The Challenges of Rule-Based Learning of the Comma Among Nigerian English Users

Cite this article as: Ama, J.A. & Azi, J.N. (2023). The Challenges of Rule-Based Learning of the Comma Among Nigerian English Users. Zamfara International Journal of Humanities, (2)3, 31-38. www.doi.org/10.36349/zamijoh.2023.v02i03.004.

The Challenges of Rule-Based Learning of the Comma Among Nigerian English Users

Jacob Ado Ama
Department of English Language,
Plateau State University, Bokkos, Plateau State, Nigeria


Joseph Nuhu Azi
Department of English Language,
Plateau State University, Bokkos, Plateau State, Nigeria


Learners of English in Nigeria hardly relate punctuation and meaning in written expressions or recognize the relationship between intonation and punctuation. There is a proliferation of incorrect use of punctuation marks, especially commas, among students and even graduates. The investigation therefore focuses on the use of the comma among students of the College of Education Gindiri. 40 students were interviewed and issued a questionnaire to find out why and how they use the comma. Data from the questionnaire and interviews were collected and analyzed. The investigation revealed that most of the students use the commas more in compliance with some kind of abstract rules than the need to enhance meaning. This explains why it is difficult for most students and graduates to correctly use the comma.  It is taught or used largely based on rules; as such learners don’t realize its creative application to enhance meaning. The researchers recommend that approaches to the teaching of punctuation should de-emphasize the rule approach and focus instead on its output. Function as regards clarity of expression and information should be emphasized not mechanical functions.

Keywords: Changes, Meaning Intonation, Punctuation Marks


Punctuation marks are not for the physical adornment of writings, they are for the enhancement of communication – they help you say what you want to say clearly (Colman, 37). It would be absurd that one will say two to three sentences without any break somewhere within. Sometimes one may observe a break because he/she is running out of breath, but that kind of break is virtually insignificant to successful communication unless it co-occurs with a grammatical pause. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between compelled reflex pause and intentional grammatical pause. Although punctuation applications may not be universal, every language uses pauses 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 indicate the presence of the comma – after all several other punctuation marks are indicated by a pause: the full stop, question mark, semi-colon, and colon – but it is the most common function of the comma people give when they are asked why they use the comma. That is also what VOA says. Some would say that the comma is needed to rest or take in a breath. Ellipsis or dash is the choice of some writers to indicate a non-grammatical pause (Curriculum Associates, LLC, 259; Eric’s Public Schools, 1; the University of Oxford Style Guide, 15).

The craft of writing to communicate especially emotions is quite complicated such that restricting ones’ self to popular punctuation rules would be a denial of communication rights and privileges. But of course, Truss has observed the complication in determining the best way to use the comma and hereby 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).

Rules are good but not all the time maximally effective. Decker separated the goal-based and rule-based organizational performance giving the advantages and disadvantages of both. He said, “A key attribution of the GBR (Goal-based regulation) approach is that it shifts the focus away from the detail of individual rules, which seek, in combination, to achieve a regulatory outcome, to the goal or outcome itself” (20). The impression is that an organization may not depend solely on one of the two rules but his conclusion appears to show that goal-based performance is more effective. He says it allows people to be innovative and enjoy freedom of interest (23). The punctuation marks are generally referred to as a set of rules so that most people have learnt to follow it without noticing its essence. And because there is minimal policing or no fear of sanction, they can always reduce the rules to their convenience without minding the possible miscommunication risks involved. Still, on organizational performance, Ruijer and Meijer (901) compare rules-based and principles-based approaches where they observed that “rules-based approaches are more commonly found in societies favouring bureaucracies, while principles-based approaches are more commonly found in societies characterized by strong and operative social controls”. Arjoon furthered that rule-based approach is tied to specific procedures centring on does and don’ts; it emphasizes enforcement and people are driven by fear and “blind obedience” (58). This notion seems alien in language study but its psychological experience cuts across every rule-dependent practice.

This research is concerned with establishing the likely causes of poor punctuation in the writings of most Nigerian tertiary students and graduates who for this research will be referred to as educated because they are expected to be capable of written communication. This is based on the general assumption that uneducated people always require the help of educated ones whenever there is a need for written communication. Students in primary and secondary schools are taught how to appropriately use punctuation marks but the application in their sentence constructions is a different level of challenge as they are still in the early stage of learning. Since non-native use of English is said to be affected by the mother tongue, this research will attempt to establish possible contributions of the mother tongue to punctuation errors. It is important to note that this work is not to teach the use of the comma but to observe its use by those believed to have learned.

Statement of the Problem

Punctuation is taught to help learners enhance their writing abilities. However, it appears that the perception of the importance of punctuation has always been wrongly perceived by the same learners. Even at the higher education level, learners tend to struggle with grasping the use of punctuation through the rule-based approach. The rules are seen as unnecessary and to some extent too complicated to follow, and that has negatively affected quick learning of the punctuation. The students of the College of Education, Gindiri have attested that they struggle to memorise the rules of punctuation and they do not know how to use most of the punctuation marks. This study therefore suggests a provision of an alternative way of teaching the use of the punctuation marks, which may not entirely remove the rule concept but would deemphasise it to project the function-based approach to learning the application of the punctuation marks.

Research Questions

The questions to be answered in this paper are:

i.        Why is the use of the comma a challenge in written expressions among Nigerians?

ii.      How possible can the mother tongue influence the use of punctuation?

iii.   What possible reasons could inspire the wrong placement of commas in a sentence?

iv.   How adequate or inadequate is the rule-based punctuation teaching method?

Literature Review

Definition and use of the punctuation marks

Stilman (53) says that Punctuation is of Latin origin meaning point. Therefore, punctuation marks point to the meaning of words in a sentence. As part of the observed functions, they define the relationship of sentence words so that meanings are clear, devoid of ambiguities or misinterpretations; and another is that they help to indicate tone. She says that the first function given is easily learnt but the second requires skills, such that a novice writer would have more difficulty using it. This in a way corresponds to Awad’s three functions of the punctuation marks which are phonetic, grammatical and semantic (213). With punctuation marks, readers can understand how phrases, sentences and paragraphs are connected. “It shows features of discourse like intonational contours, pauses, and emphasis.” The use of punctuation varies among dialects of the same language as well as languages that are culturally different (Alqinai, 3).

Punctuation marks are language “traffic signals” (VOA) which when correctly used, make text easier for readers to comprehend. Readers are guided as they read the text to ensure they get the intended information. When punctuations are misused, they can alter the meaning of a sentence and misinform the reader (Philippine Content Development, 1-2; Adorno, 300).

This is an example given by Truss (9);

A.    A woman without her man is nothing.

B.     A woman, without her man, is nothing.

C.     A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Sentence A is ambiguous; it can mean A or B to a knowledgeable speaker. In sentence B, a woman is nothing if she is without her man. It is more like suggesting that a woman is very unimportant unless she has her man. In C, a man is nothing without a woman. It emphasizes that a woman is very important, and a man is insignificant without her.

Uses of the comma

Javiein Bayraktar (5) describes the comma as “the most ubiquitous, elusive and discretionary of all stops”. The comma is used in many different ways:

i.        They mark out items in a list, before dialogue, mark out additional information, before the conjunction, and enclose parenthetical expressions (Writing Center).

ii.      They separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses (sentence parts) in a series (Writing Center).

iii.    They are used after an introductory dependent clause (a group of words before the subject of a sentence that does not form a complete sentence) (Writing Center).

iv.    They indicate that introductory words and phrases moved from the end of the sentence (Writing Center).

v.      They are used between independent clauses (complete sentences) joined by a coordinating conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (Writing Center).

vi.    They set off nonessential phrases or clauses (phrases that can be removed without changing the sentence’s overall meaning) or appositives (words or phrases that rename a noun) (Writing Center).

vii.  They separate paired adjectives that describe a noun (Writing Center).

Adorno says that “there is no element in which language resembles music than in the punctuation marks” and that “the comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence” (300), which is to say that punctuation marks add musicality to expressions. The pause duration indicated by the comma and the period may, however, not be differentiable because their difference is not that much a matter of duration.

The pause and the comma

The comma is mostly described as indicating a pause occurring within a sentence. To some, it is only a mark that must be used in writing. Colman says,

They write or type a line or two, then have a vague feeling that there should be some sort of mark to indicate some sort of pause. So they do the first thing they can think of. They put in a quick shapeless pen stroke, or tap the hyphen key, and presto! The thing is punctuated (39).

During speaking, air goes out of the lungs. Speech sounds produced by breathing in are rare. The lung is momentarily 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 can 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 assumption 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.

According to a publication of VOA (Voice of America), some have said that the comma has mainly been used to show a pause or to indicate a short stoppage or break (not for any grammatical consequence). But it is added that in more recent times, the comma serves a different purpose (VOA). But others say that to indicate an ungrammatical pause, a dash should be used.

Translation and punctuation marks

Punctuation marks are not used the same way in all languages. Alqinai sees a problem with the fact that conventional punctuation is not used by some languages in marking sentence boundaries. He says punctuation marks have 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 for imperative sentences (Truss, 111).

Mogahed writes that “Punctuation plays a vital role in the interpretation of certain text”. Especially in translation, he says that haphazard use of punctuation could result in misinformation and that differences exist between languages about punctuation (as he discovers between Arabic and English) (2). He says that the comma is not always useful in translated text as “norms of the target language do not require the use of a comma in the context” (12).

Awad, in his TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) research at An-Naja National University, discovers that the respondents were not able to use some punctuation marks correctly. The comma was the most difficult to use, and the main problem was the difference between English and Arabic Languages in using the comma (224).

In German, the application of punctuation cannot be based on one's understanding of English punctuation. The independent clause of time, for instance, is always set off by a comma as opposed to English where the comma is used mainly when the subordinate clause precedes the main clause (Vajda et al, 81). Vajda says, “For every instance where the use of some punctuation mark in English finds an exact parallel in Russia, there seem to be at least two others where a knowledge of English punctuation will interfere with the choice of the correct mark in Russia” (ix). He adds that the assumption that the English punctuation and the German punctuation are the same can cause confusion and embarrassment (x).

Methodology ­­

The researcher administered a test to 40 students of the College of Education, Gindiri, all of whom are believed to have completed their secondary school education to ascertain their competence in using the comma. They were asked to define the comma and identify its most important function. The researchers read some sentences showing different intonations, and the respondents were asked to punctuate the sentences based on the intonation used in the reading. Four sentences were given to be punctuated; and the same sentences, already punctuated, were given to be interpreted based on the punctuation. The data was collected and analyzed based on simple percentages. 87.5 per cent of the subjects showed a lack of appropriate and practical understanding of the use and functions of the comma.

Rule-based Use of the Punctuation Marks

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 where 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 makes 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 necessary for 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 (Robinson (2002); Awad, 217).

Adorno continues that punctuation places the writer in a predicament and that “the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible”. He says that the rules of punctuation are always “rigid and crude” and the writer cannot trust them even though he cannot ignore them as that will be a major problem in any written work (301). He buttresses how a writer could be caught between adhering to the rules or responding to subjective interest because the rules do not all the time correspond to the intention of the writer.

In the Oxford Style Manual, the punctuation section is introduced by the phrase “General Rule”, and it is supported by imperative statements (9):

“Use a pair of commas to surround a non-defining clause….”

“Do not use commas to surround a defining clause….”

“Use a comma between items in a list.”

Rules work in language the same as in other aspects of social activity – to protect users’ integrity and relationships. Many times people break rules trying to observe them. That seems to be the problem of language users. They try to observe punctuation even when they don’t understand it, and in the effort, they become victims of its misuse. For example;

Rule: Do not place a comma between a subject clause and a verb.

User: In my utterance, there is a pause after yesterday.

The problem that made me miss my flight yesterday, can still be blamed for my failing the interview.

There could always be a rest after yesterday either to take in a breath or because the speaker wants the hearer to grasp the idea in the subject clause before completing the information. The most common and memorable of the rules is that which says the comma should represent a pause. But recently, more rules have emerged and some seem to contradict this “golden rule”, and memorizing all the rules is difficult, especially for those who are not compelled to study them like most language experts are.

Trask says that poor punctuation makes life difficult for the reader. He says;

When we speak English, we have all sorts of things we can use to make our meaning clear: stress, intonation, rhythm, pauses –even if all else fails, repeating what we’ve said. When we write, however, we can’t use any of these devices, and the work that they do in speech must be almost entirely handled by punctuation (University of Sussex).

Results and Discussion of the Punctuation Test Administered to 40 People

The respondents were asked to Punctuate sentences a and b.

a.      Last Christmas we slaughtered a goat and my mother fried the meat and we ate

b.      Let’s eat grandma

70.5% used the comma in a. after goat and meat.75% used a comma in b. after eating. However, it was obvious that they did not notice the ambiguities if the comma was not used since they could not explain the differences when they were asked.

c – f were given without punctuation, and the respondents were asked to punctuate them according to the reading by the researcher. The researcher read the sentences using pauses and intonation to differentiate them.

c.       Last Christmas, we killed a goat and my mother, fried the meat and ate it.

d.     Last Christmas we killed a goat, and my mother fried the meat, and we ate.

e.      Let’s eat Grandma.

f.        Let’s eat, Grandma.

They were asked if there were meaning differences between the pairs of sentences c –f. 90% of the respondents said there were differences. To them, however, the difference was only in the occurrence of the pause, as only 10% could explain the semantic differences of either of the two pairs of sentences. The respondent’s common answer to why the comma is used in writing is that it indicates a pause and that the pause does not affect meaning.


The researcher explained the difference in the pairs of sentences and asked if their mother tongue could have affected their performances. The respondents explained that their mother tongue is partly responsible for their inability to notice the difference created by the comma. For example, a single group of words cannot represent the two meanings in Hausa. c and d would be translated as;

a.      Last Christmas, we slaughtered a goat and my mother fried the meat and we ate.

b.       Kristimatin da ya wuce mun yanka akuya da mamana, mun soya naman mun ci.

c.       Last Christmas we slaughtered a goat, and my mother fried the meat, and we ate.

d.      Kristimatin da ya wuce mun yanka akuya da mama na ta soya naman, mun ci.

The major difference is on the pronouns we and she which must be included in the Hausa. While some pronouns can be omitted in English, they are not so easily left out in Hausa. They help to clear the possible ambiguity that may be created.

In essence, the research reveals that generally, people use the comma without recognizing its potential to change or enhance meaning in expressions. Also, the respondent's understanding of the relationship between the comma and intonation is poor. Although they are aware of the pause, they are not quite aware of its intonational implication about meaning.

The respondents explained that the comma is inserted where readers would need to rest and take in a breath before they continue reading or talking. If this is their idea, it means that they could insert the comma only when they feel the sentence is getting too long to be read without a break. Punctuations of this nature are produced because the rule is not explained. Examine the sentence below.

The doctor that was sacked two weeks ago, has come to take the rest of his stuff out of the offices.

Since the readers may express difficulty sustaining their breath from the beginning to the end of the above sentence, the writer in obedience to the punctuation rule places a comma after ago where some rest may be required. It is important to highlight that the comma will be used to indicate a pause only necessitated by the importance of intonation, thereby illuminating the corresponding usage of punctuation in written and spoken expression.


Learners should be made to understand the details about the use of the comma. They should be shown how misplacement or omission of the comma can affect communication as seen in sentences c., d., e., and f. above.

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 through appropriate use of punctuation marks (40-80).

a.      I am asking a question.

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

c.       I want to break up a long sentence.

d.     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. 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.

For example, take the rule “The comma should be used to separate items in a list” and ask “What happens if a comma is not used? The list will be muddled up. In some cases, it won’t be clear if the list is a single item or different items. For instance, I use green orange and blue colours for my decorations. This statement would possibly suggest that the speaker uses unripe orange and different shades of blue for the decoration. But if the comma is used to separate the list of words as in  I love green, orange, and blue colours, it will easily be noticed that the speaker is referring to green colour, orange colour and blue colour. It is now clear that green does not modify orange, and blue does not modify colours. With an explanation such as this, learners can easily remember to use the comma because they understand the danger of omitting it. They won’t be struggling to obey a rule they can’t explain.


Misuse of the comma is a common problem with an uncommon solution highlighted in this research. This paper reemphasizes the importance of punctuation in written communication; that improper punctuation could result in misinformation. It has revealed that to a large extent, students may not be entirely blamed for their inadequate use of the comma because they learn it mainly as a rule they need to follow rather than a need to help them better communicate their intentions. Teaching punctuation as a set of rules is a problem in developing good writing skills. Another cause of the problem is the failure to clarify the fact that the mother tongue can affect the learning and use of punctuation. Transliteration has become normal so long as the information is passed. The last of the problems is the common belief that the comma is mainly used to indicate pause in utterances. More research should be done to find better ways of learning the use of punctuation. The focus should move from rule and fear of its violation to expected result.

Works Cited

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Arjoon, Surendra. “Striking a Balance between Rules and Principle-based Approaches for Effective governance: A risks-bases Approach”. Journal of Business Ethics, 68, pp. 53-82, 2006.

Awad, Ahmed. “The Most Common Punctuation Errors Made by the English and the TEFL Majors at An-Najah National University”. An-Naja Univ. J. Res. (Humanities), Vol. 26(1), 2012.

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Colman, Ruth. The Briefest English Grammar and Punctuation Guide Ever. University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Australia, 2011.

Curriculum Associates, LLC. “Lesson 10: Punctuation to Indicate a Pause or Break”. www.grammarly.com

Decker, Christopher. “Goal-based and Rule-based Approaches to Regulation”. BEIS Research Paper Number 8, 2018.

Erie’s Public Schools – Writing Curriculum Draft. “Use Punctuation to Indicate a Pause or Break”. 2014.

Kirkman, John. Punctuation Matters. Fourth edition, Routledge, 2006.

Mogahed, M. Mogahed. “Punctuation Marks Make a Difference in Translation: practical examples”. Research Gate, 2012.

Ruijer, Erna and Albert Meijer. National Transparency Rejime: Rules or Principles? A Comparative Analysis of The United States and The Netherlands, International Journal of Administration. vol 39: 11, pp. 895-908, 2016.

Stilman, Anne. Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation and, Spelling, Style, Usage and Grammar. Writer’s Digest Books, 1997.

Straus, Jane. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, 10th 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.

University of Oxford Style Guide, 2014.

Vajda, Edward et al. Rusian Punctuation and Related Symbols: A Guide for English speakers. Bloomington Indiana, 2004.

VOA, Take a Breath with comma. VOA Learning English, www.voanews.com, March 30, 2017.

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