both of my children realized they just might know more than I might.

    My grammar is horrible and punctuation rules do tend to change more rapidly than ever, so they are all a nightmare for me. It is the greatest source of stress for budding authors, which makes Grammar Girl a lifesaver. I’ll practically live at that web address when I begin editing my finished MS in February. It is obvious I’ll need her, because I wouldn’t have included the comma before the conjunction. Now if there were three items, I would have. Such as; In her drawer were green, blue, and red socks. But if the sentence was; In her drawer were blue and red socks I wouldn’t have. I think I read somewhere that blue and red would signify that the socks were blue and red and not that there were both blue, and red socks. Hence, the reason they have gone back to using it.

    Sad part of it all is that I now remember why they changed the rule, but until you brought it up, I would have completely forgotten it. I suppose that is why the editing process takes soooooo long.

    • jannatwrites September 16, 2010 / 10:58 PM

      Whew! I’m glad I’m not the only one (with the kids finding out about the real not-so-smart me and the punctuation struggles). Grammar Girl actually makes grammar fun. I would’ve loved to have her for a teacher in school! (No offense intended for the teachers that did get stuck with me).

      Good luck on your manuscript revisions 🙂

  2. chlost September 16, 2010 / 8:05 PM

    No, isn’t that the job of editors?

    • jannatwrites September 16, 2010 / 11:02 PM

      I think the standards have been raised because there is so much competition (for example, I recently submitted to a new agent who stated on her blog that she received 650 submissions in 2 days). With this much to choose from, the agents can afford to be very picky (less editing = less trench work for them = ability to take on more clients = greater commissions, and so on). Maybe I need to find a new dream 🙂

      • chlost September 18, 2010 / 3:38 PM

        It is so interesting that with all of the talk about how reading is decreasing, and books, magazines and newspapers are dying, that there are still so many people out there who have so much to write.

        • jannatwrites September 18, 2010 / 6:06 PM

          I’m wondering if the economy has something to do with it (many people out of work with nothing else to do). I don’t know…

  3. coffeepearlsgrace September 19, 2010 / 5:25 PM

    Sometimes I honestly wonder if all of the “rules” get in the way of the “writing.” I’m sure we’ll deal with dilemmas like this for quite some time since, as you say, “they” do change the rules so often. Don’t get discouraged; write on! This is my first visit to your blog; I like it. Thanks for sharing!

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