This is replying to a Canadian Press article, “Students failing because of Twitter, texting and no grammar teaching” from earlier in the month.

Little or no grammar teaching, cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, all are being blamed for an increasingly unacceptable number of post-secondary students who can’t write properly.

It’s perfectly possible to know and use both informal textspeak and proper English. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply hasn’t tried.

For years there’s been a flood of anecdotal complaints from professors about what they say is the wretched state of English grammar coming from some of their students.

Many anecdotes do not good evidence make.

Now there seems to be some solid evidence.

Ah, good. You’re acknowledging that those anecdotes weren’t evidence.

Ontario’s Waterloo University is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require the students they accept to pass an exam testing their English language skills.

Almost a third of those students are failing.

“Thirty per cent of students who are admitted are not able to pass at a minimum level,” says Ann Barrett, managing director of the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo University.

So thirty percent of the students at one university are failing a specific test? Oh horror of horrors, students the world over are suddenly unable to speak English!

“We would certainly like it to be a lot lower.”

Perhaps you need to look at the test, then. Are you sure it’s such a great test if thirty percent of students can’t pass it?

Barrett says the failure rate has jumped five percentage points in the past few years, up to 30 per cent from 25 per cent.

Oh yes, that key five percent difference. It causes something that was perfectly okay to be a disaster!

“What has happened in high school that they cannot pass our simple test of written English, at a minimum?” she asks.

Even those with good marks out of Grade 12, so-called elite students, “still can’t pass our simple test,” she says.

Poor grammar is the major reason students fail, says Barrett.

So top students often fail? Hm, I’m getting even more suspicious that there’s a problem with the test.

“If a student has problems with articles, prepositions, verb tenses, that’s a problem.”

A problem correctly using them, or a problem with the technical side?

Some students in public schools are no longer being taught grammar, she believes.

She believes? Shouldn’t she be able to find out for certain?

“Are they (really) preparing students for university studies?”

Is this what you’re going to now? There aren’t any competent entrants these days? I suggest closing down, since evidently you can’t find students.

At Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, one in 10 new students are not qualified to take the mandatory writing courses required for graduation.

That 10 per cent must take so-called “foundational” writing courses first.

So why are you letting them in?

Simon Fraser is reviewing its entrance requirements for English language.

Good. If a tenth of the people you’re accepting don’t meet your standards, you are doing something wrong.

“There has been this general sense in the last two or three years that we are finding more students are struggling in terms of language proficiency,” says Rummana Khan Hemani, the university’s director of academic advising.

Really? I’m getting a “general sense” that this article is bilge.

Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser.

“Little happy faces … or a sad face … little abbreviations,” show up even in letters of academic appeal, says Khan Hemani.

Stop teaching special ed, then. No one with any intelligence could use smilies in an essay. I’m not entirely sure why you’re complaining about abbreviations, seeing as they’ve been used for centuries.

“Instead of ‘because’, it’s ‘cuz’. That’s one I see fairly frequently,” she says, and these are new in the past five years.

If it’s actually “cuz”, I suppose you have one valid complaint. You know what they say about blind squirrels….

Khan Hemani sends appeal submissions with emoticons in them back to students to be re-written “because a committee will immediately get their backs up when they see that kind of written style.”

Good. Make sure students know when they’re making a mistake.

Professors are seeing their share of bad grammar in essays as well.

More than from their own generation?

“The words ‘a lot’ have become one word, for everyone, as far as I can tell. ‘Definitely’ is always spelled with an ‘a’ -‘definitely’. I don’t know why,” says Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser.

I’ll try to make this clearer: use the personal essays as an English test.

“Punctuation errors are huge, and apostrophe errors. Students seem to have absolutely no idea what an apostrophe is for. None. Absolutely none.”

Nor do many older people. The lack of ability to use an apostrophe has been around for quite a while.

He is floored by some of what he sees.


“I get their essays and I go ‘You obviously don’t know what a sentence fragment is. You think commas are sort of like parmesan cheese that you sprinkle on your words’,” said Budra.

You don’t “go” anything; you say it. I’d think you’d know that. As for sentence fragments and commas… well, sometimes having a clear and succinct sentence is more important than following your rules.

Then he’s reduced to teaching basic grammar to them himself.

“Reduced to”? Really, “reduced to”? Goodness, teaching something so essential must be simply horrifying. What an awful situation it must be to teach your favourite rules of English!

He says this has been going on now for the 20 years he’s taught college and university in B.C. and Ontario-only the mistakes have changed.

He too blames poor – or no – grammar instruction in lower schools.

So… grammar instruction has been missing, or at least substandard, for twenty years, and it’s a problem only now?

“When I went to high school in the ’70s I was never taught grammar in English. I learned grammar from Latin classes.”

Oh! Oh, I see your problem. English is a Germanic language. You’re looking for Romance languages! That’s just down the hall and to your left.

Budra was taught to read and write using whole language rather than phonetics – not a good way to go in his books.

So English is a phonetic (sorry, “fonetik”) language now?

“We haven’t taught grammar for 30-40 years…(and it) hasn’t worked.”

Did you attend school when they taught grammar, then? Or are you, by your logic, just as clueless as your students?

“It’s not that hard to teach basic grammar,” he says.

But it is, apparently, horribly degrading, as you said earlier.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education says grammar is a part of both its elementary and high school curriculum.

I don’t think OME has a reason to lie about this, so I’ll assume their statement of fact is more accurate than the thought that it looks like it’s not happening. Apparently it is.

Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills, say even experts in the field.

Really? I’m perfectly able to type a coherent paper when I need to or want to, while at the same time saying “lol you’re getting pwnt by a hs student ;)” online. Yes, I might even say it exactly as is: no full stops or capitals.

“I think it has,” says Joel Postman, author of “SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate,” who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking.

“I think it hasn’t”, says [my name removed], an actual high school student who uses the internet.

The Internet norm of ignoring punctuation and capitalization as well as using emoticons may be acceptable in an email to friends and family, but it can have a deadly effect on one’s career if used at work.

“It would say to me … ‘well, this person doesn’t think very clearly, and they’re not very good at analyzing complex subjects, and they’re not very good at expressing themselves, or at worse, they can’t spell, they can’t punctuate,’ ” he says.

“These folks are going to short-change themselves, and right or wrong, they’re looked down upon in traditional corporations,” notes Postman.

So don’t use it at work. Problem solved. Can I have a Nobel prize for this?

But “spelling is getting better because of Spellcheck,” says Margaret Proctor, University of Toronto writing support co-ordinator.

Remember the part where I said English is a Germanic language? I didn’t say it actually is German. You do not need to capitalise a common noun that doesn’t begin a sentence.

James Turk of the Association of University Teachers takes all the complaints about student literacy with a grain of salt.

“There’s a notion of a golden age in the past that students were wonderful, unlike now. I’m not sure that golden age ever existed,” he says.

I’d be surprised if cavemen didn’t fight over the correct grammar of “oog oooogh oo ooogh”.

“You can go back and read Plato and see Socrates talking about the allegations that this generation isn’t as not as good as previous ones,” he notes.

A perfect example of bad grammar still making a good point.

Crossposted from here.


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