Attack of the semicolons!

A biology prof strives to teach his students English usage, too.

I have been teaching college biology for many years, and I like to think of myself as a “complete” teacher. In other words, I correct not only my students’ work on DNA and the cell, but their writing as well. 

I have to admit that this slows me down tremendously, because the errors are legion – spelling, syntax, word choices, grammar.... It is as if their writing universe is being sucked into some vast, spinning black hole, spitting out only disconnected fragments at the other end.

The teaching life would be so much easier if I simply focused on the biology and forgot about the language used to convey it, but I can’t: I was schooled in an age when “correct English” was a matter of life and death.

I am reminded of Barry Levinson’s wonderful film “Avalon,” in which a little boy, played by Elijah Wood, asks his matronly long-suffering teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” Her response: “You can, but you may not.” The child doesn’t get the message and winds up – plop! – in the principal’s office.

Yes, I complain, but I must also take ownership for some of the worst work of my students.

Trying to win the war of correct English usage is the labor of Sisyphus and would drive me over the edge. So I choose one battle at a time. For example, a few weeks back I received a paper with the following sentences: “The enzyme reacted strongly. It made the solution turn blue.” I don’t know what got into me, but I made what I thought was a benign suggestion that the student use a semicolon after “strongly.” “It will tie these two ideas together,” I counseled. I then issued one of my special grammar bulletins to the class about the correct use of the semicolon.

It was like lighting a fuse on whatever high explosive lurks in the heart of punctuation.

In a trice, I was the recipient of an avalanche of semicolons. Here is a representative paragraph from a student whose name I have already forgotten: “I put the enzyme in the test tube; it didn’t do anything for a little while; but then it started to react; and I saw that the solution was turning a different color; I’d say it was blue; but my partner said more greenish; so I guess we’ll say; blue-green.”

Like the captain of an out-of-control ship, I issued an emergency order for all engines to be thrown into reverse. Managing a weak smile, I took a few minutes to talk to my class, pointing out that the semicolon is like a live round, or a poisonous plant, and must be treated with respect.

They nodded their understanding, and their next papers saw an ebb in the number of semicolons, but still too many. Introducing them to the semicolon was like adding snails to a home aquarium – once in, they’re impossible to get rid of.

Such is my influence that when I received my teacher evaluations after the end of the course, one specimen warmed me by virtue of its earnestness, to wit: “Professor Klose was a great teacher; he was; in a word; my favorite; I thank him; for showing me how to use the semicolon.”

You’re welcome.

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