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I’ve Got a Semicolon~ and I’m Not Afraid to Use It!

My wife~ my mother~ and a handful of very close friends could all attest that I am rarely heard to utter the sentence~ I am impressed. Its not that Im some kind of pessimist; quite the contrary~ hope springs eternal with me. The world at large~ however~ dashes my hopes more often than Id like to admit. I have all kinds of wild expectations that keep me from being impressed. I want politicians to tell the truth the first time~ I want the drive-thru people to put food in the bag they hand me~ I want the person who said~ Ill call you back with that information this afternoon~ to call me back with that informationbefore my death! I suppose~ If I am honest~ I think the bar is set a little low just about everywhere~ making it terribly hard for me to feel impressed. And when Im not impressed~ I never pretend to be. Its a rule I adhere to without exception.

A good friend asked the other day~ What impresses you~ Steven~ really? And without blinking I responded~ People who use semicolons correctly. I hadnt even realized that was going to come out of my mouth~ but there it was. Sometimes its great fun when you surprise yourself. Upon reflection~ Im not one bit sorry I said it. In fact~ I will now add to that statement that if you know what a conjunctive adverb is and how to use it correctly (hint: a semicolon is involved)~ I might remove someone from my Five Favorite Friends list and use you as a replacement. Of course~ at the crux of this entire matter if my deep concern that we may have an entire generation of young people who dont know how to write; in other words~ (guess what grammatical construct I just used back there?) they dont have any decent command of written English. I realize it is unfair to lump an entire generation together; it could be that there are a great many who will go on to study English at Cambridge~ but I seem to constantly run into the ones who cant tell a preposition from a pronoun~ and whose idea of a big decision during the writing process is how to end a sentence.

I admit to being greatly concerned over low standards just about everywhere~ but I am especially concerned about it in the field of education. What defies belief even further is the notion that no matter how gently we go about pointing out the writing deficiencies of others~ we are in the wrong for having done so. Personally~ Im tired of hand-holding people who appear~ on the outside at least~ to be adults. Sometimes there is simply no nice way to say~ Your writing makes no sense and is fraught with so many mechanical errors that I mistook for a work of a second grader whos taking a wide range of medications each day at noon.

Im going to be bold right now and put out there what Ive been holding back fro far too long. So here it is. I think teachers should be extremely competent writers. I think it should be expected of them~ I think it should be demanded of them~ and I think if theyre notand they know itthey should take whatever steps necessary to fix it. I think the standards for kindergarten teachers writing ability should be on par with those of high school English teachers. If youre a literacy coach~ the bar is even higher. If youre a principallook outmy expectation of you is off the charts. All kinds of unflattering commentary may now commence about me~ but I dont care. I dont want to hear the excuses; I just want the bar raised without exception.

Its fair to say that our command of written English falls to some degree to the competence and dedication of our former teachers and professors; their instruction coupled with our work ethic (or lack thereof) is the basic equation that results in the way we write today. Im curious~ though~ what happens when we discover that they failed us~ or we failed us~ or the combination of us and them produced a less-than-stellar writerthe writer we see when we look in the mirror. I cant tell you how many times I have had to share the unpleasant news with a preservice teacher that he or she has produced a text that has nearly led me to a quadruple bypass. I have then frequently been told~ I cant believe that. All my papers in high school said A. Nice Job. Sadly~ in some cases the students have brought in their high school papersclearly marked just as they indicatedwhich means either that no one ever read them~ or that no one who is a competent writer ever read them. And now guess whos the bad guy for speaking the truth?

More disturbing yet~ some of these folks dont want to hear the truthand Im not just talking about undergraduates anymore. Im talking about anyone. Ive tried to improve the writing of all kinds of teachers and administrators~ restaurant managers~ grocery store supervisors~ various and sundry of people at all levels of the airline industryonly to discover my popularity dwindling as sons as I broach the subject. No matter ho delicately you try to sweeten up the news~ youre a villain if you constructively criticize their writing~ youre an old timer if you worry about their mechanics~ and youre out of touch if you try to explain that a strong command of the written word can actually be influential and garner the respect of others. Theyre doing just fine buying used kars from the lot down the street with the misspelled sign~ texting a friend Ill c u tomorrow and assuming its acceptable to write it that way as well~ and providing all future work in a simple sentence format to avoid detection by those of us who might notice errors that are certain to surface when their sentences advance beyond seven words.

And since I cant change the world~ I am forced to take com for in the little things. At least the semicolon key is still included on the newest version of the iPhonefor those of us who know how~ whenand where to use it.
This essay is excerpted~ with publisher permission~ from Lifes Literacy Lessons~ by Steven L. Layne (Stenhouse Publishers~ 2013). The bookretails for $15 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site. Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science~ social studies~ the arts~ and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics~ including classroom management~ assessment~ and differentiation.