A friend who teaches history at East Carolina University recently sent me a note that speaks poorly of the state of English instruction there. Here is the note, minus the identification of the instructor responsible.
Professor Michael A. Palmer
Department of English
I would like to bring to you a matter that might be of interest to you particularly now that you are at the same time interim chair of the English Department and a member of the History Department. Yesterday a bright and conscientious student come to me in my office to discuss a writing assignment in my course, HIST 1031. We went through a preliminary draft of her essay before the date of submission. As one might expect, there were several grammar, punctuation, and diction mistakes that we all try to help our students identify and correct. One issue was the repeated occurrence of “comma splices” (or “comma faults”), i.e., the erroneous connecting of two complete sentences with a comma. She believed, however, that this was entirely correct. She believed that two complete sentences did not have to be either joined with a semi-colon or made into a compound sentence joined by a conjunction with a comma. And she did not believe that as an alternative two sentences must be separated by a period. As you hardly need mentioned to you, a comma is not a period and does not function as a period. I tried to explain this, I believe, reasonably and patiently.
Almost all my students make comma-splices that need to be corrected. (For further if you wish, please see Strunk and White, fourth edition, pp. 5-6. The students in HIST 1031 have been instructed to use Strunk and White for grammar reference.)
This alone may not deserve your attention. But what may interest you is that, with dismay and frustration, my student explained to me that she had been told by her English composition “professor” that comma-splices are “now” entirely correct. She said that she had been assured that she was a “good writer.” She was therefore also understandably dismayed by the number of errors I identified for her. She left my office, again understandably, confused. How, she might have been wondering, could one instructor tell her she is right and another professor tell her she is wrong. Whom should she trust? Why shouldn¹t she trust her English “professor” first? Besides, she might think, since she had already been told by her English professor that she was a “good writer,” correction and dedication to the work of improvement was hardly necessary.
If my student¹s report — as yet not commented on or confirmed by her English composition instructor — is true, I would then wonder whether this is an example of the erosion of the teaching of basic writing skills in the Department of English in freshman composition courses that has been an increasing concern to many of us in the History Department. (If this report is correct, then what, one might wonder, is next from the English Department. Will an instructor in English composition tell students that it is “now” correct to start a sentence with the first letter in small case? ) At issue is not simply the integrity of commas and periods. At stake is the right of students to learn the basic and correct mechanics of expository writing during college. At stake is also the trust that students need to have in their teachers if they are going to be able to learn from them. When two teachers contradict each other to students, it understandably erodes the confidence of students and leaves them frustrated through no fault of their own. Ultimately, the ability to teach effectively and to teach that which is correct is undermined.
Of course, you may wish to confirm this issue yourself with the instructor who has been mentioned by the student. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication. In any case, we have a student who is confused about a most basic principle of English punctuation, not to mention about whom to trust. I myself shall photocopy relevant pages about comma-splices/comma faults from grammar manuals and from the usage sections of dictionaries and give them to her. Is there anything the English Department would like to do to address this issue and help this student as well? I hope you believe that it is appropriate that I bring this to your attention. I respectfully leave this matter to your independent judgment and in your hands to pursue in whatever manner you regard as appropriate. Thank you very much for your attention. With all best regards, Michael
Michael B. Gross, Ph.D.
Department of History
East Carolina University
The English instructor’s master’s thesis, incidentally, involves feminist analysis of video games.