I finally finished grading my embarrassingly tardy Literature 2 final exams today. It's not a writing class or even an English class. It's a straight literature class. For families who want writing, I sign them up for WriteAtHome classes. After today, I might have to insist that every one of them take a WriteAtHome class next year.
I had them write summaries of several of the books we read this year. They also had to identify and explain some quotations taken from the works. Overall, they did fine. They are good, smart kids. I love teaching them.
But for crying out loud -- out of the twenty-five students in the class, only one student correctly punctuated titles. Well done, Emma.
I suspect this is just fallout from this age of texting and social media. Young writers are worse than ever at using capitals and any semblance of correct punctuation. I blame the capital-free zone cell phones have become.
Look, I'm not calling for a ban on digital communications. I'm not even suggesting we should be more grammar-conscious in our texts. I'm just saying we need to learn context. We all need to know what kind of writing is appropriate for what setting. Final exams should demand attention to the details of syntax and usage.
For my lit students and students everywhere, here's a short review of how to punctuate titles:
Titles should be capitalized. That means the first letter of the first word, the last word, and all important words in between should be a capital. That goes for any kind of title -- a book, an article, a poem, a song, a film, etc. By "important words" we mean everything other than articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.), and short prepositions (in,on, to, with, etc.)
This causes some confusion. We used to have to underline titles of longer works. We still do if it's handwritten. But when you use a keyboard, you should put the titles of longer works in italics. Underlining is the equivalent of italics, but in digital media, italics is preferred. It's pretty tricky to hand-write in italics, so stick to good old underlining when wielding a pen or pencil.
So, when do you underline or italicize, and when do you use quotation marks?
Big Stuff, Quotation Marks on Small Stuff
That's the simple rule. If it's a long work, italicize/underline the title. If it's a short work or a section of a longer work, put the title in quotation marks.
That means you italicize or underline book titles (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick) magazine titles (e.g., World, Sports Illustrated), newspapers (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post), plays (e.g., Hamlet, Our Town) movies (e.g., The Matrix, Spider-Man II), TV shows (e.g., The X-Files, Lost), and long poems (e.g., Song of Myself, The Inferno).
Use quotation marks for chapter titles (e.g., "My Life Begins") magazine articles (e.g., "Top Dogs in Corporate America"), newspaper articles (e.g., "Hamsters Attack Detroit"), songs (e.g., "The Birthday Song"), short stories, (e.g., "To Build a Fire"), and most poems (e.g., "Mending Wall").
See? It's not that complicated. When you refer to the title of any kind of work in something you are writing, help your reader identify it as a title by capitalizing correctly and using proper punctuation. Pretty please?
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