Getting worse?

Grammatical correctness is certainly an issue that speaks close to every language teacher and in a week where I spent over two days marking papers and a Friday afternoon attending a meeting where we discussed marking criteria, an article on grammar accuracy published yesterday in The Guardian makes a timely come. The article discusses the myth that people nowadays make less accurate use of English than they did in the past and that, basically speaking, poor teaching practices, the national curriculum, and new technologies are to be blamed for the falling standards displayed by current writers and speakers of English.

If poor English grammar, spelling and punctuation are indeed rampant among native speakers of English, what can we expect from English language learners?

Although my students display in their writing different levels of language proficiency, they are virtually all advanced learners of English and their grammar accuracy is, generally speaking, pretty good. Their major problems are style and register and I tend to focus on those as well as on content when marking. Should I be more strict when marking their grammar? Perhaps. However, there is a limit on what students can take from any piece of feedback and I have to prioritize the areas  where I believe substantial improvement is more important.

An interesting thing is that language learners – and also some teachers –  seem to assume that all well-educated native speakers of English have the power to write with flawless grammatical accuracy. Nothing could be far from the truth and I have an anecdote to illustrate that.  The episode occurred when I submitted an article to a journal last year.  I asked a friend to proofread it and send me some comments before I could submit it to the editor. My friend kindly agreed to do that and the manuscript came back to me with a couple of articles added here and there, another couple of commas deleted, and one or two sentences slightly edited. Brilliant!  I made the necessary adjustments and sent it to the editor,  Then I received it back… Some of those very articles which had been added were now crossed over, some commas reinserted, and another couple of sentences –  which my first proofreader considered OK  – were now heavily edited. So…

A couple of other everyday working episodes –  too trivial to be mentioned – seem to indicate that we all have our doubts and issues with grammar, vocabulary and punctuation and that none of us has the supernatural power of writing in ‘perfect’ English. When you read an article, an academic paper, a book, or any other published piece of writing, is it very likely that the final version you have in front of you has gone through a process of reviewing and proofreading that rendered it quite different from the first version. It has certainly been corrected and amended a couple of times. Nevertheless, anyone reading it more carefully would be probably still able to find something to contend with in terms of language accuracy and vocabulary choices.

Anyway, the article that triggered these reflections is the one below. Please click on the link to read it.

The pedants’ revolt: lament for a golden age of grammar that never existed.