I was a bit perplexed this past week when a student submitted an assignment as a Word file, and the name of the file included parentheses in an unexpected way. Like this:
My first impulse was to ignore it. My second impulse was to tell the student to remove the parentheses. But fortunately I curtailed those two instincts and followed my third instinct, which was to ask the student (in a non-judgmental way) why he decided to use parentheses in his file name. It looked very odd to me, but I realized that for some reason it made sense to him, and I wanted to see it through his eyes.
He explained that he thought it’s the same as quotation marks. Again, I checked my first impulse, which was to fill the void with a direct correction like, “Oh, no. No, no. You have it all wrong….” Instead, I turned to the whole class and asked if anyone could explain the difference between parentheses and quotation marks. Among other things, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to give students a chance to practice explaining something that can seem very self-evident but not quite as straightforward as it seems.
It turned out that several students were in fact confused about the difference between parentheses and quotation marks. So I decided to take a brief detour away from the main lesson plan to further explore the difference between these two punctuation forms. It wasn’t that they’d never seen parentheses and quotation marks. They see both of them all the time in their reading. Yet confusion remained, and while using one instead of the other didn’t interfere directly with comprehension in this case, it was very marked. That is, it’s something a native English speaker notices immediately as odd and uncomfortable, especially in the detail-oriented world of law.
I started by clarifying that quotation marks have a different function from parentheses. I next asked the students, “When do we use quotation marks?” They quickly identified direct quotes as one use. And soon after they also mentioned titles of books or magazines as another use. Then some students discussed and explained how parentheses are used to add extra information in a way that separates it from the rest of the sentence. This led another student to point out how we use commas and dashes as well for similar purposes and further discussion of the nuanced differences in the use of each form. I realized that these represented mysteries that many of the students had never had occasion to ask or learn specifically about. Great! Problem solved. Everyone’s got it. Back to the lesson plan.
However, right after our discussion, another student was in front of the class giving a presentation about a JD student he had interviewed for a class assignment. On the screen he had a line that read:
I had an interview with JD student “Sean” about organization strategies.
Suddenly, I realized there was another use for quotation marks out there that I hadn’t previously considered. I interrupted the student and asked him why he decided to put quotes around the JD student’s name. He replied that he thought you’re supposed to put quotes around names when you introduce someone. None of the students seemed to be familiar with the implication of putting quotes around a name, so I had to explain to them in this situation that doing so conveys to the reader that Sean is likely not the real name of the JD student. (They seemed to find that idea rather entertaining, like they’d just discovered some secret trap door in the English language.)
Shortly after, in a brief discussion of noun clauses and a mention of the words who, what, where, when, why, a student used the term “w words” which prompted me to type on the screen:
Noticing again another use of quote marks, I stopped and quizzed my students. Why did I put quotes around the “w”? This led to a brief discussion of how we also use quotation marks to communicate to readers that whatever is contained within the quotes is to be treated as a generic object from a grammatical standpoint.
The rest of the class, and in subsequent classes since, while the substance has been law-related, there have continued to be opportunities to stop and ask why a quote or a parenthesis was used as we encountered them in different texts.
Thinking about it after class, I realized that this could serve as a nice example of how law and grammar teaching can be fused. That is, using noticing as a tool allows for opportunities to weave language and grammar teaching into the legal content.
Additionally, it’s also a reminder to me that given my own legal education and training, which included developing a necessary fear of minor errors in my writing, I have an impulse to cringe at and criticize similar errors in the writing of others that seem irrational. I’m talking about that voice in my head that sees the parentheses and thinks, “Oh, come on. You’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t believe I have to explain this.” This also combines with a default mentality that if I just raise the expectations and consequences–“Here’s a grammar website. Go figure it out and start doing it correctly.”–the student will somehow figure it out.
But while this approach may work with some native English speaking JD students, I think it generally doesn’t apply to language learners. Punctuation (as well as grammar) is unique to a language and culture, both of which change over time. There’s no Platonic ideal that exists for them. It’s all relative. And intrinsic to being a native speaker of a language is having the intuition to know what looks and sounds right. And that is precisely what our non-native English speaking LL.M. students lack and need guidance with.
So if you notice the opportunity and have the time to spare, a good first step is to understand why a student made a given language decision. And a good second step is to help them notice examples of when that language form is used, especially in comparison with similar forms that may be confusing.
You may not always know exactly where it will lead, and you may have to get comfortable with a phrase rarely uttered by law professors–“I don’t know.” But if you follow it with a phrase like, “Let’s look at some more examples and see,” then you’ll learn some interesting things along the way, and you’ll also help teach your students a critical thinking strategy they can use to help their own independent language learning in the future.