Reading & Literacy

Grammar Becomes Debateable

By Anthony Rebora — August 15, 2012 1 min read
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English teachers take note: Grammar—yes, grammar—has been making headlines this summer. We’ve highlighted a couple of stories recently about business leaders’ growing concerns about declining written-grammar skills among U.S. workers. Now the New York Times has set up one of its Room for Debate discussions on the issue. Author Douglas Rushkoff, one of the participants, thinks companies are right to be concerned:

[A]n employee who can write properly is far more valuable and promotable than one whose ambiguous text is likely to create confusion, legal liability and embarrassment. Moreover, a thinking citizen deserves the basic skills required to make sense through language, and to parse the sense and nonsense of others.

On the other hand, linguist John McWhorter says that lapses in grammar aren’t necessarily indicative of intelligence or potential job performance and that fixating on them can be an “expression of elitism.” In most cases, he says, employers would be advised to lighten up:

[I]f all a new hire is going to write is the occasional memo—or less—I'd rank giving people a leg up over throwing away their résumé because they write "truely" instead of "truly" and don't quite know their way around a semicolon.

Meanwhile, a much-referenced Penn State study linking frequent texting to cratering grammar skills among teens is getting some pushback. According to the New Jersey Record, a linguist at Montclair State University named Susan Sotillo is working on a separate study that has found that “people who regularly switch between texting language and standard language are actually more likely to have an expanded vocabulary.”

"[N]o one is destroying the English language; the English language just keeps changing,” Sotillo says. “It’s not a good idea to present change as a negative aspect.”

Well, no matter where you stand on these issues, there’s one thing we can probably all agree on: They’d make for excellent writing prompts for students this fall.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.