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John Buckley

My name is John Buckley and I am insecure about punctuation. There, I've said it! It is a secret, like alcoholism, that is difficult to acknowledge. Growing-up with 10/200 visual acuity, I struggled to read the words, let alone the punctuation marks. In my effort to see the text, I frequently ignored the punctuation. Try as I might, for example, I couldn't see the difference between a colon and a semicolon. As a result, I began teaching with an acceptable, but not professionally satisfactory, command of grammar and punctuation. Although I felt it was important, I was reluctant to mark papers for composition since I had no accessible way of checking a style manual.

If, at this point, you're thinking, "I don't teach English, so this doesn't have anything to do with me," I'd call your attention to the spread of the "writing across the curriculum" movement in colleges and universities. This is a recognition by college faculties that students in all disciplines are coming to college and graduating with inferior skills in composition. As a result, universities have begun requiring more, and more demanding, writing assignments outside of traditional English classes. Employers blame graduate and professional schools. Graduate schools blame undergraduate instruction, and undergraduate teachers blame high school and middle school. The bottom line is that we, regardless of what or at what level we teach, have a responsibility to teach our students to write effectively. Part of that responsibility is the proper use of grammar and punctuation.

In striving to do this, however, it has been almost impossible to get access to style manuals since they were virtually all in print, most of it small. A handful of sites on the Internet are, however, for the first time, now making it possible for anyone to get access to high-quality reference material about grammar, style, punctuation, and all of the nuts and bolts of composition that can intimidate and embarrass us.

"Punctuation Made Simple" at provides a clear, simple explanation of the logic behind punctuation and its importance that students in any grade could benefit from. The strength of the site is its focus on why punctuation is the way it is. The sections on colons, semicolons, commas, etc. provide readable descriptions of the purpose of these punctuation marks, several examples of correct and incorrect usage, and explanations of the examples. This would be suitable for middle-school students learning these distinctions as well as high-school or college students in need of a refresher. What is particularly appealing about this site is that it limits its focus to communicating two or three key ideas about each punctuation mark and doesn't attempt to inundate the reader.

To say that Jack Lynch's site,, is user friendly is an understatement. Lynch, a Professor of English at Rutgers, covers material that most of us regard as dull and tedious in a breezy, pragmatic way. He begins one section, for example: "There ain't a rule in the language what can't be broke. The so-called rules of English grammar And style were not spoken by a burning bush; they're just guidelines about what's likely to be effective. If you learn to treat them that way, you'll live a happier life." This site, as well as several others Lynch has posted throughout the Web, is a collection of grammatical rules and comments on style he has put together for his classes. As he acknowledges, the material on grammar is divided into two sections. The first treats grammatical rules, "matters of precedent rather than taste," while the second covers "more subjective suggestions for making your writing clearer, more forceful, and more graceful." The visitor to this site is left with the impression that, if you had only had Dr. Lynch for English, it would have been a whole lot more fun and you would have learned a whole lot more.

An increasing number of universities are attempting to institutionalize the type of service Lynch is providing by establishing Online Writing Labs. OWLs represent the efforts of college English Departments to extend their services campus wide and beyond by making them available on the Internet. They are places students can go to ask a question about a paper or get tutoring on composition. Purdue's OWL was one of the first and is still one of the best. The section on commas, for example, includes links to sections on "commas after introductions," "commas vs. semicolons in compound sentences," and "commas with essential and non-essential elements." This is material that will never be made into a movie, but it is well organized, easy to search and contains exercises with answer keys for most topics. In addition, the site allows anyone to sign up and "Receive weekly tips and updates from the Writing Lab." The site contains much more than can be covered here, both for teachers and students. Moreover, it is at a level suitable for a middle-school or high-school student learning the material for the first time or a college student in need of checking what they may have forgotten or are uncertain of.

If your questions are more complex (and there won't be many that can't be answered by the last two sites), you may want to look at the OWLs at the University of Wisconsin or the University of Illinois. The former site is, and the latter site is These sites cover all of the material on grammar, punctuation, and style that Lynch and Purdue treat in addition to detailed sections on writing research papers, taking essay exams, bibliographic citations, etc.

If none of these sources satisfies you, the 1916 edition of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, the editor's Holy Grail, is now available online. While time and custom have rendered some of the observations dated, this is still the classic that serious writers consult.

Of course, this does not guarantee that future issues of The Blind Teacher will be free from errors in grammar and punctuation. You will, however, be in a better position to catch them when they occur, whether here or in your classes. Punctuation, like alcoholism, is something we struggle with anew every day.

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