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"That" Punctuation Icebreaker
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 03/28/2016

Question mark2

The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

(This icebreaker is inspired by a scene from the movie “Charly” from Selmur Pictures)

Things are not always as they appear. And this icebreaker proves this to be true. Can you keep a group of people occupied for fifteen minutes by using two sheets of paper, 37 words, and one pen per team? Can a collection of three words repeated and arranged in a seemingly disorganized way inspire corrections professionals to work together in decryption? The "That" Punctuation Icebreaker is designed to do that and more.

To start this icebreaker, the trainer delivers the scenario:

During a routine search, staff find a strange message in the cell of a prisoner leader who advertises himself as a philosopher. He is also a bit of a trickster, taking pleasure in confusing staff whenever possible. The note reads...

“Do you think that you know how to separate ideas with punctuation? How well can you make a cohesive set of thoughts from a chaotic body of words?”

“Using the following group of words, place punctuation to make eight sentences. The words are in order. There is no need to subtract or add words. When completed properly, this should make a sensible group of sentences. Here are the words.”

that that is is that that is not is not is that not it is is that that is
that that is not it is not is that that is not that that is it is not

“Not to condescend too much, but I have provided a list of punctuation with the frequency that they appear in my note. I am sure that some of you will need no help on the capitalization.


Punctuation Times featured in word group
Comma (,) 10
Period (.) 2
Question Mark (?) 3
Exclamation Point (!) 3

“This could all mean nothing. But, then again, it could mean something. And what if it is something important? Are you up to the task to match wits with me?” Participants should be told that all of the hints given by the prisoner are not false. Nothing is misleading. The words are in order. There is no need to add or to subtract words. There will be eight sentences that compose a sensible, cohesive message. The words are not gibberish when the punctuation is properly inserted.

After the class is divided into small teams of three or four individuals, the enigmatic note is distributed to all teams. (See figure one - "That" punctuation exercise).

The trainer allows the groups ten minutes to work on the puzzle. If at the end of ten minutes there is no apparent progress, the instructor may use the answer sheet and write the first three punctuated sentences on the board. Five more minutes can be granted to the teams to solve the puzzle based on the pattern just provided by the trainer. When the time has expired, the spokesperson of each team delivers the finding of the group. Then the trainer passes out the correct answer for all to review. (See answer below)

In addition to an icebreaker, this exercise develops other skills and ideas:
  • Sets working example of group dynamics and problem solving methods
  • Shows how to clarify, aiding in business and misconduct writing
  • Illustrates the idea that sometimes prisoners advertise messages as very important, but the message may actually be unimportant
  • Indicates that sometimes puzzles are more simple than they initially seem. One just has to have a pattern established to clarify.
  • It is a good decryption exercise, demonstrating how to work from the known to the unknown.
  • Develops speaking and presentation skills
This icebreaker is a good segue into several different modules. Among them are: manipulation prevention, testing observation skills, following directions, and teambuilding workshops. Also, this icebreaker might appeal to institutional teachers and spark interest among the intellectual types among staff.

Truly, things are not always as they appear. What looks to be a jumbled collection of repeated words actually turns into a bit of philosophy. But the importance of this lies in introducing staff who would not normally work on problem solving together.

"That" exercise answer sheet

That, that is, is.
That, that is not, is not.
Is that not?
It is!
Is that, that is, that, that is not?
It is not!
Is that, that is not, that, that is?
It is not!

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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