Can anyone still write?

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.

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12 Comments on “Can anyone still write?”

  1. V.H Says:

    Latin was the vehicle used for the transmission of grammar. Endless translations of Caesar’s propaganda home to Rome forced an awareness of the bones of both languages via the savage spare clarity of Latin. But more, one was being trained by a bloody prose genius with a story designed to engage.
    Nowadays learning a language is confused, with conflicting goals. The kids are given texts that are worthy, but well beyond their understanding or so badly written they are entirely useless.

  2. Al Says:

    Did I read in a media outlet recently about the words of a retiring educator? “I started off teaching 10 year olds Latin and Greek and finished up teaching undergraduates remedial English.”

  3. Rachel Says:

    The example from your correspondent really is a bit shocking Ferdinand. However I must take issue with the suggestion that the examples in the link that you provide are written by authors who can’t handle metaphors and similes. I think they’re (their,there) brilliantly witty.

  4. Eddie Says:

    No surprise at all. These days many universities recruit “students” (local and overseas, the former through “widening participation” /”contextual data” approach, and the latter caught in nets through intense global trawling as these humans bring more money to fill the funding gaps which some politicians deny) with a baseline requirements say: the ability to bring money, sit on a chair in a classroom or any where and breath! They will pass the courses ( academics know otherwise they may never get well paid administrative positions upstairs and can come under intense scrutiny of the senior management group which is fattened number-wise for the purpose) and get jobs some how. The universities then say they are the best modern universities and that over 95% of their students get jobs after course completion. Every one is happy!

  5. Catherine Says:

    I am surprised that nowhere did you mention personal responsibility and professionalism on the part of the student.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    Strangely enough, despite the ‘falling standards’, we still seem to have novelists and authors, playwrights and poets, and an endless stream of print journalists. Unless, of course, there has been a hiring freeze I was unaware of for the past few decades …

    The difference between now and the good old days of yore is information content. The chances of you coming across a bad speller are exponentially increased when the amount of printed information is exponentially larger. Furthermore, technology has enabled everyone to have a say. If you wanted a letter printed in the newspaper, you’d make sure your grammar and spelling were correct or the editor would throw it in the bin. Today, anyone can blog. There’s been a three-fold increase in the number of students sitting the Leaving Cert. compared to the numbers sitting the exam in the 1970s. Obviously the probability of coming across a badly worded script increase if more students sit the exam!

    We look back at the past with rose-tinted spectacles and forget the reality. What was the literacy rate in the 1960s or 70s?

    • Hm, James, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that no-one can write any more! But having read outputs from students and indeed others regularly over 40 years or so, I do believe that competence in spelling and grammar has dropped significantly across the overall range of casual writers. Some might argue that it just doesn’t matter, that English only succumbed to rules of spelling and grammar comparatively recently and got on perfectly well before that. I don’t subscribe to that, but it’s an interesting argument.

  7. Surely a more apt title for this would be “Can anyone still right?”

  8. OMF Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Grammar or Spelling listed in a set of learning outcomes.

    • Mind you, that also tells you what a bizarre concept ‘learning outcomes’ are.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Learning outcomes aside, it might be worth remembering that when it comes to grammar and spelling one of the last bastions is the dissertation. No matter the format (entirely textual or multi-media, the latter something I favor) the criterion of “legibility” to be intended as
        “the readability of the script. The grammatical rules of language and the way in which words are arranged to form sentences is an essential consideration, as is the overall organization and structure given to researched material”
        is still included in the assessment criteria I personally adopt. But then, the dissertation itself, and its survival in honors degree curricula, might be be the topic of an altogether different discussion..

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