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If bad writing were a crime, most Americans would be under felony indictment. Students graduate from high school today unable to distinguish the difference between its and it's, or their and there, or than and then. They confuse the functions of a comma with those of a period, and they haven't the least idea what a semicolon is for (no, it's not part of the human intestine). Their prose, if one can designate their often childish scribbling as such, is marred by misspellings, misusages, and outright barbarisms.

Is this a tragedy? Maybe not. Mr. Dooley, the immigrant Irish bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne to satirize America in the Gilded Age, once said, "When we Americans are through with th' English language, it will look as if it'd been run over by a musical comedy." It could be we just haven't gotten to the songs and funny scenes yet.

At the state university where I teach, other professors also complain about the inability of their students--the vast majority of them products of the public education system--to write well. My colleagues sigh that clear writing has become increasingly rare, a lost art, like scrimshaw or persiflage. We all wonder what will happen next and worry that whatever it is, it will represent a new kind of Dark Ages, when everyone will be living in a consumer cornucopia, but no one will be able to spell it.

The decline of writing parallels the rise of moral relativism, the attitude that anyone should be allowed to do anything as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. It is an attitude that, for all its democratic virtues, has serious potential drawbacks. If the only accepted rules are those that are personally defined, if individual rights are always prized above shared responsibilities, then social organization begins to break down. The loss of coherence may even seep into writing and ultimately swamp it.

I don't mean to come off sounding like a fanatical grammarian possessed by the reactionary spirit of old Miss Mapes, my 5th grade teacher at Lakeside School in 1961 and a stickler for rules. A slavish devotion to rules can actually interfere with expression. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the greatest literary stylist in American political history, recognized that. When preparing his first State of the Union Message, he sent a draft to James Madison for comment, asking his friend and fellow Virginian to pay special heed to the language: "Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to in complaisance to the purists of New England. But where by small grammatical negligences the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt."

Jefferson knew correct grammar and so could knowingly violate it to achieve a desired effect. Students lack this kind of pinpoint control over their writing. In a recent batch of papers, mine spelled Santa Claus as "Santa Clause," donor as "doner," and dilemma as "delima," used possessives without apostrophes, and wrote sentences without predicates. They didn't make these mistakes on purpose. They made them because they don't know any better. Whatever rules of writing they were once taught--and I assume they were taught some--they have pretty much forgotten. They blunder about the snow-white pages like early Arctic explorers searching in a blinding blizzard and with a broken compass for a nonexistent route.

Whose fault is this? Many experts say it is at least partly television's. I might as well, too, and for all the obvious reasons: Television corrupts taste, promotes passivity, and privileges pictures over words. Also, the endless hours spent watching it could be better spent in reading and reflection--that is, absorbing the qualities of good writing, fixing them in one's mind. I myself learned grammar through some such process of literary osmosis. Reading can repair a lot of the damage done in the past by poor teachers or a student's own laziness and inattention.

Clear writing has become increasingly rare, a lost art, like scrimshaw or persiflage.

Unfortunately, the reading material lying around the waiting room of life is often junk--incompetently written at best and incomprehensibly written at worst. Just the other day, The New York Times, the self-proclaimed paper of record, published a banner headline on the front page of its sports section that was mispunctuated: "Season Is On, Now It's Who, What, When, and Where?" The first independent clause ("Season Is On") required a firmer stop than a mere comma to separate it from the second independent clause ("Now It's Who, What, When, and Where?"). A colon, semicolon, or even a dash would have sufficed. As punctuated, the headline turned the professional basketball season into a question mark, and the news into gibberish.

Students grow up today inundated with print messages, but many of these are commercial in character and of little or no value as models of good writing. I'm convinced, for example, that one reason why student essays are so riddled with incomplete sentences is that advertising copy generally is. Scraps of language darkly glittering on glossy paper. A few simple, insidious phrases. Arranged in brief lines to catch the eye. And, of course, sell something.

Overexposure to the fraudulent charm of commercial prose can condition students to write almost entirely in sentence fragments. Perhaps even worse, though, is what they learn--or don't learn--about writing at school. If the notices they bring home in their backpacks are any indication, they are being subjected in class to all kinds of linguistic depravity.

From the high school comes a letter containing the sentence, "Selecting a class ring is a regarding choice," which, frankly, reads like it was written by someone who has never opened a dictionary or even knows what one is. From the physical education department comes another letter that commits more errors than the butterfingered infield of a Little League team, including two in spelling, nine in punctuation, and four in tense agreement. And just when I'm saying to myself with relief, "Well, at least these people don't teach English," along comes a letter from an English teacher that refers to "youse," as in that favorite phrase of mobster movies, "Youse guys."

I think it isn't asking too much that teachers at all grade levels and in all disciplines be literate. Until they are, they will embarrass themselves and their profession, as well as disserve their students. Teachers' unions, school boards, and colleges of education need to acknowledge that a problem exists here, and do something to solve it. For the colleges, this may mean tighter admission standards and a tougher curriculum, while for the unions and school boards, it may mean better hiring practices, more staff development, and, in cases of recalcitrant teachers, excommunication.

As for students, they should write, write, write, and read, read, read (the New York state board of regents recently recommended that high schoolers read 25 books a year). All teachers, no matter what their subject areas, should regularly assign writing and then collect and critique the assignments, not just put a check on them. Moreover, spelling and grammar should count. This would emphasize to students the fact that abiding by certain rules is as helpful in writing as it is in games and sports. Students wouldn't disobey the rules when playing tennis or Nintendo. Why should writing, a far more complicated and delicate act, be any different?

Society has a right to expect that the graduates of its public schools will be able to construct a grammatical sentence. The graduates themselves have a right to the power inherent in full literacy. But many I encounter in my classes have emerged powerless from their prior schooling. They never mastered the ground rules of English, and now feel diminished by their ignorance.

In the end, democracy isn't about doing your own thing. It is about giving people the opportunity and the tools--including the writing tools--to make their voices heard.

Howard Good is the coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz and serves on the board of education in the Highland (N.Y.) Central School District. He is the author of five books, including Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies (Scarecrow Press, 1998).

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Pages 51, 76

Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Grammarama
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Web Resources
  • "English: What Students Need To Learn," was created by Teachers College, Columbia University, as a parent-friendly guide to lay out basic goals for any student of English and ways that parents can help reinforce learning in the home.
  • Brush up on "The King's English," courtesy of Columbia University's Bartelby Library.
  • The National Writing Project is a nationwide network of teachers that aims to improve students writing abilities by improving the teaching and learning of writing in the nation's schools.
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