From where I sit - The never-ending sentence

July 2, 2009

Run-on sentences are the new apostrophe. By that I mean that a lack of knowledge about where to put a full stop is prevalent in more students than the misuse of apostrophes. That is saying something.

When I mark the essays submitted by my 113 first-year media-studies students, I survey their standards of written English. One day I would like to turn these surveys into a research project, but for now, here are some of my observations.

First, the good news. Nearly 18 per cent of first-year students possess what I call "good grammar" - that is, they do not make more than one or two mistakes. They know their punctuation and their tenses. They probably couldn't tell you what a preposition or an adjective is, but they know how to use them. So, one in five students writes quite well.

When it comes to the good news, that's about it. The rest is rather frightening.

Run-on sentences are the most common grammatical problem among my first years. Fifty-five per cent of them run sentences together with no idea of where the full stop should go.

I tell them to read sentences aloud, and that where there seems to be a natural break, a place where they could go and make a cup of tea without the listener being left dangling, that is where the full stop should go. This seems to help.

I also teach 102 students in a combined second- and third-year communications unit. Only 29 per cent of them use run-on sentences.

But it's a different story with the misuse of prepositions. For example, no matter how many times I tell them it is "from... to" and "between... and", it does not seem to sink in.

Of my first-year students, a staggering 41 per cent habitually use incorrect prepositions. Of my second- and third-year students, the figure is about 40 per cent.

The problem that annoys me most is the misuse (or absence) of apostrophes. Of my first-year students, per cent are guilty of this misdemeanour, and about 41 per cent of my second and third years are, too.

The most infuriating mistake is the use of apostrophes to form ordinary plurals. Of the 215 students I teach, 13 per cent write in this way, so that we get the following: "American's"; "Agenda's are set"; "Mobile phone's"; "Dogma's".

Literacy is about more than grammar, of course - it is also about listening and understanding. A simple demonstration of listening-skill levels among my students is the number of them who get my name wrong on their assignment cover sheets, despite my writing it on the board several times, spelling it out and reminding them constantly that it is listed on handout materials (every week for first-year students).

My first name this semester has been "Carol", "Camron", "Caren", "Caran"; my surname has been "Dunn", "Dun", "Dan", "Donn" and "Black" (really). I've even been called "Donna Caran".

I bang on about these problems on every essay feedback sheet, but here's the thing: students do not read them.

I recently asked several classes of students, including an academic writing group where discussion of this sort is part of the course, about whether such criticisms are noted. They said that the vast majority never read the comments - they just want to know the mark. How's that for dispiriting?

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