Sunday, December 1, 2013

Good Grammar and the End of Civilization

by Suzanne Lysak

Recently I was flipping through television channels and landed on an old episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In the episode, Ray Barone sat in his mother Marie’s kitchen---having persuaded her to fill out curriculum forms from his daughter’s elementary school under the auspices of getting her homework load reduced. In the process, much to her horror, she discovers Raymond never read “Tom Sawyer.” He counters that he read sports books instead and since he works as a sportswriter “that’s how I got to be where I’m at.” She looks at him in disbelief: “You’re a writer and that’s how you use the English language?” He goes on to scoff at the fact that, yes, what’s the big deal—so he ended a sentence with a proposition. “Preposition, not proposition!! Oh my god!!” Marie bemoans. “This is the end of civilization!”

I feel Marie’s pain. Each semester I teach news writing basics to a new batch of undergraduate and graduate students, who typically range in age from 18-24. I’ve noticed that about half of each class struggles with the basics of grammar. The most common issue is the use of pronouns (the infamous its vs. it’s) and also the punctuation of quotes (i.e. the placement of a comma inside the end quote).

Several students have asked me why I am so “picky” about the details. Honestly, I’ve been tempted to overlook some grammar errors once the quality and clarity of their writing improves. But then I remember—grammar is the foundation of writing. If the foundation is shaky, the words are not going to hold up. So I continue circling and correcting the grammar errors—very old school, I am told.

As one who appreciates and pours over the written word, I have a hard time with shortening and abbreviating, and I have to admit—I campaign against it. It really is an uphill battle. Since texting is now the preferred mode of communication, shorthand like “u” and “ppl” have creeped into students’ 
“regular writing; I’ve even come across “gr8” and “b4” in essays.

Since Twitter has become an important tool in journalism (with both positive and negative consequences) I also have to address the matter of personal versus professional tweets. First, I remind students---social media posts can live forever, so don’t tweet foolishness. But then we talk about how tweeting to your family and friends is different than tweeting as a working professional. Sure it’s only 140 characters—but, I tell them, it’s still a reflection of your writing. And your writing is your most important skill—never shortchange it.

So do I get through? Sometimes. Over the last few years I’ve had a handful of students ask me for resources that can help them improve their grammar and punctuation. I happily refer them to various online courses, podcasts and books. By the end of the year, when they are approaching commencement and sending me their cover letters and resumes to review—I am usually circling and correcting fewer misused pronouns and misplaced capitalization. It’s progress, and I’ll take it.


  1. I'm with you on this one. It always surprises me the difficulty that some have with our grammatical and punctuation rules. I am lucky that it comes easily to me, and I had thought it would to most readers, but such does not seem to be the case. Your students benefit by your diligence. Faulty sentence structure, word use and punctuation is always glaringly obvious to me and detracts from the writer's intent.

  2. I agree with everything you've said - but I spotted one of my pet hates: different 'than'. I don't know if it's different in America, because you do have slightly altered rules, but in England it's a huge no-no, and one that makes my husband throw things out of the window (he is a little excessive!!!) I'll presume it was either a trap to see if anyone noticed, or the sort of crap mistake I make when I haven't had coffee yet - where's the maid???!!

    I so agree with the bit about tweets, especially when writers are advertising their books. Why would you think about buying a book by someone who doesn't know the difference between 'your' and 'you're'???

    Meant to say, it's different FROM in English English!!! I think it's something to do with 'different' being comparative and 'than' being quantative, but I may be wrong. 'From' just makes more sense to me, anyway!!

    Great post. Oh, and please feel free to remove the 'different' bit before posting, or not post at all, I totally understand and might well do the same!

  3. I totally agree but have to admit that I am guilty of abbreviations in texting--it's just so much quicker--u know? :) Still a good reminder that things can easily become habits and I can't imagine reading a book with "u" in it--so, I need to remember that even when I'm in a hurry.

    Thanks for a great post!


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