Rhetorical Punctuation and Emily Dickinson

A couple weeks ago, while my students were finishing one paper and just before I started the unit for the next paper, I decided to do a lesson on punctuation.

All of my students are fairly competent writers, but several of them have issues with short, choppy sentences, or with peppering their papers with commas, liberally sprinkling them everywhere as if to spice up what might otherwise be coherent, if dull, sentences.

I don’t teach grammar through rules or quizzes or activities that require students to “correct” incorrect sentences. I don’t think that’s useful because it just requires memorization, rather than a real understanding of the rhetorical affect produced by punctuation, syntax, etc.

Thanks to my Composition Pedagogies class at Oklahoma State University, taught by Ron Brooks and Trish McVaugh, I have a much more interesting and effective method to teach punctuation: rhetorical punctuation. (For more information on this topic, see Dawkins, John. “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool.” College Composition and Communication  46.4 (1995): 533-548.)

So, for this particular class, I put a poem by Emily Dickinson up on the overhead projector. I chose “Because I could not stop for Death” because of the primary use of dashes, and the presence of just one period. First, I read the poem aloud, then asked the students to take 15 minutes to write an analysis of the punctuation, in answer to the question “why do you think Dickinson made her punctuation choices?”   After the students wrote, I asked them to share some of their ideas.  Several of them suggested that the punctuation fit the topic–the dashes made the lines slower, broken, following her thoughts in the way that the carriage ride with Death meandered through Dickinson’s past life.  We discussed the period at the end of the first stanza at length (following the word “immortality”), debating what kind of meaning that added, as opposed to the dash that closes the poem, following “eternity.”

Then, I broke the class up into groups and asked them to revise the poem, with new punctuation. They had to keep all of the word choices without subtraction or addition. They could use any punctuation they liked, so long as they could justify their choice to the class.

I listened to them chat, wandering among the groups as they worked.  Soon, I realized that most of them were replacing the dashes with commas or periods so I interrupted:

“So, just a quick question. Are there more punctuation marks than just commas and periods?”

Silence, and then a student said, “Ohhh” as they all realized those were the only marks they were using.

“So, what are some of the other punctuation marks?”


“Question marks?” one student offered, placing an upward inflection on “mark” and making all of her classmates laugh.

“Exclamation points!!” another student exclaimed.

“Yes. Also, semi-colons, parentheses–”

“Brackets!” another student called out from the back. Things were heating up as their excitement rose.  Who knew punctuation could cause so much excitement?

Once the groups finished revising the poem, we came back together and discussed. Some of them just switched out dashes for periods or commas, with the daring semi-colon or two. My favorite choices, however, involved this revision:

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity – (original)
Since then (’tis Centuries ) and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity? (revision)
The best part, though, was that every group could explain the rhetorical affect of the changes. And they had fun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s