My head is abuzz with phrases and clauses and (in)dependency. And other stuff I barely know the names of. (Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition? I have always wondered.) I have spent more time today than probably my entire life put together on learning the intricacies of comma usage. It all started at 9:30 PM after dinner, and now as it hits midnight, I am forcing myself to stop. Two and half hours later, my head is reeling, my pens look a little more worn out, and I can’t do much but hope that my students won’t swim in the barrage of more do’s and don’ts than I ever knew existed.
Whatever happened to the classic: The panda eats(,) shoots and leaves exercise? Wasn’t that all?
It all started on Wednesday. With exams coming up next week, I asked class 9 whether there was anything in particular they wanted to brush up before I throw a model board exam paper at them. Having dealt with the last three months of a heady cycle of descriptive/argumentative/narrative essays, they seemed fairly confident on that front, albeit with a slew of errors in syntax and capitals that was my problem to deal with. In that pause between the question and my getting up to erase the board and send them off, a boy meekly asked me the question. “Akka, could you teach us how to use commas?” “Sure,” I had told him. That would be the subject of the next class. It was Wednesday. Monday seemed aeons away. Plenty time to get my commas in place, I told myself.
Fast forward Sunday and I had brushed up a few exercises and such. I sat down with Google to check out a “couple of rules.” I mean, how many could there be really, right? After all, you use commas when a sentence looks weird without one. That is pretty much all. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fun fact for everyone who has never taught high school English, and everyone who never bothered to plough through Wren and Martin in your own high school classroom: There are TWELVE different rules that govern comma usage, and this was a “quick guide” I was referring to. Just saying.
And with that, I found myself staring at sentences like this one-
- Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.
Err. Ok then. Coordinate adjectives? Gulp. Also when was the last time anyone was asked what the difference between a clause and a phrase was? (It turns out phrases don’t have subjects and verbs, in case you were wondering. Kudos to anyone who still remembers these definitions!) For all of us who never sat and broke our heads over the nitty-gritties of these rules, how did we ever figure them out ourselves? Now more than ever, the human art of language acquisition is leaving me awestruck.
But coming back to commas.
If the clause (phrase? No, clause) is at the beginning, there is a comma. There isn’t a comma if it is at the end. (See what I did there?) Now why ever not? I can already hear the voices in my head. Akka, who made these rules? Akka, why? Akka, it is so confusing!
Tomorrow morning, I set out to explain how commas interact with independent clauses, and how those are different from infinitive clauses. I promise I won’t use those words. Really.
Tomorrow morning, I walk into the classroom armed with a long-sized notebook filled with notes in three different colours of ink (because how else does one make notes?) and a vow to have answers that are more explanatory than “just because.” Let us see how that one goes.