The impotence of good English: it’s a piratical issue

Imperial scholar finds that in terms of spelling and grammar, foreign students know best. Rebecca Attwood reports

October 4, 2009

A geneticist who evaluated his students’ English standards found that overseas undergraduates outperformed their British counterparts.

Bernard Lamb, emeritus reader in genetics at Imperial College London, and president of the Queen’s English Society, compared the work of 28 students – 18 Britons and ten from overseas – in the final year of his course in applied genetics. He found that the British contingent made three times as many grammatical and spelling errors.

On average, in three pieces of work counting heavily towards their final marks, domestic students made 52 mistakes. One made 106. Errors included muddling up words, plus grammar, punctuation and spelling blunders. The average overseas student made 19 errors.

Among the words that students confused were: “importance” and “impotence”; “vile” and “phial”; “infected” and “affected”; “bare” and “bear”; and “piratical” and “practical”.

Spelling errors included “addative”, “amoungst” and “pharmosutical”.

Dr Lamb said all the students had impressive academic records and none was registered as dyslexic.

In an article for the Queen’s English Society’s journal, Quest, he writes: “Many of our schools do a poor job of motivating their pupils to take English standards seriously, and are not teaching basic topics such as grammar, spelling and punctuation effectively.

“Above all, they are not correcting errors, so how are pupils to know what is right and what is wrong? I know that correction takes time, but if all teachers did it, the burden on each individual would be much reduced.

“One of my final-year home students told me that I was the only lecturer ever to have corrected her English, and that she was grateful for it, unlike some others.”

Dr Lamb added that students needed “constructive criticism and correction from primary school onwards” to raise standards.

“We need to tell the country that good English matters,” he said.

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