Trends in College Writing Tuesday, May 4 2010 

Christine Brown, a sophomore at La Salle University, is an enthusiastic student, does well on tests, and hopes to one day become a teacher.  Though a model student in other respects, Brown struggles with her writing.  “I’ve always hated English class,” she says, “I so feel self-conscious writing papers; I’m a terrible writer.” 

Brown is not alone.  The National Center for Educational Statistics administers writing assessments to high school students across the United States and their most recent report in 2007 shows poor performance among students.  According to the study, “about one student in five produces completely unsatisfactory prose, about 50 percent meet ‘basic’ requirements, and only one in five can be called ‘proficient’.” 

If students’ poor writing skills from high school are not corrected in college, students could be adversely affected post-education.  “We are judge on how we communicate. We are judged on how we speak and how we write,” says Madeleine Dean, English professor at La Salle University. 

Some argue that increased text messaging and Internet use are to blame for students’ poor writing.  Eleanor Johnson, English professor at Columbia University, agrees.  “I think that text messaging has made students believe that it’s far more acceptable than it actually is to just make screamingly atrocious spelling and grammatical errors.” 

An April 2008 study conducted by the Pew Institute and American Life Project reported that while 60 percent of teenage students participating in the study did not consider text messaging and other forms of electronic communication to be “real writing,” two-thirds of the students used emoticons and Internet abbreviations such as “LOL” in academic papers. 

David Crystal, a British linguist and author of the book Language and the Internet, rejects the notion that the Internet harms students’ writing.  “The main effect of the Internet on language has been to increase the expressive richness of language, providing the language with a new set of communicative dimensions that haven’t existed in the past.”

Professor Dean also does not believe that the Internet necessarily leads to bad writing and says that she has noticed an increase in the number of her students who use technology in their writing, which she says “has its ups and downside.”  Dean thinks that language should change and technology can influence that change, as long as it adheres to a foundation in what she considers “correctness.”  “I am very much a student of the evolution of language,” Dean says.  “I believe language should change—effectively change, not just weakly embrace bad language—but it should effectively change to accommodate the needs of our culture, still upholding the standards of good English.”

As Dean asserts, language is meant to change, to evolve.  Modern English is not the same as Shakespearean English, nor should it be.  The purpose of language is to communicate, so language and writing should adapt to the method that makes communication most effective.  If the majority of high school students are not proficient writers, then the majority of high school student cannot effectively communicate in an academic setting.  This trend carries over into college writing, and if not corrected at that level, colleges and universities will produce graduates who are not prepared to compete in the workforce that requires strong writing skills. 

Regardless of whether poor writing habits come from text messaging, Internet use, or another factor, educators need to emphasize to students the basics of good writing.  Grammar and spelling lessons may not be the most glamorous side of teaching, but they are imperative if students are to improve their writing skills.  A great writer does not pick up his or her pen for the first time and write a best-seller.  Strong writing comes from repeatedly learning the rules, practicing those rules, and hopefully mastering those rules.  Outside factors cannot damage students’ writing as much if students understand what is and is not acceptable in academic writing.  Starting with the basics. 



Gotta luv facebook, lol! Monday, Apr 19 2010 

I admit it—I’m addicted to Facebook.  I haven’t joined the Twitter craze, but I think social networking sites are great.  This is not to say they don’t also present me with a crisis of conscience.  Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and other social media or networking sites have a significant impact on how people write online.  Teens and pre-teens become accustomed to completely disregarding any rules of grammar or spelling while on these sites, and unfortunately they transfer over into other writing.  Not only that, but the example set by the younger generation seems to be rubbing off on their parents’ generation with the older crowd adopting cyber rules for writing.

I too am guilty of breaking some rules of writing while on Facebook.  These sites are a whole new arena for writing.  However, I think it is important to remember to keep this relaxed writing style in its proper place among friends on networking sites.  I sincerely hope that my Facebook “friend” (the friend of my friend’s little sister.  It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon for Facebook friending) whose status is “oh my go dim so hungry yo hahahahahaha im seriously but to grub out mannn,” doesn’t write that way for her history papers.  For my own peace of mind I’ll pretend that she doesn’t.

But this is a social networking site, emphasis on the “social.”  High school and college students don’t always speak correctly when they’re with their friends.  They never have and they probably never will.  Why should a social website be any different with how these age groups write?  So by all means, high school sophomore, college freshman or too cool for school senior, get your atrocious writing out of your system on Facebook or Twitter.  Just keep it the heck away from everyone off-line.

The Law of Confusion Monday, Mar 29 2010 

Oh the joys of legal writing. Reading cases in my Constitutional Law course at La Salle gives me a taste of the type of writing I will see next year in law school, as well as the type of writing I’ll potentially encounter for the rest of my professional career. To say I have sometimes have moments of true horror would be an understatement. Though I admit that legal writing is type of technical writing containing techniques all it’s own, that’s no reason to throw good sense out the window. Take for example part of the opinion written by Chief Justice Taft in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture:

“Grant the validity of this law, and all that Congress would need to do, hereafter, in seeking to take over to its control any one of the great numbers of subjects of public interest, jurisdiction of which the states have never parted with, and which are reserved to them by the Tenth Amendment, would be to enact a detailed measure of complete regulation of the subject and enforce it by a so-called tax upon departures from it.”

Ok, so technically this sentence is grammatically sound so I can’t completely blast it as completely terrible. But look at it. Really look at it. It’s one sentence! Could it be split into two or more sentences for the sake of clarity? Sure! Does Justice Taft get a prize for keeping it as one sentence? Nope! I have my work set out for me trying to clarify the gunk that is legal writing, but I do think that clarity is contagious. Next year, I’ll be completely surrounded by legal writing, most of which will make me want to scream. But if I can be one less lawyer who avoids this confusion in my writing, I’ll consider my efforts a success.

Source: Mason, Alpheus Thomas, and Donald Grier Stephenson, Jr. ed. American Constitutional Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Allegory of Grammar Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Though I can appreciate the beauty of a well crafted painting, I usually miss the deeper meaning behind most works of art.  Drifting through the galleries at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore I finally found a painting that speaks a language I can understand.

Allegory of Grammar, painted in 1650 by Laurent de La Hyre, depicts the art of grammar as a woman watering flowers that represent ideas.  The artist’s objective is to show how grammar and clear writing allow ideas to bloom and prosper.  I may be no art connoisseur but I certainly understand the merit of the artist’s work.  The most intelligent ideas are worthless without a clear, coherent organization that allows them to be understood.

This is why celebrities hire ghost writers to help write their autobiographies.  The heart of the book comes from the person who lived the anecdotes, but these anecdotes are not marketable if they are not expressed in a clear, interesting, clever way that captivates an audience.

The art of writing gives ideas their sophistication.  For example, adolescence is a memorable time in many people’s lives and while some will say there are unique qualities to being an adolescent, few can verbalize their experience in a way that others will understand, even if these feelings are universal.  In Catcher in the Rye, the late J.D. Salinger developed the characteristics of adolescence through his words, sentence structure, and organization so that the adolescent experience could be felt by his readers in a way that though many felt, few could express themselves.

Grammatically Sound Footwear Wednesday, Feb 17 2010 

This past weekend I took an educational trip to the Baltimore National Aquarium (photo below).  While at the aquarium I attended a dolphin show where I learned about the advanced communication among dolphins using clicks, squeaks, and squeels.  The dolphins communicate with each other using these sounds and the trainers mimic the sounds to prompt the dolphins to do tricks for the audience.

It’s a shame humans aren’t so clear in their communication.  About an hour after I learned about dolphins’ sophisticated communication, I encountered a sign in the human world that left me utterly baffled.  Placed in front of an escalator, the sign read:

“Caution: Avoid injury soft rubber shoes

keep feet between the yellow lines”  etc.

I understand what “keep feet between the yellow lines” means, but what is “avoid injury soft rubber shoes”?  Something’s missing.  An infinitive and a verb maybe?  “To avoid injury, wear soft rubber shoes”.  That’ll work. Though if certain footwear is recommended for riding the escalator, shouldn’t visitors know this before entering the aquarium instead of in the middle of an exhibit on the second floor?  Even with my adjustments to the statement to make it more stable, I still don’t think it properly communicates whatever its point is.  The other commands on the sign are easy to follow.  I know how to keep my feet between yellow lines.  I can hold onto the hand rails.  But making sure I’m wearing the proper shoes midway through my visit?  A little harder to fix.

So, Baltimore National Aquarium, I have two charges for you:

1. Failing to proofread your signs.  You are an instutituion that instructs men, women, and children alike about the fascinating world of water.  A noble cause.  But as an educational instutition, please don’t let other important educational disciplines escape you.

2. Failing to effectively communicate.  Even if you proofread your sign to make it structurally sound, what are you trying to tell visitors with this safety tip?  How can they help what shoes they wore that day and how does that fit with the other proactive goals of the sign, such as not leaving children unattended or not bringing strollers onto the escalator.  Take a cue from your dolphin friends and communicate a little more effectively.

That being said, I think the Baltimore aquarium is a wonderful place and I greatly enjoy visiting it.  But how can a grammar-nut relax when even educational instututions are dropping the ball with clear, effective communication.  Come on, Baltimore aquarium!. If you can correctly spell the Latin name for the archerfish (Toxotes chatareus, in case anyone was wondering), I have faith that you can create caution signs that will knock my socks off!

The Entertaining Side of Grammar Tuesday, Feb 2 2010 

Try as a may, I can’t escape my obsession with grammar, punctuation, word usage, spelling… the list goes on.  I even wrote my personal statement for law schools about diagramming sentences.  At least now I can take my unusual obsession and make it productive for class.  I thought linguistics would be a really weird topic for a blog until I found LanguageLog, a blog run by University of Pennsylvania phonetician Mark Liberman.   This blog has witty observations about mistakes in grammar, punctuation, word use— everything I’m obsessed with.  Murphy’s Law at its finest, every link to the site is magically broken and Google can no longer find the page.  I’ll try again later.

I think my topic will work because grammar-related mistakes often make for funny results.   Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, a guidebook to punctuation, centers on the funny things that happen when people mispunctuate.  The title comes from a mistake made by someone describing the eating habits of pandas.  Instead of the panda peacefully eating his bamboo shoots and leaves, the extra commas suggest a scene out of a gangster movie with the panda shooting up a restaurant before leaving.

I may use “funny” too liberally, but these are the examples that I think are funny.  I’ll try my best to keep my posts on this more humorous slant instead of ranting about poor spelling, grammar, and the like.