Spelling, grammar, and why they still matter

misspellingWhen I was learning to read and write, I caught on pretty fast, but I can still remember the struggles of some of my classmates. Developing the fine motor skills necessary to form letters neatly is one problem. English spelling is another. We had long lists of words to memorize and be tested on.

Drills on spelling, vocabulary, and basic computation skills seem to be disappearing from school curriculums. Perhaps the educational theorists who hobble our teachers’ ability to do their jobs effectively have forgotten how important basic skills are. Or perhaps they are so intent on raising test scores that they dumb down the curriculum so that the hard things won’t be tested. Or perhaps they even doubt the capacity of children to learn things that they themselves struggled with and, I certainly hope, eventually mastered.

(I remember corresponding with a school district office and receiving emails from an assistant district superintendent whose writing should have been an embarrassment to him. How did he advance so far in education?)

In any case we now have generations of people who don’t spell well and have a weak grasp of basic grammar and math skills, And a lot of them don’t seem to think it matters. Since I write about writing, but not math, I’ll leave defending the multiplication table to others, but I want to make the case for good writing skills. And I want to make it as often as necessary and in as many ways as I can.


spelling wordsNowadays, kindergartens learn their letters, and then learn to write by spelling out how they think the words sound. They have lists of words to learn by sight, but they start writing long before they learn much about spelling.

Actually, I think that’s a brilliant approach. It can lead to much greater appreciation of the importance of good spelling, provided that administrators and theorists allow teachers to follow up on the implications of the method.

So one child might start a story “Wuts apona taym.” Another one, or the same child later the same day, might try “Wunts apon a tuym.” Once upon a time. I suppose the last three words of that familiar story opening eventually show on the list of sight words and make immediate sense. But who can explain the pronunciation of “once”?

When it comes time to read their stories to teachers or parents, can the children turn their invented spellings into speech again? If not too long a time has elapsed since they wrote it, they probably do just fine. A few days later, reading their stories might be more difficult. And reading a classmate’s story? Probably impossible. The adults would have a hard enough time puzzling them out.

It must come as a great relief when the children gain enough experience with language that they can master standards that they, their classmates, parents, teachers, etc. all have in common. And that is precisely why spelling matters even in the days of advertising copy, text messaging, or trying to communicate anything in 140 characters. Our society has come up with all kinds of ways to subvert proper spelling, but it has not done away with the necessity of clear communication.

Sheetz might think it’s cute to offer “fryz” on its menu instead of “fries.” “Lite” instead of “light” appears to have moved from an advertising crudity to a legitimate word with its own meaning. But most of the time, most people probably still make negative judgments about the education, intelligence, and general self-discipline of people who can’t or won’t bother to spell correctly.

I remember chatting on Facebook with a young man who enthusiastically told me about a new business he had started and what a tremendous difference he was going to make to the world. It was a wonderful vision, and he clearly had considerable energy, enthusiasm, and organizational skills to make it happen.

Unfortunately, his writing was atrocious. He spelled more words wrong than correctly. He didn’t’ capitalize anything. His haphazard punctuation made it hard for me to figure out just what he was saying–about the school he was starting!

After a while, I said that I hoped his writing was more polished when he wrote to prospective teachers and parents than it was while he was chatting. Then he became abusive, berating me for being so judgmental! If only he had learned in kindergarten how hard it is to read something in the absence of common standards of spelling and writing!

I’m pretty confident he’s doomed to failure until he learns the importance of adult communication. That is, I would be were it not for the memory of that assistant district superintendent of schools!
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grammar--diagramming sentenceMy seventh-grade English teacher was a formidable old woman, nearing retirement, with the personality of a drill sergeant. We had to learn our parts of speech and the names of all the different forms a word could take. We had to diagram sentences. Or when we didn’t diagram them, we had to underline the subject once and the finite verb twice–plus a bunch of other fussy details I remember all too well and won’t try to describe.

Once she retired, I’m sure none of her successors drilled grammar so insistently. I suspect that even her dullest students write better to this day than brighter younger students who have not been subjected to such discipline. Unfortunately, my teacher and many others like her gave the impression that grammar was all about rules, correctness, and avoiding errors, and not with basic communication.

Every language must have grammar, because every language must have standards of how to put words together so that they communicate something to other people. In English, the subject of a sentence usually comes before the verb. In fact, when the verb comes first, it means the sentence is a question.

Some verbs, called transitive, require a direct object. Intransitive verbs do not have a direct object. Other languages may have a completely different set of parts of speech or standards of word order.

Airplanes fly. Verbs require.

The first of the preceding pair of words is a complete sentence. The second is not. “Require” is a transitive verb, so a sentence that uses it is not finished without at least one more word. That’s a rule in a way. That is, we all agree that it’s true simply because it describes our experience with speaking and writing English. I can write about it because the vocabulary exists to describe English grammar.

Simple sentences can communicate simple concepts. What if we want to communicate something a little more complicated? Grammar, as a standard English speakers agree on, allows very long, complex sentences.

I was very grateful to my seventh grade English teacher when I took a college honors class where one of the assigned readings had sentences that went on for more than a quarter of the page. I knew how to diagram them. Those sesquipedalian (foot and a half long) sentences expressed what the author intended with much more precision than shorter, simpler sentences could have done. Fortunately, though, hardly anyone writes that way any more.

Studying grammar can mean more than simply describing the structure of a language. It can also provide some guidelines for writing better. That is, instead simply describing language as it is, the study of grammar can prescribe what it should be.

What happens when writers trespass against some grammatical rule? Poor grammar, like poor spelling, gives readers a chance to make a negative judgment about the education, intelligence, and even manners of the offending writer.

Is that fair? Why not? Careless writers make their readers stop and puzzle out what they meant to say. Careless writers give the impression that they have not thought clearly about how they’re communicating. Careless writers as much as announce that what they have written isn’t worth more than a quick scan.
If it isn’t worth writing carefully, it can’t be worth reading carefully. Careless writers also announce that they don’t care much about the readers’ experience.

Good grammar is a form of good manners.

The most persnickety grammar nazi is bound to slip up some time. Even with spell checkers, it’s easy to make mistakes. After all, the wrong word spelled correctly is still the wrong word. I’m not advocating perfection in writing, but I do insist that the standards schools used to teach still matter.
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Photo credits:
Shcool. Source unknown
Spelling words. Some rights reserved by bnilsen.
Sentence diagram. Source unknown

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