Writing skills

Some weeks ago I wrote a post in which I considered whether better examination results were evidence of ‘dumbing down’ in higher education. This triggered a fairly lively discussion. More recently I was at a dinner and was sitting at a table with several businesspeople – well, let’s be honest, they were all businessmen, but that’s another topic; I asked them whether they believed that university standards in Ireland had dropped. There was some discussion and some differences of opinion, but then one man there made a comment with which pretty much all the others agreed. He said he could not be sure whether standards were slipping, but he was inclined to say they were. And why? Because almost no graduate he employed just coming out of university could write grammatically correct English. There was a lot of nodding of heads when he said this. Jumping straight into defensive mode, I helpfully pointed out to him that in the statement in which he made this complaint he had split an infinitive and failed to use the subjunctive where it was required, but I don’t think this took him off his stride, alas.

I think I could not easily deny the truth of this assertion. However, I might add more generally that inadequate writing skills seem to me to be a feature of society more generally these days and are not confined to recent university graduates. I get scores of letters and emails which make me wince as I read them and have to negotiate my way through sentences lacking the basic grammatical elements.

The problem here does not, I think, lie in universities. We are not remedial English institutions. If someone cannot write when they get as far as us it may well be too late already. It seems to me that we need to ask whether our pedagogical methods at all levels of the education system are sufficiently directed towards these elementary but vital skills. If we are producing a generation of inarticulate young people we are creating some very serious problems for ourselves – it is an issue we need to take seriously.

It may well be that we have altogether lost a sense of the importance of grammar in particular – but I shall leave that for another post, soon.

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7 Comments on “Writing skills”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    Well, when was grammar last taught in schools? Certainly not when I was in school, and that’s a LONG time ago. The grammar I knew by the time I’d made it to university had been learned through Irish and French, where grammatical terms were still taught; I extrapolated. Since then, I’ve taught myself a considerable amount of grammar, none of which had been covered in school.

    I did, however, notice declining standards while I was teaching: not just the perennial its/it’s, but also ‘alot’ and ‘aswellas’, in addition to the inability to distinguish between a sentence and a fragment or to avoid comma splices. Though now that I’m in North America I almost feel as if I was spoiled in Europe. Then and than are confused all the time. Some people I work with don’t even know what a hyphen is called, let alone how to use it, and I find apostrophes scattered randomly whenever there’s an s at the end of a word.

    I think the most worrying part of the problem is that those who are now doing the teaching don’t have a sense of correct grammar either. That being the case, how can students of today have a hope of learning correct usage?

  2. Cian Brennan Says:

    Whatever about primary/secondary school (In which I can’t remember doing anything much on the subject of grammar), I’ve had a reasonably regular half hour lecture on grammar in any module which includes an essay as a part of its assessment.

  3. Donal_C Says:

    My first teacher of English at high school was also a teacher of Latin. He taught his pupils to parse sentences and introduced us to noun cases and verb moods. Two decades later I still appreciate his paedagogical approach.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Yes, I agree entirely with this post and with Wendymr’s comment. In particular, my colleagues and I are struck by the poor standard of students arriving in university (and this for a programme with high points). We scramble to fix this, but as you point out, we’re not remedial English teachers: the curriculum is already full of the topics required by our specific degree programmes, and as everyone knows, teaching good writing skills requires a lot of time and attention: we don’t even have a little time and attention to give, without losing a significant portion of our degrees.

    So why are school-leavers achieving good Leaving Cert points when they have terrible writing skills? And why isn’t this being widely discussed at the level of secondary – or perhaps more usefully primary – education? Universities CANNOT fix this.

    And finally, I agree with Wendymr about the teaching of grammar. It was long gone by the time I started school in the mid-70s. My parents made a big effort to teach it to me themselves, and also I had the advantage of loving to read, so I picked up most of my grammar, vocabulary etc by a kind of osmosis, from voracious reading. But that shouldn’t be the only way it happens!

  5. Vincent Says:

    Well, they were the very chaps who insisted on purely utilitarian grounds, the removal of Latin. It is now a bit bloody rich to start whinging.
    But more importantly, if the only comment these people could make was on Grammar, we are in a strait more dire that a few split-inns. It is a bit like the ships officer commenting on the calligraphy of the sea chart for Inis Mor while sitting under Dun Angus.

    Oh, surely one Posts ‘on’ something. And a ‘where’ rather than a ‘which’. Think mad Augustinian German priests, 95 Theses ‘on’ a church door.

  6. Jean O'Sullivan Says:

    “The problem here does not, I think, lie in universities.”
    Is this not a split infinitive?


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