So how important are spelling and grammar?

Earlier this week I took part in a brief conversation between some secondary schoolteachers and academics. The question arose whether the claims sometimes made by employers that too many university graduates are bad at spelling and grammar are justified; and if they are, whether it actually matters. One of the teachers suggested that students leaving secondary education are much more literate and numerate these days than they were some ten or 20 years ago, but that in any case too much importance was being attached to this. I expressed the view that the quality of communication did at least to some extent depend on a person’s ability to master the basic rules of spelling and grammar.

Nearly ten years ago the Guardian carried a report that suggested that student spelling and grammar had reached a ‘crisis point’. Since then, the school curriculum in some countries has again placed more emphasis on these particular skills; so has the situation improved? And how much does this matter?

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11 Comments on “So how important are spelling and grammar?”

  1. Kenji Lamb Says:

    To my mind, it matters a lot, though I may be slightly biased with a background in ESOL education. While running a language school in Japan, I regularly reviewed applicant cover letters and CVs for positions we advertised. Given that these were (mostly) English teaching roles, you would imagine that the level of English was above average – and they were for the most part, but a shocking number were incredibly poor.

    In 3 particular cases, I invited the applicants for interview only to explain that I was so surprised by the poor quality of their (native) English that I wouldn’t be offering them a position, but would offer to help them out with their English, and perhaps suggest alternative employment opportunities (only one actually accepted).
    Now, when looking at potential work partners, I generally look for background information on the Internet – LinkedIn, FB, etc. where the quality of language used can replace that first impression gained when they physically walk into a room.

    I’ve had a lot of different jobs in the past (before working in the Education sector), and whether it was on factory production line, delivering mail, or in a local nightclub, I’ve always found a reasonable command of your working language to be an advantage.

  2. Vince Says:

    In the past Latin was used as the main driver for the teaching of grammar. This allowed teachers to reference back to a context when they were teaching English, French, etc etc. The removal of Latin from most schools has left English teachers and others, high and dry like the Plassey that ship in Ft Ted.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I agree with you on the importance of Latin Vince. It is today’s news that David Cameron failed to know what is the meaning of Magna Carta when asked on the Letterman late show yesterday. The bbc radio4 Today journalist found that it was ‘reasonable’ for Cameron not to know (Cameron must have forgotten all the Latin learnt at Eaton!) I suppose that reflects rather well the country’s attitude on matters of linguistic proficiency, better concern ourselves with developing other practical *skills* 😦
      Communication is as much a matter or content as it is of form, both are key, even more so today when literacy requires a wider spectrum of abilities

      • Kenji Lamb Says:

        I do recall my amo, amas, amat from (high) school days, but would struggle to see if bringing back Latin would address any of the underlying issues. Perhaps to encourage the adoption of a second language at an earlier stage (i.e. primary/elementary) would be a better approach.

        I suspect that those with native English ability in the UK don’t always see the need for a second language, but the benefits of learning about another culture (which is often embedded within learning another language) and improving employability prospects through the mastery of a living language can’t be a bad thing.

        Additionally, as grammar forms a critical part of learning another language, then you would hope that proficiency in the L1 language would improve as a result, through a better understanding of structure.

        Although I do agree with Grant that reading does improve literacy levels – perhaps we need more JKs/Potters to get younger people interested in picking up a text (whether in electronic or paper form).

        • Vince Says:

          Perhaps, but these language courses are presuming a base of knowledge which was in place when Latin was the norm.
          No Latin, no base. Ergo, profound confusion.

          @ Anna; there’s always Boris :-D.

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            Boris hmm… I think he must have read too much Plautus and Terence while at public school, you know the great comedic tradition, that might explain a few things 🙂

          • Vince Says:

            Of all that lot Boris had the wherewithal in the brain dept’. They don’t gift 2:1’s in Classics at Balliol.

  3. Grant Wilson Says:

    I’m no expert, but believe there are a couple of main reasons why grammar and spelling are falling by the wayside. At the risk of sounding like Victor Meldrew, the ‘street-talk’ gibberish that is laced throughout popular young culture, and the shift into ‘text-talk’ which is becoming almost a norm must be taken into account. There is a very basic issue too, that the crafting and appreciation of the written (and spoken) word is learned, not so much from repetitive exercises in English classes, but by going to the library and picking out a book which is read for pleasure and not for study. It’s not a criticism, but it’s the price to pay for a ‘high-communication’ age where the message is that there’s no time to sit around reading a stuffy book. It’s a real shame.

  4. Martin Says:

    I ain’t got no time for them people wot don’t talk proper. ROFLCOPTERZZ!!!1!!!!!11!!!!

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    There’s an article in the Journal of Literacy Research on whether using text speak is hurting literacy that’s worth a read:

  5. OMF Says:

    I used to be a reasonably competent speller, but the confusion introduced by MS Words default US english spelling has ruined me forever. To a lesser extent, so has reading too much material on the US spelling dominated internet. Typos did the rest.

  6. Fiona Says:

    Read an article about a teacher whose grammar was really bad. She said “me and the head mistress” to a father who was annoyed. Well, she were teaching ‘is kid, know wot I’m sayin’? Nice to know there are some parents who still care, innit? Instead of just usin’ the F work an’ all that in front of their (pre-school) kids. Sorry, fink I stuck the (brackets) in the (wrong place). That better? Fought so! Seriously, I remember my parents correcting me… “Not me and Jeremy, Jeremy & I, you don’t say “me will”). Fair point, but I found that annoying at the time, of course. Worse to come. I’d never heard of words like “shall” and “should”. WTF? This woman was taught in the 1970s & 80s…same as me. I were taught from mid-70s to late 80s, don’t remember the teaching being that bad! Maybe I was taught in the right part of the country. I can remembers the three “2s” (to go; me too; two people etc.), the three “theres” (they’re inside; over there; their house) etc., it ain’t rocket science! Scariest thing is, though, how do these people get through uni without being taught such basic stuff that I learnt in what’s now called year 4? I know if you’re doing a degree in philosophy or whatever, spelling and grammer probably aren’t the main concern, but don’t they correct spelling mistakes? This woman seems a bit like the English lit teacher in St. Trinians “‘Allo, luv, ‘ow ya doin’?” Only that was a comedy. Teaching kids to spell badly and use bad grammer ain’t a joke!

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