A standard complaint

May 21, 1999

Knowing how to surf the net is more important than good grammar, says Jean Aitchison.

"In the last decade, Oxford students' command of basic English has plunged from the atrocious to the abominable," claimed The Guardian last year. So are we dumbing down? This is a perennial debate.

The argument is often low level. The "abominable" English of the Oxford students turned out to be spelling mistakes made in exams, slips such as "pain-staking" for "pains-taking" or "twighlight" for "twilight". Many of the errors were "slips of the pen". As evidence of literacy standards tobogganing downhill, they were unconvincing.

But the puzzle remains. Are standards of literacy falling? The question is multi-stranded. Apart from spelling, literacy involves the ability to link words in a coherent way. Yet what does coherent mean? Does it mean whole sentences? Or just clear writing? "Time to speak out. Someone's responsibility to say it I English sentence dead. No doubt about it." This comment was made by a writer in The Times Educational Supplement 30 years ago. He might be even more agitated if, today, he glanced at a wine-list on a train: "Total happy juice. Wow. Super unashamed gluggability."

Two points stand out like lamp-posts: first, the umbrella point. Just as umbrellas are needed for rain, but not for fog, so different types of English are required for different purposes.

The tongue-titillating wine menu overlaps with advertising language. A newspaper article on wine would require longer sentences, with verbs, but could remain informal: "The own-label I bottle is a great, soft, plummy thing, so cuddly and endearing and stuffed with fruit that it's like a teddy bear" (Malcolm Gluck). A serious wine encyclopaedia requires more formal language: "Its chief viticultural characteristic I is the paucity of its yield" (Jancis Robinson). Writing at an appropriate level is a skill that is increasing, not decreasing, among university students.

This raises the second point - the matiness issue. Students today write less formally than 40 years ago. So do journalists. This reflects English life in general. Formal language, like top hat and tails, is required less often. A shift to a less pompous style is not a sign of decline, but of being tuned-in to the needs of the 1990s.

Yet how many of these students could position a semi-colon, or write a formal letter? Possibly fewer than 40 years ago. But semi-colons make text less readable, and writing a formal letter is a technique that could be acquired later, if necessary. Any lack is counteracted by other skills. Above all, most students are whiz-kids on computers and, especially, the internet. Email has helped to increase informality: messages typically begin with a casual hello, "Hi Jo", or with no greeting at all. And in the 1990s, surfing the web is part of everyday life for many - a skill that those who chunter on about declining standards are unlikely to have mastered. Computer literacy is as important as traditional literacy. Knowing how to dig out information on the worldwide web about Chaucer or airline flights may be more valuable than the placement of a semi-colon.

Tut-tutting complainers sometimes behave as if a golden age existed, when everyone penned elegant letters and read widely. Yet this is unlikely. In 1850, 31 per cent of bridegrooms and 46 per cent of brides in England and Wales could not write their names on the marriage register. These days, literacy is widespread and apparently increasing judging by the hundreds of thousands of newspapers sold.

Is there any loss? Well, maybe people want a quick fix. Many are unwilling to spend the time unravelling anything not instantly comprehensible. Television has increased the need for sound-bites and this expectation has crept into other types of writing.

But mostly, we are just a nation of whingers, always putting ourselves down. Moans about literacy are a continuation of traditional complaints about language. These reached their height in the 18th century when literary figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe famously deplored declining standards: "I do here I complain I that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions," groaned Swift in 1712. These writers did not realise that language evolves. Even so, their concern was not with the good of the nation: they were worried that their own work might not survive.

Of course, linguachondriacs, my word for language hypochondriacs, were around long before Swift. Whingeing about language is a long- established national preoccupation: "Nay, before the Conquest by Bastard William that the French came in, our English tongue was most perfect," lamented John Green in 1615.

So let us stop moaning. We are not dumbing down. More people can read and write than ever before, more go to university. Today's students are multi-literate - old-style literate, computer literate and, via TV and film, visually literate. With luck, they will swoosh up to greater heights than we, their predecessors, did.

Jean Aitchison is the Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University. This article is based on her talk at a debate about falling standards of English at the British Library on May 24.

* Are standards of English falling among students? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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