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Two things happened at work today which at the time seemed completely unrelated.

The first was an email I received from a colleague.

The message said: “Can you please pop in and see me when you have some spare time because I have something to give you.”

I sat there staring at the screen and wondered what this “something” might be. As it was the last working day before the Easter break I naturally assumed the most likely possibility was that it would be a food item – an Easter egg. I automatically felt guilty because for the first time ever I did not buy any Easter eggs to give out to my colleagues. I had nothing to exchange with her.

A voice in my head said “Get over it Marica.” I did.

A little while later I popped into my colleague’s office.

She looked up at me, smiled, leaned over into her bag, and pulled out a magazine.

Her Business magazine; April 2006 Issue“I thought you might like this,” she said as she placed in my hands the latest issue of Her Business magazine.

I was surprised.

A voice in my head was saying “How did she know I read this magazine?” so I asked her.

“I remembered you had mentioned the magazine in one of your blog postings. My husband had copies to give away at his work and I immediately thought of you. I knew you would love it,” she replied.

This woman is a very special person. She is so incredibly supportive and encouraging of me and everything I do. She has a heart of gold. I was so touched. I couldn’t wait to get home and have a read of my magazine. Oh yes, and I also walked away with a few brightly coloured foil wrapped chocolate eggs! They helped me to get through the long afternoon that followed.

The second thing that happened related to a document I was working on.

I was determined I was not leaving work until this document was finished and emailed to the person who was expecting it. I didn’t want it hanging over me all weekend. I need a break plus I have so many other things I want to be doing over my “long” weekend. I didn’t want to fit this in as well.

As the afternoon wore on our building slowly became deserted as people set off on their Easter break. There had been a relaxed atmosphere around our building all day. People couldn’t wait for their weekend to begin. Many people were taking advantage of the short week next week and were taking extra days annual leave to have an even longer break. I became acutely aware of an eerie silence that permeated the building as I continued to work.

By 5pm there were very few of us left. I had almost finished my document. I was very tired. For me it had been an incredibly long day. I wanted someone to look over my work before I emailed it. I was worried there may be some errors in it and I couldn’t stand that – it would not be very professional. I found someone to read through the document. I asked this person to look over the document just in case there was something glaringly obvious like a spelling mistake that I had not picked up.

She agreed to do this.

She picked up two mistakes.

Yes, there was the inevitable spelling mistake. Word did not recognise it as a spelling mistake because the word was spelt correctly but it was the incorrect spelling for this context. The other mistake was related to the way I had ordered the words in one of my sentences.

“You need to correct this split infinitive” said my colleague. I looked at her. I tried hard not to look as though I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“You have the word also in the wrong place,” she informed me.

“A split infinitive … what is this?” I wondered.

My colleague had indicated on the copy of my document I had handed her where the also needed to go. I corrected my mistake.

I kept thinking “Is there something wrong with me because I don’t know what a split infinitive is?”

I immediately jumped to the next thought “Who am I kidding; I can’t write. I don’t know all the ins and outs of English grammar. I have never learnt any of this stuff. Do I need to learn more about grammar?” The questions, the doubts, the insecurity at my ability to write in the English language all came rushing to the surface. They had been locked away and now the door had been opened and they had to make a rush for it before it closed again.

I flashed back to when I was 11 years old. We had a test in an English class on proverbs. This test was sprung on us out of the blue. I didn’t have an opportunity to prepare for it and I wasn’t surprised at my mark – a big fat ZERO! Have you ever experienced the feeling of getting your work handed back to you, and in the top right hand corner is a big 0 written in red pen? You feel so stupid.

I had never heard a single one of the proverbs we were asked to complete in this test. I did not live in a house where English was the spoken language. I would have received a completely different mark had the test been on proverbs in the Croatian language.

Now, here I am all these years later wondering if I know a lot more about this mysterious language known as English. All evening I have been struggling with the fact that I am an educator, a writer, a communicator, an academic, and a presenter yet I don’t know what a split infinitive is. I feel like a fraud.

I searched Google for advice; after all isn’t this what my learners would do?

I ended up on the Wikipedia entry for split infinitive. It said:

A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in the English language where a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, occurs between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of the verb.

This seemed like gobbledygook to me. I still didn’t know what a split infinitive was. Things were getting worse. I read on:

One famous example is from the television series Star Trek: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Here, the presence of the adverb boldly between the parts of the infinitive, to and go, creates a split infinitive. The construction can often be avoided by placing the intervening words after the verb or before the to marker: “to go boldly where no man has gone before” or “boldly to go where no man has gone before.” However, these two rephrasings do not have identical meanings — the former attaches the boldness to the manner of going, while the latter attaches the boldness to the complete act of going “where no man has gone before.”

Star Trek vintage toys from Mark Bergin Toys

At last a practical explanation. I could relate to this a bit more readily. Now I can see why my learners prefer the practical to the theory. Should we start in our learning programmes with the practical and then get our learners to question for themselves the how and why behind what they are doing? Does it matter if they don’t?” I believe that some of the deepest learning occurs when you are not focused on learning as such; it happens naturally as you go about trying to work out how to do something and do it well. I can think of so many things I can do today that I have acquired somehow through osmosis. I don’t know where and when I learnt it, or who taught me.

Sorry, I am digressing here. Now back to what I was saying about unexpected connections …

Finally, I managed to climb into my wonderfully comfortable bed and I decided to spend some time reading my Her Business magazine. One article in particular attracted my attention immediately Punctuation, spelling, and grammar – does anybody really care? And, if so, what’s his name? I’d like to meet him (Carla Heslop, Her Business, 66, April 2006, pages 62-63).

I can remember correcting my daughter’s first book report, Snow White and the Seven Dawfers … I mean how hard is it to spell dwafes, I mean dawrfs, or is it darfs? … “The teacher knows what I mean,” she said airily. Then she looked at me a trifle suspiciously and remarked, “I thought you said you went to university?” (If her teacher could work out what she meant, why couldn’t I?)

This was my first hint that people, teachers even, might not share my enthusiasm for correct spelling. I didn’t know it then, but it was a sign of even more shocking things to come …

There is a silent epidemic at work behind the scenes; a virus, travelling through the underbelly of society, quietly scoffing vowels, spaces, apostrophes, full-stops, and commas …

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to PunctuationIn these days of speed, economy and shorter sentences, we could even ask ourselves (as I’m sure txtrs do), is punctuation really important? Well, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves – The Zero Tolerance approach to Punctuation, thinks it is and so do some of the larger mammals. She tells us the following story (dramatised slightly) to make her point.

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots at the waiter. “Why?” gasps the waiter, “Why?” As the panda leaves, he tosses a badly punctuated wildlife manual to the waiter. “I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns ot the relevant entry and reads: Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

… The moral of this story is that punctuation is not merely for decoration nor, as some trendy types think, optional. The comma in that final sentence actually carries the meaning for the entire paragraph …

I was going to write abit about grammar but, does it really matter? As long as people no what I mean and Ive got the right number of punctuation mark’s. Thats what count’s.

Can you imagine what going through my mind as I read this?

I was definitely smiling. I got up out of bed as all these pieces connected with one another and I had to write about it.

As an aside I think I should send Carla Heslop my husband’s contact details because he is the man she is looking for. He also cares about punctuation, spelling and grammar to the point that it drives me insane. I ask him to read something and it comes back to me covered with pencil markings. I suddenly find I need semi-colons, commas etc. in my work. Whenever anyone asks him what he does for a living he says he works for the “punctuation police”. This is no joke. When someone leaves their team the standard gift that is given is a copy of the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Maybe I need to invest in a copy or shall I wait until he gets his when he leaves?

The written word has a long history behind it. Our use of the written word as a communication tool is changing. Language is a living thing and its existence is determined by those that use it. Why wouldn’t language evolve as we evolve and change? It would be sad if it didn’t.

We need to be able to communicate. The most important thing is that we communicate in a way that the message is clear to the intended audience and it is appropriate for the specific communication medium being used.

No doubt this posting is full of punctuation and grammatical errors. I certainly hope it has no spelling mistakes. I am not giving it to Lynsey to proof read. Hopefully, if there is something glaringly obvious he will let me know; he always has in the past. Errors aside; I had a story to tell. I hope you heard it and got something out of it.

Finally, I’d just like to do a plug for the Her Business magazine; for those women out there that may be able to access it. Annah Stretton has recently diversified and taken over this publication. Before you ask, no, I do not have any vested interest in this magazine. I really like what Annah is trying to do. I admire her determination to succeed in this venture, to be prepared to bring about change, and to take on the challenge of creating something that will be a valuable resource for women in business. I have read this magazine on and off for years as I have tried to gain the confidence to plunge into my own business. Maybe one day it will happen. If what I have seen in this current issue is any indication of where Annah would like to take this magazine I am already impressed. I am looking forward to reading the May issue.

Do something that scares you every day.
Annah Stretton

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One Response to “The role of punctuation, spelling, and grammar in life and learning”

  1. on 08 May 2009 at 1:04 am Naana Scott

    I really appreciate your effort. I hope i can do the same thing to improve on my punctuations,spellings and grammar.

    I will love to receive mails from you time to time to help me improve on my too.

    Thank you.

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