Thursday, March 13, 2008

Guest in Progress: Moira Rose Donohue

This weekend, I will be off at Writers at the Beach: Seaglass 2008, teaching and having fun, and will be back to blogging on Tuesday.

While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this fun essay from Moira Rose Donohue, children’s book author, who is devoted to fighting the good fight with regard to upholding the standards of punctuation.

Here’s the charming premise of her new book, PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE:

Elsie, an exclamation point, announces loudly that she’s sure she’ll win the school Punctuation Bee. After all, an exclamation point has won the last three years. But Penny, a period, and her friend, Quentin, a question mark, decide to practice and practice. More than anything, Penny wants to beat Elsie, who brags way too much!

The bee begins and one by one, the punctuation marks drop out. Finally, as the loudspeaker announces the end of the school day, only Quentin, Penny, and Elsie remain. It looks like a three-way tie. Then Quentin asks an important question that saves the day—for Penny!


When I told a friend recently that my second book, a humorous tale of animate punctuation marks, was coming out soon, he guffawed. "Well, we all have our delusions. But really, no one cares about punctuation any more." Naturally, my first reaction was that punched-in-the-gut feeling. My next reaction was to take him off my friend list! But of course I couldn't ignore his words. Was I writing about a totally lost skill?

I recognize that I am a word and language geek, and I love grammar and punctuation. I was the only person in my college to ever take Grammar 101 as an elective. Not only that, one of my most favorite assignments as a young government lawyer was researching whether Congress had repealed what was believed to be a long-standing banking law by virtue of a missing quotation mark (that case, by the way, ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court).* So, as you would expect, I can't give up easily on punctuation.

I also recognize that the rigorous grammar I was taught in school, complete with sentence diagramming, is not being taught in elementary schools. In fact, it's not being taught in high school or college either, so that those who are recent graduates of college and entering the teaching profession these days have been schooled in only the basics—parts of speech. The lack of education in the more complex rules of grammar does, in fact, diminish the ability to punctuate and to teach punctuation. After all, if you don't know what a dependent versus an independent clause is, you can't very well absorb the rules of punctuation that apply to separate them! Not only that, but the fact that so much communication takes place in the form of email, instant messaging and texting has made spelling, un42natly, somewhat irrelevant. So was my former friend right?

Then it hit me. Despite the move away from teaching grammar, despite the abbreviated language of texts and emails, kids and adults both still routinely use basic punctuation, and, in particular, the final punctuation marks—periods, question marks and exclamation points. Why? Precisely because of the abbreviated nature of modern communication. Phrases can be subject to many interpretations. For example: "My house @ 5" could mean, "Do you want to come to my house at 5?" or "I'll see you at my house at 5." or "Be at my house at 5 or else!" And the only way to know which meaning applies is to punctuate the phrase, to give it an emotional context. And that's when I realized that punctuation's not dead: it's more important than ever!

So what does that mean for teaching punctuation? Well, tying punctuation to the rules of grammar is impossible. Usage examples like those above can be helpful for older kids. But for those in elementary school learning the rudiments? I suggest my approach—animate punctuation marks with distinct personalities that match their function. Once you've met a question mark who is a newspaper reporter, or a cheerleading exclamation point, will you ever have trouble remembering how to use these marks? I don't think so. In fact, I'm sure of it! ~~ Moira Rose Donohue

About Moira Rose Donohue: I love tap dancing, old movies, opera and, OK, I'm a grammar and punctuation geek. In ALFIE THE APOSTROPHE, I first revealed the secret personalities of punctuation marks that only true lovers of punctuation like me know about. For example, did you know that question marks love riddles and jokes? And exclamation points? Cheerleaders! Perhaps you've already noticed that quotation marks are often filled with hot air.

One of the events that inspired my interest in punctuation happened when I was a young lawyer and had to research a question about a missing quotation mark in a very old banking law. Without the quotation mark, it looked like the law, which people thought had been around for almost 100 years, really didn't exist at all. The question ultimately had to be decided by the United States Supreme Court!*

I grew up in Bayside, Queens (NYC) and was educated at Mississippi University for Women ('75) (yes, NY to Mississippi was a culture shock!) and the University of Santa Clara School of Law ('78). Today I live in northern Virginia with my husband, Rob, also a lawyer; my son, Peter, an architecture student in NJ; my daughter, Rose, a high school senior and a percussionist; and my two dogs, Sniffles the pug and Quincy the Cavapoo.

Albert Whitman & Co took the plunge and published the quirky ALFIE in 2006. They are doing it again—PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE is now available! I've also published two children's plays, THE THREE BEARS VERSUS GOLDI LOCKS, available from Contemporary Drama Service, and AN ALPHABET STORY in Plays Magazine (November, 2002); several articles and stories; and a children's poem.

For more information, please visit Moira’s web site.

*Note: I asked about the outcome of this case, and this is what Moira emailed me: “Well, I guess I left out the decision because I really didn't like it. The Court decided that Congress had made a mistake and chose to repunctuate the 1918 statute so the law remained on the books.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.