Britons place little impotence on good spelling

October 8, 2009

The claim that British students are sloppier in their use of English than their international counterparts provoked a lively response from online readers of Times Higher Education.

A study by Bernard Lamb, emeritus reader in genetics at Imperial College London, compared the language used in work by 28 students - 18 Britons and ten from overseas.

It found that the British contingent made three times as many errors as their foreign counterparts.

Words confused by students included "importance" and "impotence", "piratical" and "practical", while misspellings included "pharmosutical" and "amoungst".

Dr Lamb, who is president of the Queen's English Society, found that in three pieces of work counting heavily towards their final marks, the British students made 52 mistakes on average. One made 106.

Online readers' responses to the findings are varied.

"Why not make a spelling test part of the admissions process? We'd solve the problem of university overcrowding in a flash," one writes.

In another posting, one more likely to be welcomed by students, Juan Carlos Rico Diaz suggests that "new grammatical and spelling alternatives can broaden horizons on the evolution of language and communication".

Others take a less generous line.

"For whatever reason, our foreign language and English teaching does not place any emphasis on grammar, while it makes up the majority of learning for foreign students of English," Richard Armstrong says.

Another poster, Neil, recalls being pulled up on grammatical errors in a viva voce, and admits that it is particularly "sloppy" to misuse English in academic prose.

But, highlighting the lack of consistency with which errors are penalised, he adds: "Other colleagues in the same field wrote entire theses with split infinitives throughout and sailed through the viva without such grammatical minutiae ever being mentioned."

Finally, Martha, a humanities lecturer, offers a grim view of life on the front line.

"I barely get to grade first-year essays for content: grammar, spelling (despite spellcheckers) and structure are too poor to even attempt to decipher content," she writes.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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