Friday, October 22, 2010

What's the point of an education if you remain illiterate?





JIST (for "gist").


LOOSE (instead of "lose", as in "to lose weight").

ALOT (for "a lot").





These are common spelling and grammatical errors made not by schoolkids, as you might imagine, but by young people in their twenties. What accounts for this? It's easy to point a finger at the tendency to use "SMS lingo", which is supposed to have obliterated the need to know correct spellings and grammar.

But I think the culprit is our education system.

Neither at the high school level nor at the undergraduate level do teachers bother, I am told, to check and correct spellings in their pupils' written assignments and examination answer sheets. One reason for this may be the inability to deal with, and lack of time for, 40 or 50 or more students. However, I suspect that lack of interest is also a problem.

Also, at school and in college, not enough is done, in my view, to encourage students to read newspapers, magazines, books.

How are these young people then going to know that 'at least' and 'of course' are two words? Or that you can't write 'for e.g.' because e.g. stands for 'exempli gratia', which means 'for example'? Or that the correct phrase is, "one of my friends..."? Most do not know that it is wrong to say someone was so angry he "literally" hit the roof... unless his head actually touched the ceiling.

I am not alone in voicing this concern. Only yesterday, DNA carried a major feature explaining why the decline in standards of the English language is a subject of hot debate today. "Some [teachers] are ready to throw their hands up in despair over the sorry state of the English language as it appears on test papers, project work and assignments done by their students," wrote the reporter, Asha Chowdary. "Some educators however, are stoic about it: they feel that technology has changed the world for both young and old, and language, therefore, has to change with the times."

The report goes on:

Youngsters do not have the time to read a book, an entire magazine article or a newspaper edit. They use abbreviations wherever they can. To make matters easier for them, their cell phones offer predictive text messaging which means that they have to key in fewer letters to get to the word they want, which is perfect for the lazy speller. A tweet can only be 140 characters or less and this means shortening any profound thought they might want to convey.

The best argument in favour of getting young people to pay more attention to what they write comes from educator Nirmala George, who has been an English teacher for 30 years:

There is an argument that language is only meant for communication and, so, there is no need to learn it thoroughly. I would say, why learn a language then? We might as well go back to sketching stick figures or drawing objects to communicate what we want to say. It is very important to learn a language well. The problem that we find in schools today is that children know words but are unable to express themselves right. They have not learnt how to structure a sentence right.

And Asha Chowdary, the reporter, sums up well: "The key, say most educators, lies with the teachers and the parents. They have to encourage youngsters to read, to think deeply and write thoughtfully. Language may be evolving, but we have to learn to blend the past and the present, for the best communication possible."

Read the news report in its entirety here: "Keeping it short and simple" (Page 7).

And read the sidebar, too, in which educator and columnist Arul Mani makes a caustic comment about teachers who don't know their job:

Young readers blessed with English teachers who give notes and insist on their writing exam-answers as they were dictated in class must stockpile and throw decaying vegetables till these practices come to a stop. Some part of the larger problem arises from the fact not enough English teachers have a reading life, and tend to operate in terrible fear of putting a foot wrong as a result.

What do you young people have to say?
  • Illustration courtesy: (thanks to Commitscion Sanaa Abdussamad)


"This is a problem here in Canada, too"

Shagorika Easwar, editor of the Toronto-based Desi News and CanadaBound Immigrant comments: Of course it is [a problem in Canada, too]. And it is one of my pet peeves. Your/you're, its/it's, cd's and dvd's for sale, you all/you'll...Ohhhhhhh, look at what you got me started on!

It has, of course, lots to do with a lack of reading as you say remember what you wrote about reading more to hone your writing? If you don't see how it is written and rely only on what you hear, these errors multiply.

It has also to do with a lack of emphasis on spelling and grammar in schools at least here. Kids here would faint in shock and horror if they were to see good old Wren and Martin. I still remember an essay [my older son] Tejas wrote back in grade four, soon after we moved to Canada. His teacher gave him full marks and wrote a whole paragraph, praising it in glowing terms. I was really pleased when Tejas showed it to me, until I noticed a few spelling errors that hadn't been marked. At the next parent-teacher meeting (which happened to be just a day or two after), I brought it up with Mr Ciavone (known to all as Mr C). You know what he said? They don't like to mark spelling errors in creative writing assignments! Spellings are for spelling tests. In creative writing, the focus is on development of ideas and the style, etc. That pointing out spelling errors discourages a child.

We grew up with teachers telling us things like, "I before E, except after C". Quaint as it sounds now, it was a great way to remember a basic rule.

And then you also have language being tested in multiple choice format that can be fed into computers to be corrected. How else do students score 100 per cent in English? Or even history? And that's not just here but in India, too. I have nieces in Delhi who regularly max their papers.

As for "for e.g.", I remember a teacher at Sophia's reading out from the day's newspaper and asking us what was wrong with "the hoi polloi". Hoi polloi, she went on to tell us, meant the people, the common masses, and therefore, it should be just hoi polloi, not the hoi polloi, which made it the the people!


"I was reminded of my days as an English teacher"

Senior journalist Pratibha Rao comments: Reading this piece on spellings and grammar reminded me of my days as an English teacher. A student of mine spelt Rome as "roam". Soon after leaving school, she got married and went to Venice for her honeymoon, while I have yet to visit the place. Irony of fate? I hope her trip to Venice taught her how to spell Rome correctly!

I have, of late, been toying with the idea of compiling an 'Encyclopaedia Erratica' a compendium of common (and not so common) errors.


"It's shocking how poor English skills have found their way into the Indian media"
  • Faye D'Souza (Commits Class of 2004) , who's now an anchor and assistant editor with ET Now in Mumbai, comments: It's shocking how poor English skills have found their way into the Indian media. Gone are the days when we referred to to Doordarshan to find out the right way a word should be pronounced or used.

    Now, our television news channels and anchors misspell and mispronounce almost all the words in the dictionary and worse still is the excuse that this is the way the language is evolving because speaking proper English will make us sound elitist, alienating us from a large section of our viewers who will not be able to identify with us.

    I personally believe it's because of a lack of talent. There just aren't as many young recruits out there who speak clear, good English to feed the demand of this massive industry.

    I hope that will change in the future with more colleges like Commits turning out bright, able students who cross their T's and dot their I's. In the meantime, let's cross our fingers hoping that this current mediocrity doesn't become the norm.

"Of course, those teachers are to blame"

Sneha Abraham (Commits Class of 2011) comments: I have always hated predictive text messaging because I need to write my English the way I want it. And not to blow my own trumpet but in spite of using SMS lingo in text messaging, I always make sure that I do not use it when writing anything important. I cannot believe that there are some people out there who cannot separate their mobile phones from their answer papers.

And, of course, those teachers are to blame. Wherever an error is seen, it is to be corrected as modestly as possible. To not do this is to misguide children as to the correct spellings and grammar.


  1. I hate SMS lingo. U instead of you. Hw instead of how. I hate it all. I make sure to type in complete words because I think it is an insult to the language to do otherwise. I'm not saying I'm perfect. I get confused between 'forgo' and 'forego' and many more... But I have no respect for a person who doesn't type, or write, full words and sentences.

  2. The funniest thing is this: I know people who not only type like this but also speak in the same way. 'BTW', 'BRB', 'LOL'... it sounds really stupid when someone says - "BTW, have you heard about that? She said she'll 'BRB' and then bunked work! 'LOL'." I didn't make up this sentence; someone at work actually said this to me. As for SMS lingo and writing, I agree with Sneha. I use SMS lingo when I text but never, ever when I write. And, even when I message, the kind of lingo I use depends on who I'm messaging. I wouldn't message an office client or even write out an email saying: "File snt. Pls chck nd rvrt."

  3. Sometimes, I don’t understand what some of the short forms stand for because the SMS lingo is constantly evolving. I completely agree there is a time and place for this. It's fine as long as you use it in your casual communication with peers. Never, ever let it find its way into your formal e-mails and answers papers.

  4. I completely support the fact that poor education system is responsible for this. I can also state example for this - being in school I was never taught hat three dots are actually called "ellipsis". These are very basic things but it is the reluctance on part of the schools to ignore them. I thinks English education at school level should be more systematic.

  5. I remember my English teacher in school would always put a big red circle around a word that was incorrectly spelt. We would usually have to write it 25 times and show it to her. But in our exam papers, our teachers would only look for content and not spelling errors.

  6. And to add to this Chetan Bhagat takes on Narayan Murthy! I totally echo Faye's fears, I pray this does not become the norm.

    I get mails from professionals like this one: "Thanks for your communication. As mentioned we would revert the coming on the proposal." Sorry, you have lost me.

    And I wonder why people don't look up the meaning of the word "revert" before they gleefully and religiously include it in their mails!

  7. My thoughts exactly. I have been despairing over the appalling grammar and spellings used by students these days. Punctuation is a word that most of the young know nothing about!

    As an examiner of CBSE papers, we are categorically told not to deduct any marks for spelling mistakes!!

    I don't think that reading is the only answer as most students, if forced to read, skip through a Chetan Bhagat, whose language leaves a lot to be desired.

    I remember when we were in school (Loreto Convent, Shillong), we were regularly given passages to punctuate and they were stringently checked by our English teacher, who was an Irish nun. That was how we learned the Queen's English, which seems to be "out of fashion" now.

    I also feel that the CBSE syllabus (the majority of the English speaking population study this syllabus), concentrates more on functional/communicative English and not on old fashioned and correct grammar and style. The ICSE syllabus is surely better in this. Studying English is not a priority for the students as they prefer to concentrate on, what they call, "core subjects" and, sadly, English never makes it to that list.

    Maybe solving test papers from "Wren and Martin" will help them improve!!

    In these days of easy-way-outs, spell and grammar checks, I fear that good language will be a thing of the past and the new generation will continue to write "ofcourse" and "atleast" and nobody will even realise the errors.


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