What Did I Really Learn About Punctuation and Grammar at School?

The quick answer is: not a lot. But that doesn’t make for much of a blog post. I read a post earlier this morning about the semi-colon; it was a good read. But it got me thinking (this may turn into a rant-ish post), I could not remember being taught about semi-colons at school.

I went to school in Australia all the way through the 1980s. I had always thought Australia had an excellent school system and produced brilliant students. I may have been biased because I was one of those students, however, as I grew up I soon learnt the things I had been taught about grammar and punctuation were not the most informative.

At school I learnt about ‘doing words’, ‘things’, and a ‘proper names’. I was taught how to use a full stop, a capital letter, a comma, and speech marks. I don’t remember learning much else, and I don’t remember being taught the correct grammar terminology (verb, noun, proper noun).  It was like being taught a vagina is a hoo-haa or a front bottom.

Australia teaches in British English, but we were taught the American English punctuation for speech – double quotes for direct speech and single for quoting within dialogue –  British English is the other way around. I don’t know why this slipped through and can only assume it’s because the people who wrote the curriculum didn’t know, or the teachers  didn’t know and assumed it was that way for the whole world.

We were also told never to start a sentence with the words ‘and’ or ‘but’; though we were never told why. There is no reason because there is no grammar rule stating it cannot be done. ‘And’ and ‘but’ are perfectly fine words with which to start a sentence. Pick up a copy of Austen, or Dickens, or Brontë, or Melville, or – Heaven forbid –  the Bible; they all do it. Teachers simply didn’t want kids to write:

I went to the shop. And my friend Bob came with me. And then we went to play on the swings. But Bob did not want to. And then we went home. And mum cooked dinner.

If I try and look at it academically, I think the system was going for a more organic form of teaching rather than the previous generation of regimented desk beaters conjugating verbs. The only problem with that is it strips away the foundation of language. How can you use it well if you don’t know how it works or what to call parts of it?

When I moved up into high school, there was no further instruction on punctuation or grammar. Everyone assumed we had been taught it in primary school; we could write, after all. This was the time for facts and figures and learning how to not blow yourself up in science lab. Everyone muddled through, and I imagine our writing was horrendous.

It wasn’t until I started university and an archaeology professor shouted at me, ‘Always keep your subject with your verb!’, that a little light came on. No one had ever taught me that English has a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order.

I took a year of German and learnt more about English grammar than school ever taught me. I got through my degree and ended up with First Class Honours, but I knew my grammar and punctuation skills were still not up to scratch. When I decided several years later that I wanted to concentrate on creative writing rather than simply as a hobby, I had a lot to learn. So I taught myself with the help of some humorous grammar guides and New Hart’s Rules.

I can’t help but wonder whether my entire generation and those who came after me have such poor writing skills because we were never taught how the English language truly works.

In the 1980s, we were told Australia was ‘the clever country’. I have my doubts. It’s not just Australia. I live in England these days and find the same problems. I know people who have taken their children out of school to home school them because of what they were not learning.

What about you guys? Do you feel you had a well-rounded education in English punctuation and grammar? Do you think it was just the school I attended (which was also a  teaching school for student teachers)? What if you write English as a second language? I’ve had friends who speak English as a second language tell me it is a very easy language to learn structurally but vocabulary is sometimes confusing (think: there, their, they’re – to, two, too – by, bye, buy). Let’s start a discussion in the comments below.

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