Grammar's lost generation

October 4, 1996

Twentysomethings are desperate to learn correct and accessible English, says Gerry Kreibich. If the hullabaloo about allegedly appalling standards of literacy among ll-year-olds has a happy ending - as it surely should, given the unprecedented furore and the number of high-powered people determined to put things right - all should be well for future generations. But a university student asked me a good question the other day: "Who's going to help us?"

Countless students believe they have missed out. The blitzes on sub-standard teaching that they read about almost daily may do the trick for their younger brothers and sisters. But for them it is too late. Their ages range from late teens to the mid-thirties. And they are thirsting for good old-fashioned English lessons.

There is still a widely-held belief that students would rebel if someone lectured them about commas, apostrophes, reported speech and all the rest of it. This used to be true but now they genuinely want to know (though they would not respond too well to the chalk-in-one-hand, cane-in-the-other technique).

Revelations about low standards in some junior schools have referred specifically to the teaching of English. Many of the teachers must fall into the age range I mention. It is a cruel irony that they are the ones who are suddenly saddled with the responsibility of setting the present generation on the right road.

For about ten years I ran National Council for the Training of Journalists courses in Sheffield and I am now a part-time lecturer on a "writing for newspapers" module that forms part of a degree course at the University of Derby. I am qualified for this role by a lifetime on newspapers and I do not claim to be a teacher of English. Yet accurate, grammatical, say-what-you-mean language is the very essence of good newspaper writing (I hear the cynics chortling) and I inevitably find myself involved in discussions about commas, hyphens, non sequiturs, misrelated present participles, shaky syntax and all the rest of it.

The students write a weekly commentary on the course, and it was the most recent batch of these "private diaries" that showed me just how eager these young people are to understand their own language. "I like this nuts-and-bolts approach," wrote one. "I think I've missed out on this discipline as a result of fashions in education. I've never been taught this. How can students be expected to write essays if they don't know how words work?"

A mature student wrote: "More needs to be done on English usage. I found the input on commas valuable. I wish we did more of this, in fact I'm trying to find out if there is such a course." Said another: "I thought writing an article would be easy compared with writing a short story, a poem or a film script. But it's much harder to write a factual report than it is to string together metaphors and similes in the form of a poem."

Twenty-four years ago Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, writing in Newsman's English, bemoaned the fact that the stream of language was "polluted by viscous verbiage" and that meaning was too often "clouded by vague abstraction". Those best placed to put things right, he said, were journalists.

"No professor of linguistics has as much influence on the language as the journalist who edits the day's news," he wrote. "Words are our trade. Meaning must be unmistakable. In protecting the reader from incomprehension and boredom, the journalist has to insist on language that is specific, emphatic and concise.

"Every word must be understood by the ordinary man, every sentence must be clear at one glance. There must be no abstractions. This places newspaper English firmly in the prose camp of Dryden, Bunyan, Butler, Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Orwell, Thurber..."

Mr Evans would perhaps be pleased to know I am doing my bit. I am not tacitly attacking those lecturers who guide their students along academic paths in exploration of the boundless complexities of words and ideas: I am not suggesting that they are letting their students down by failing to teach them how the language works.

Those who specialise in such academic matters as the literature of the former colonies, contemporary women's fiction, social and political manipulation in the theatre and the relationship between writing and serfhood are entitled to presuppose, where their students are concerned, a reasonable competence in written language. Indeed, if they stopped to shift or delete every misplaced comma they would never get around to their specialisms at all.

Yet my own uncomfortable conviction is that for every student who can write smoothly and unerringly about images employed to construct a role for women in a patriarchal society there are half a dozen who could not manage an essay on a day at the seaside without making a dozen factual or grammatical mistakes.

I am not preaching pedantry here; the best writers can choose to split infinitives or use powerful sentences that do not contain verbs. I am talking about error and confusion arising from ignorance about fundamental rules. (You know the sort of thing: "A despicable thug and a bully, the judge said he should be jailed for two years...") The more labyrinthine the writing style and the vaguer the clever-clever phrases, the harder it is to spot subtle errors. And - more dangerously - the easier it is later for the writers to claim that they have been misinterpreted. Why else would politicians speak and write in the way they so often do? A politician who says "we shall expedite rationalisation without delay" must be challenged by journalists who say "OK, but what are you actually going to do?" And I shall long treasure the scruffy note that fell out of one student's folder. "I had no idea about commas," he wrote, "but now I feel pretty confident about where to put the little buggers."

Gerry Kreibich lectures on writing for newspapers at the University of Derby.

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