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Why Learners of English as a Second Language (ESL) Face Punctuation Problems

Punctuation problems


To explain punctuation problems, Truss says;

Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: "Why did you have a comma in the sentence, 'After dinner, the men went into the living-room'?" And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. "This particular comma," Thurber explained, "was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up." Why the problem? Why the scope for such differences of opinion? Aren't there rules for the comma, just as there are rules for the apostrophe? Well, yes; but you will be entertained to discover that there is a significant complication in the case of the comma (70).

Punctuation marks may be used as adornment for styles of writing, but they do not adorn the physical letters or words used – they enhance communication; people are able to say what they intend if they properly use the punctuation marks. Sometimes people observe a break between words because they run out of breath, that kind of break does not always contribute to successful communication, unless it occurs where ordinarily a punctuation mark like the comma and the full-stop would be used. Therefore it is important to distinguish between compelled reflex pause and intentional grammatical pause. Although punctuation application may not be universal, every language uses pause between or within sentences for some grammatical purposes no matter how fast users of the language may speak. Pause is not the only way to indication the presence of the comma – after all, several other punctuation marks are indicated by a pause in the spoken form – but it is the most common indicator, or reason people give when they are asked why they use the comma. Very little is said about why the pause is observed. This is how punctuation becomes Problem for learners of English as a Second Language.

Translation and the punctuation marks

Punctuation marks are not used the same way in all languages. Alqinai sees a problem with the fact that the conventional punctuation is not used by some languages in marking sentence boundaries. Punctuation has rules that are “prescribed as conventional ‘good practice’ and they vary from one language to another”. For instance, “the quotation marks used to enclose direct quotation in English are not used by the French who use either a dash at the opening of a quotation or angle brackets to surround it” (3); and the Greeks use the semicolon mark for imperative sentences (Truss, 111).

Rule-based teaching of punctuation is a problem


Rule-based teaching of punctuation as contributes to punctuation problems for ESLs

On her acknowledgement page, Truss says “Thanks are due to the many writers on punctuation who did all the hard work of formulating the clear rules I have doubtless muddied in this book” (ix). Because Jane sees the uses of punctuation marks as rules, she itemizes the functions as rule 1, rule 2 etc. (52). It is, however, true that the rules are meant to emphasize proper grammaticality of language use, like in Jane’s rule 1 of the use of comma; she says “to avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more”. She has stated, by the use of to avoid confusion that although punctuation marks are rules, they do not require mindless abidance, but that observing the rule will make better communication.

Users seem not to understand that the comma can be used largely based on their projected outcome. They, most often, think that they should judiciously follow the rule, which causes them to have difficulty knowing whether or not a comma is needful in certain sentences. Based on this rule-based teaching, a writer is an offender only because he fails to abide by the set writing rule, not because the absence of the comma matters in the communication. Punctuation rules are important but not necessarily significant. Learners and teachers should acquire the attitude and skill to use punctuation because rules are easily forgotten.

Why Learners Find the Comma Difficult to Use

These problems happen in the sub-consciousness of the individuals that they do not even realize it’s happening.

Rules are not friends

The punctuation marks are often taught as rules that must be followed, like “you must not use the comma at …..; i.e. the rule-based approach is often used. People are generally not comfortable if they have to be remote-controlled by rules, especially those who always feel they could always do things their way; but even if that is not the case, people prefer to understand reason why they have to do something. The idea that one is always been watched discourages them from giving in their best and would always have to quarrel with their superiors.

Rules are easily forgotten

Rules have to be memorized; and because in themselves, they are not efficient ways to achieve a good goal, people tend to forget them. A few that may stick may not be remembered when they are needed. Only the fear of sanction would always remind people that a rule is in place to prohibit or prescribe certain activity. Those who don’t give a damn about sanctions will therefore have nothing to do with rules and would not be interested in memorizing them. That is how ESL speakers respond to the use of the comma. Since they learn to use them based on rules, they forget the rules most times when they write. They could read a sentence over and over again, and still not notice the presence of ambiguity or misinformation.

Mother tongue interference

Mother tongue interference is a cause of punctuation problems. It, however, most commonly associated with word pronunciation - the instant indicator of non-native English speaking. It refers to the situation whereby a speaker of English as second or first language uses non-English speech sounds to pronounce English words, make grammatical constructions that are imitations of their mother tongue, or use tone and intonation from his or her mother tongue in speaking English. Because all languages are not punctuated the same way, such person tends to find the English punctuation process difficult to learn. So when he/she writes, they are not conscious of the fact that the meaning of the English sentence may be altered if the punctuation is faulty.

The common understanding that the Comma is the same thing as a pause

It is common knowledge that the comma is mainly associated with pause within a sentence. During speaking, air only goes out of the lungs. The lung is momentary refilled with air during which a speaker will pause before resuming a conversation. It is not all the time that the pause comes at the end of a sentence. However, a tactful speaker tries to break strategically so that a long utterance is not chopped up into some bits of uncoordinated utterances. The pause could come within a complex or compound sentence, between clauses and phrases, not because it contributes to the meaning of the long sentence, but because the speaker may need sufficient air to control intonation within or at the end of a tone phrase. It could also occur only because the speaker is unable to sustain his or her breath to the end of the utterance. Not everybody is able to sustain his or her breath through a long sentence, so the pause is sometimes not intended as part of the utterance. Therefore not all pauses are indicators of punctuation marks (like a comma). Sentences like the ones below are based on the belief that a comma is equal to a pause.

We will pray, because we need God to help us.

That I am a soldier, is not to say that I love to kill.

Therefore, this is one reason why learners of English as second language face punctuation problems.


Colman has attempted an approach that is not rule based as she has used the writer’s voice to indicate his or her desire to achieve good written communication (40-80).

I am asking a question.

I want to insert an extra thought into a sentence to make it clearer.

I want to break up a long sentence.

I want to shout, blow my sack, say something astonishing.

This is good because the writer is aware that words are not more important than the marks placed around them; that a sentence without proper punctuation is like trying to wear beads without the string that will hold them together. Learners should understand that their native languages may not be like English in terms of punctuation. So they have to master the languages according to their unique demands.


Straus, Jane. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, tenth edition, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2008.

Trask, Larry . why learn to punctuate. University of Sussex, 1997. m.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/why

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance to Punctuation. Gotham Books, 2003.