Student standard of written English is worryingly low

I have been worrying about the use of English in an academic context. As a specialist of a language-based discipline, I see language as the most important social convention. In a democratic society we may disagree about politics, religion and philosophy, but we have to vent those disagreements through a shared language. So language is common ground, a terrain d’entente.

I am very well aware that one of the more worrying symptoms of advancing age is a rather belligerent conservatism in matters of language, expressed through irate letters to the press and broadcasters. My worry does not so much concern the fact that language has changed. Change is inevitable. One of the advantages of age is that you begin to be able to see historic changes, and this applies to language too.

The clipped tones of the BBC of the 1950s, the careful articulation of Jean Cocteau in French, have gone forever. The changes are not limited to pronunciation: I remember the first time I heard the word “computer”, and when an English-master asked whether we had encountered the word “peer” as in “peer-culture”, which he thought a barbarous neologism. We had never heard of dyslexia, Quangos (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organizations) or even AIDS. Words come and go. It seems a while now since I heard anyone say ‘”WYSIWYG”, and the verb “to text” has only gained currency since the mobile phone came into general use.

Women, in the bygone age of my youth, were affectionately referred to as “girls”, while the gay community was referred to as “poofters”, “nancies”, and “fairies”. I am rather in favour of political correctness, which, at its simplest, consists of not being gratuitously offensive to minority/disadvantaged groups. So much so, indeed, that I regret that the College, unlike many other institutions, has no official policies on the use of offensive language in submitted work.

One of the big changes in British English has been the emergence of what is called “estuarine English”, a mixture of cockney and Essex English, which grew up in post-war housing estates and has now spread far beyond its original geographical base, to the detriment of so-called “received pronunciation”. However, my concerns over the use of English do not concern the way it is spoken. Spoken English is often playful and inventive, as well as being the badge of belonging to a certain group or set.

Nevertheless, while recognising that change and inventiveness are legitimate, it seems to me possible to hold on to the view that complete licence in the written language is counter-productive. The view has spread that an inability is a “disability”, and that just as students and staff with mobility or sensory problems need to be specially provided for, so too scruffy use of English is a “handicap” for which we need to be indulgent. I am not persuaded that the majority of slipshod work I see is the consequence of any underlying disability.

Instead, I see it as a result of the mistaken belief that language is a “natural function”, requiring neither self-control nor effort. Academic usage is partly responsible for this, because we call languages like English, French, Swahili and so on “natural languages” in order to distinguish them from “machine languages”, which are codes written for computers.

There is no way that any student, or indeed academic, can master English spelling in a “natural” way. It is full of bizarre anomalies – for example, discrete and discreet are pronounced the same, while read has two pronunciations, while lead and led have always been difficult for me. There would be a good argument for simplifying it. Sometimes, defenders of the status quo think that any modification of spelling would bring the entire temple of civilization crashing down about our ears. However, Italy has maintained a flourishing culture with a very logical spelling for centuries. Germany introduced a revised spelling as recently as August 2006. Still, any change would need to be concerted and agreed in advance, and cannot be improvised by undergraduates late for their deadline.

It should not be thought that good writing is ever achieved at the cost of no effort. Students can now look things up online, and the College has a site licence for the Oxford English Dictionary. Strangely, though, now that all these study aids are readily available, there is little sign of their being used. Badly scrawled, crumpled sheets are handed in with names of countries, races and religions left un-capitalised and other glaring errors.

One of the reasons I am exercised by this question is that after graduation, our students, precisely because they are graduates, will be looked to as guardians of correct usage. Secretaries may or may not get the spelling right; it is the boss’s responsibility not to sign anything he or she does not pass as correct.

Students who work in any public capacity will soon discover there are many “grumpy old men” out there waiting to pounce on any perceived mistake. Those who pursue an academic career will find that it is no longer possible to hand over a faulty manuscript hoping it will be proof-read before it is published: material has to be submitted electronically in useable form.

I am most worried about really quite minor but irritating mistakes of the sort that drove Lynne Truss to write her very successful Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. For practical purposes, most Departments provide students with a style-sheet, but if they need further guidance, New Hart’s Rules (the Library’s single copy usefully hidden in Santry) will be of assistance. Over and over, I see that students who have mastered a good academic style are at a real advantage. There are many helpful books, such as the Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers and Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge, For non-Arts students, perhaps Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals by Robert A. Day There are also websites that will help: is good, as is With all these resources available, there really is no excuse for bad style or poor speling.

David Parris is a French Senior Lecturer.