Posted tagged ‘spelling’

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

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.

So how important are spelling and grammar?

September 27, 2012

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?

Entirely principled

August 27, 2011

At the risk of sounding like a spelling and grammar commissar, I was somewhat taken aback when I saw this headline on the BBC news website: ‘Student leaders urge university principles to restrict fees.’ For the avoidance of doubt, this was entirely a BBC mistake, as the substantive article showed that the ‘student leaders’ of the title used the correct spelling. But then again, about 5 per cent of all communications addressed to me suggest I am the Principle of RGU.

Of course nobody should get too worked up about one spelling mistake, or two similar sounding words confused. The world will go on, regardless. But precision of language and accuracy of spelling and grammar are being eroded, and when that hits the gold standard (the BBC), we may sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I have recently heard experts in the history of English point out that the kind of precision I am talking about is not part of the historic culture of the English language. Consistency of spelling in English is quite a recent development, and Shakespeare was able to do what he did before we reached that state. So, is it perhaps time for us to let go of all this spelling pedantry and let people do whatever they want to do? Is that the more principled approach?

Tackling basic literacy skills

June 30, 2011

According to Patrick Kinsella, Head of the School of Communications in Dublin City University, journalism students enter the university with excellent final school results but with major ‘gaps in their grasp of basic English, including spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage.’ According to a report in the Irish Times, DCU will now ‘allocate more time to the teaching of basic writing skills to first-year journalism students’.

Many universities in the English speaking world now have similar experiences. But not everywhere. A colleague who recently came back from two months teaching in India told me that students there write in ‘beautiful English’ and with hardly any mistakes in spelling and grammar. When I attended an event at which a number of students spoke in China, not long ago, I was also hugely impressed with the standard of English in evidence there.

This is not a minor issue. Many institutions in these islands derive a considerable income from teaching English as a foreign language, and people coming to Britain and Ireland often do so to learn the language. In addition, the capacity of our students and graduates to express themselves clearly and correctly matters in all sorts of settings, including journalism, business, education, the arts and others.

The DCU initiative is to be welcomed, but others also need to address this problem. The English language is an important resource for us; we need to treat it well.

Bye the way…

August 31, 2010

Here’s something a tad irritating (at least to me). Some weeks ago I became aware of the fact that RTE on its website kept referring to forthcoming (or not) ‘bye-elections’. Of course there is no such thing as a ‘bye-election’ (though there are ‘by-elections’ or byelections’), and as it was a slow day I sent an email to RTE pointing that out – very politely, I should emphasise. I got back a response telling me that this is how the government officially spells it, and that it was RTE policy to follow the government lead.

Of course the prefix ‘by’ refers to the subordinate or secondary nature of (in this case) the election. Another example would be ‘by-product’, which is definitely not ‘bye-product’. If there were such a thing as a ‘bye-election’, it would be a ‘good-bye election’ (not a phenomenon we have yet). I think my correspondent in RTE agreed with me, by the way (or should that be ‘bye the way’), but felt bound by existing practice.

Maybe I’m just being pedantic, but I can’t help feeling our official terminology should be less illiterate.

Spelling test

March 5, 2010

At the height of the ‘grade inflation’ debate earlier this week, Google’s John Herlihy mentioned on RTE’s Drive Time that he was disturbed by the number of application letters and supporting documents that he received which showed that the applicant could not spell properly and could not express themselves well. Such applications, he disclosed, were not taken into consideration by Google.

I have suggested previously in this blog that correct spelling and grammar are essential tools of communication, and that those who have not mastered them will be seriously disadvantaged. When I was a lecturer, I was always astounded by the number of students who, while extremely bright, could not put together a sentence that was grammatically correct and had no spelling errors.

I think I would myself look beyond the spelling when considering an applicant for a job, unless spelling was directly relevant. However, the disclosure by Google shows that the ability to spell is still an important skill and that schools and colleges need to take this more seriously. However, primarily this needs to be addressed in the early years of education. An illiterate student, by the time s/he gets to university, is often beyond the point at which third level remedial action can make much of a difference; and in any case we are not resourced for it. I would argue that primary schools need to move correct spelling and grammar right to the top of their agenda.

Spelling – should we care?

August 8, 2008

Every so often the question is asked – as it was in the Guardian newspaper this week – whether university teachers should worry about their students’ spelling when marking exams and assignments. This is part of the more general debate which occasionally emerges about the rules of orthography in English. Put succinctly, the question is this: are spelling rules for English so bizarre that we should just abandon them, either allowing a free-for-all or introducing a structured reform of spelling?

The problem with English is the sheer complexity of standard spelling, and its often irrational nature. The spelling of any individual word can be governed by any number of things: its linguistic root, its sound, an historical association, and so forth. But these criteria are not applied consistently to different words, and this produces a bewildering array of spellings for similar sounding words, together with an array of rules that nobody can explain any more. This is sometimes illustrated with words that rhyme but whose spelling is radically different: ‘though’ and ‘go’, ‘their’ and ‘hair’, ‘weir’ and ‘fear’, ‘night’ and ‘quite’. And what is the ‘k’ doing in ‘knife’, or the ‘l’ in ‘palm’?

The argument therefore sometimes goes that English spelling needs major reform, simplifying the complex rules and making spelling much more intuitive in line with phonetic principles. American spelling, it could be argued, has made a start (turning ‘plough’ into ‘plow’, for example), albeit a very modest one. Other languages have done this, and continue to do it. Both French and German spelling has been reformed from time to time.

However, this is not as easy as it might appear to be. These days, nobody knows who ‘owns’ English. It is hardly the property of England alone, and even if it were, who in England is in charge of this? And if someone turned up claiming to have jurisdiction, who would pay any attention in the dozens of countries where English has some official status, and the many others where it is widely spoken?

But beyond that, until someone can be found to effect a reform of orthography in an effective manner, should we attach any significance to bad spelling in documents or, in the education system, in exams or assignments? The basic argument in favour of not caring is that misspelt words don’t matter if the meaning is clear. But the counter-argument is that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking to many readers and undermines the persuasiveness of the document. 

Then it may of course be that the suggestion that spelling doesn’t matter is a comfort to the many people who are no longer secure in their own spelling ability. Maybe this whole debate is pointless – maybe the complexity of English has already overwhelmed its speakers. Or maybe the time has come to give proper attention to the rules of spelling and grammar, both in order to apply them and, where appropriate and possible, to reform them.

Too many apostrophe’s?

July 16, 2008

Today I received a formal document from a certain public body that had four incorrect uses of an apostrophe on a single page: “it’s” (when it should have been “its”); 1990′s (should be “1990s”); and two apostrophes in nouns which were intended to be plural rather than genitive. We have all got used to walking past signs in shops offering “tomato’s” and “potato’s”, but the inability to use the apostrophe correctly is now ubiquitous. A friend of mine remarked recently that the only obvious role of the apostrophe these days (or should that be “day’s”) is to declare: “alert, S approaching!”

Maybe we should face the fact that the apostrophe is a failed entity, and that it should be put beyond use. That would be better than the constant incorrect use to which it is now subjected. Other languages manage to do without it, so maybe English should, too.


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