Activity: Grammar as Meaning in ‘Dear John’ Letters

Students are often intimidated by grammar because they’re led to believe it’s a case of ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Some students get so caught up in if they’re using a comma correctly that they miss the point of using one, while others avoid using commas at all because they don’t know how to ‘do it right.’ I find it much easier to encourage students to view grammar in terms of meaning, not correctness, and the ‘Dear John’ letter provides the perfect way to initiate discussions on grammar in general, and punctuation in particular, as influencing meaning.

 

The activity takes place as follows:

 

1. Provide students (in small groups) with the following text and ask them to punctuate it

dear john i want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men i yearn for you i have no feelings whatsoever when we are apart i can be forever happy will you let me be yours jane

 

2. Ask the groups to share how they punctuated the text 

 

3. Show students this version of the Dear John letter:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we are apart. I can be forever happy. Will you let me be yours?

Jane

 

4. Then show them this version:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we are apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Jane

 

5. Discuss the results

 

I’ve found this activity works best in small groups of 3-4 students with 5-10 minutes to figure out the punctuation. The small groups give them safety in numbers when discussing the results as they seem reluctant to share when they’ve tried to punctuate it on their own. It’s always interesting to watch students figure out what punctuation to use where and to listen to their discussions. Often their ‘Dear Johns’ end up a mixture between a breakup and love letter, and their reactions to revealing to the two versions of the letter are always amusing.

 

 

 

Feature image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.

1 COMMENT

  1. Brilliant! Well-done. My mantra through the semester is “It’s not about correct or incorrect. Its about making Better Writing Decisions.”

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