Some thoughts on grammar and spelling


There was an article in the Irish Times on Friday (April 4th) saying that English teachers in Ireland need to pay more attention to the basics of ” language structure, paragraphing and syntax.” This was because a report by the State Examinations Commission said that some [Leaving Certificate] examiners were concerned “with the level of control of the more formal aspects of language displayed by some candidates.”

This was followed by a letter by Hilda Geraghty, an English teacher. The letter pointed out that students of Irish state examinations are not required to “show understanding of how language actually works and is put together through parsing and analysis.” Ms Geraghty suggested that perhaps this should be taught, since currently Irish school children learn the parts of speech only when learning foreign languages (I must add some emphasis on the word foreign, because when I learned Irish, I learned many verbs in the modh coinníollach, without ever knowing what the hell the modh coinníollach was used for until I was nearly finished school [for the foreign readers, this is the Irish Gaelic for conditional tense]).

While I agree that grammar standards are less than stellar, I am not sure that the reason the current crop of students fail to dazzle with their grasp of the mechanics is due to the fact that they aren’t taught it explicitly in school.

You see, I wasn’t taught the mechanics of sentence structure or grammar, either. In fact, as an English teacher, teaching foreign students, I always remark that we don’t need to learn the grammar, more than a few rudimentary points, because it’s pretty easy compared to other languages, like Spanish (most of my students are Spanish, obviously). Instead we pick up the grammar from speaking and reading as children. It was only when I started to teach the language that I needed to know the grammar as something external to my use of it. And I learned that grammar mostly though conscious analysis of the way I said things (against how I didn’t say things) and thinking of the rules. The rules were all there, internalised, and I only had to think of the exceptions, of sentences that followed the rules, to be able to describe the rules to someone who needed the rules to learn. Eventually I did pick up a grammar book, but that only confirmed what I knew.

I got the rules of grammar, the same way I got the spelling and vocabulary I have from reading books. That is one of the main things missing from the lives of current students, I suspect. You can only internalise the correct rules after constantly reading text following the correct rules.

But books are only one part of the puzzle. The fact that we are reading more text now also influences things, because we are also writing more text. That is a double-edged sword, because it means that not only do our mistakes stand out now more than they might have done with handwriting (I recall my university supervisor telling us one of his previous students had had lovely swirling handwriting and it was only after she handed in a typed essay that he realised how bad her spelling was – his brain had just been assuming the words were correctly spelt, like with those messed up texts we see on the internet that prove how powerful our brains are…) but it also means we are reading other people’s text, which might not be correctly written, and contains multiple mistakes as often as not.

Why is this? Well, one part of it is just lack of education and/or proper care. People don’t always notice when they make a mistake and others then read that and might think it’s ok. People’s texts and emails are not proofread the way a book is. When I taught biology in the US, I used to gripe about there, their and they’re, the way everyone seems to on or whatever other web pages sends that stuff to my facebook page… But when I returned home, or read an email from some folks in Ireland, I realised that lots of people I know (looking at my own family, too!) make the same errors. I don’t know why I’d never noticed. Perhaps they used to write letters…

Now, with everyone using a computer, several things have happened at the same time. The fact that typing is now expected from everyone where it was once a skill learned in schools for secretaries, means that mistakes are more obvious, especially spelling mistakes. Spell check only corrects really bad things. Typing on the qwerty keyboard is difficult, not to say a pain in the arse. (it’s another topic I have a problem with, like wearing shirts and ties… but that’s anther day’s rant) It took me a long time pushing myself with a computer program repeatedly typing fear and bear and near and gear ad nauseum for me to get it half way decent, and I still use the delete key more than the space bar…. Yet we expect students to master computer skills without mastering the keyboard. I know there are some old writers who can punch out a paragraph faster than me with just their two index fingers, but most can’t. My students are still amazed when they see me typing a sentence while looking at them instead of the keyboard. How many have the patience to go over their text and correct mistakes? More to the point, why in hell would they write properly in the first place if the meaning can still be gotten across using fewer words, fewer letters in each word and eliminating things like apostrophes, which are just for pedants, aren’t they?

The prevalence of text message, that old bugbear of traditionalists, has not only made people lazy, but the fact that it began on phones that did not have a full keyboard, and where space was limited, meant that we put the car before the horse and now we can’t be surprised if it looks arse-backwards. Who was going to write a full word using telephone key? If the message had to be truncated to fit in one text rather than paying twice, well, vowels could go; “You” only needs one letter…. And whaddya know? Peple stll undrstood. So just because they now have all the keys and What’sapp costs nothing, doesn’t mean texters are suddenly going to write full words and stuff when a few letters, abbreviations and acronyms will do, FFS, SMH! If I learned to drive a car with one hand because someone decided to strap my arm to my chest for a few years, do you think I’m going to hold the steering wheel with both now, all ten and two? No, I’m hanging my arm out the window to catch the sun, tap the rhythm of the sounds from the stereo, which I turn on while I hold the wheel with my knees.

So now, kids have been reading other people’s badly written texts for several years, with fewer books to counteract the bad mistakes and suddenly it seems like proper English is, like, difficult and shit.

Which it is.

So maybe we should give a bit more of a run down on the grammar, return to spelling tests in high grades, and definitely get kids reading more books, even if it’s on their computer (I have a couple they’d love!). But we should also teach them to type, properly, from a very young age, and not just tap on a tablet – and, as soon as possible, please, I implore, phase out the qwerty typewriter, so we’re not putting obstacles in their way.

About davidjmobrien

Writer, ecologist and teacher

Posted on April 9, 2014, in Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Lots of good points here, David. Wonderfully comprehensive post. So interesting that flowery handwriting disguised bad spelling! Having had English (and some French) grammar pounded into my head by nuns, I do shake my head at texting shortcuts and the so-called smart phones that make everyone look like robots walking around with no sense of where they really are. I am, however, touch typing this comment on a QWERTY keyboard. Perhaps I’m too much of a dinosaur, but what would be the alternative? Enjoyed your article.

  2. Thanks for the comment Pat. I have no problem typing now, but it did take work and my smart phone is a “slidey-out” one with a keyboard! I don’t think we should stop typing, but teach it, rather than expect kids to just pick it up like they picked up texting. Once you’re trained on the qwerty it’s hard to go back. It takes such training because it’s designed to slow you down, from the days of real typewriters. We keep at it only through inertia, and the pressures of the secretarial lobby (I am sure there is one!), like we keep petrol-run cars…(look at the big thing removing the caps lock key was in Slate magazine a few weeks ago: I remember as a kid watching a show called Tomorrow’s World on the BBC where they showcased new inventions and they showed a different layout of the keys that was much faster even for a novice. But nothing ever happened. I am told there are programs to put different configurations on modern computers nowadays. I suggested to a learned friend in Boston, publisher of Albatross poetry journal, who has identical twin boys of around 14 now… back when they were learning computing, that he give one a pc with a different layout and see which was more proficient at typing, but he balked at carrying out this perfect experiment! That’s what you’re up against when someone has a PhD in English, not in science!

    I just came across this article about QWERTY keyboards from 1997, by Jared Diamond. He laments the fact that it seems we’re as committed to it just out of inertia, but he believed it possible to change. Twenty years later, we can but hope.

  1. Pingback: Further thoughts on Spelling and Grammar | David JM O'Brien

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