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.

Apostrophe Abuse Wednesday, Mar 10 2010 

In her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, grammar-enthusiast Lynne Truss explains the eight acceptable uses for apostrophes, one of which is the use of apostrophes to signal omitted words (47-48).  Eight uses total.  That is, unless you frequent the St. Miguel Townhouses common room where you’ll find a ninth use for an apostrophe, though I’m still not sure what that use is.  On a sign posted above a circle of chairs and sofas is written, “tha’ nook.”

Huh?  I understand the sentiment that this is a relaxed atmosphere, so the sign is supposed to be informal.  The person who posted the sign probably wanted the apostrophe to make the sign show that relaxation.  As if the people who hang out here are too busy being awesome to fully say words.  Okay, I get it.  But what are you shortening?  “The” is a 3 letter word.  Adding an apostrophe to the phonetically spelled word makes it longer.  And a little confusing.   Are we shortening “that”?  I doubt it.  There’s one nook in the room; it hardly seems like someone would get it confused with another. 

I fully believe that language can be stretched, bended, and molded to fit a particular audience or convey a particular message.  In the dialogues of Huck Finn, Mark Twain used vernacular English that chopped words to pieces, frequently used slang words, and paid little attention to grammar.  Twain’s purpose was to authentically portray his uneducated characters and enrich the experience for the reader.  Though even with the liberties that he took, Twain still followed the proscribed ways of shortening a word, for example, using apostrophes to indicate missing letters.  Twain stretched, bended, and molded standard English into his dialogue because it helped his reader better understand his characters and their circumstances. 

The sign in the St. Miguel Townhouses doesn’t do that.  I admire the intentions, but if the purpose of language is to communicate, then don’t get so mixed up in trying to sound cool that you lose what you’re trying to say.

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.