Spelling, grammar, and why they still matter

When 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 … Continue reading

Why good writing matters

Many people don’t like to write. That especially applies to students and the seemingly unending number of papers they have to churn out. What’s the point? You write something only one person (the teacher) will ever see. And then you get it back with all kinds of markings pointing out spelling errors, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. It’s especially galling when it’s not even a paper for English class! Why good writing can seem useless I have certainly written lots of papers. As a sometime instructor at the college and graduate school level, I have assigned and graded lots of … Continue reading

Summery or summary? More misused pears

Many years ago, one of my birthday presents was an enormous eraser–about the size of an index card, 3×5. On it was printed the boast, “I never make misteaks.” That’s hard for me to type; my spell checker auto-corrects. It’s embarrassing to find mistakes in my own writing (unless they’re intentional)–but sometimes great fun to catch someone else’s. English has lots of homonyms. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention during several years of school language classes, that means English has lots of pairs of words that sound the same but have different spellings. Inevitably some careless writer will choose the … Continue reading

Semicolons: the most obscure punctuation mark

I remember a radio commercial that featured an asterisk salesman. I don’t remember the company that was advertising, but this salesman was trying to sell asterisks to use in its warranty to bury lots of exceptions where no one would look. The advertiser refused, of course, and the salesman complained, “If I don’t make this sale, I’ll get demoted to semicolons.” When I was learning to type, I wondered why I had to shift to get colons, which I use a lot more than semicolons. Maybe back in the dark ages, when our beloved QWERTY keyboard was laid out, people … Continue reading

The comma: punctuating or puncturing?

We use fewer commas now than in centuries past. Some eighteenth century writers, annoy me by putting commas between the subject and verb of a sentence, as I did here. Yuck. Here’s a sentence I found in a concert review from an 1833 newspaper. Apparently the trombonist was the best musician in a bad orchestra. Aren’t you glad no one writes like this any more? We can ourselves vouch, that when the Instrumentalists, on Thursday evening, were, in the Sinfonia, which commenced the second part, all awry, he pulled them together in the most admirable style, and ceased not until … Continue reading