Robin A. Grant  

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The Way We Write
CBC Radio

I'm constantly amazed by the number of students who come through our doors that haven't mastered basic writing skills. Every day I see an endless array of comma splices, run-on sentences, and dangling participles, from bright, motivated students. I think there are two reasons for this: an inadequate education system, and the communication technologies that permeate our society.

Because of the expanding role of the elementary and high school teachers and growing class size, teachers are often forced to narrate curriculum. The students in turn memorize and copy what the teachers say. Students then simply regurgitate the information on exams. By not being taught to think and write critically, these students enter university unprepared. An indication of this is the number of students whose marks have dropped from 80's and 90's in high school English classes to 50's and 60's in first year English courses.

Technology has changed the way we communicate information. Cell phones have eliminated the need for letters, memos, and many documents. TV and the Internet are swiftly overtaking newspapers as a source of information. Computers have enabled individuals to talk to each other instantaneously through e-mail and chat lines, replacing traditional letter writing and encouraging jargon, slang, and sentence fragmentation. Not only have these technologies changed the method by which we communicate, but they have also modified the language we use to do it. You can now get through an entire day without ever writing a complete sentence. But does this mean we should accept that formal writing is becoming obsolete? After all, languages are always changing. Old English became Middle English became new English. Old words die and new words are invented. Rules of grammar change. Why should we then encourage students to adhere to the rules of formal writing?

After an hour of pouring over a student's red inked essay at The Writing Center reading between the lines and along the margins, I can eventually decipher what the student is trying to say. But I think to be able to communicate fully, originally, and independently, a person needs to know how to use the tools of language effectively. Being able to choose words from the widest possible vocabulary and utilize the nuances of grammar is about giving power to your ideas. Once the student has learned--through experience and proper education--to add commas, modify nouns, and expand their vocabulary, their original and creative ideas gradually become clear, not only to themselves, but to others as well.

For commentary, I'm Robin Grant in St. John's, Newfoundland.