Readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic

During the 25 years I have taught writing, I have complained frequently about how K-12 educators pay little attention to the building blocks of grammar, punctuation, and style.

In the past, students have accepted the need to learn these elements of writing. Now that’s changed.

I am teaching a month-long course in journalism history, which requires a great deal of writing.

For the first time ever, students feel emboldened enough to complain publicly that I deduct points, generally a full grade, when they make three errors or more.

“You keep dropping me entire letter grades for tiny, insignificant grammatical errors. I’ve never had a teacher complain about my grammar,” one student wrote. “Considering most of your students are juggling school, work, and the ramifications of a global pandemic, I don’t think this is the time for harsh grading.”

Another told me he checked with a website editor who said the grammar was fine. I noted 18 errors in a submission of 500 words.

Here’s what I wrote to all of the students:

After more than 25 years as a journalist at The Associated Press, Newsweek, and ABC News, I decided to teach writing. Since I joined academia, I have written and edited seven books. I’ve also written for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and online publications. 

As such, I take writing quite seriously.

If a writer fails to understand the basic tenets of grammar, punctuation, and style, myriad problems occur.

First, readers and viewers get hung up on the errors, known as creating “noise” in communications theory. For example, I once did a major investigation of prisons, which began with a visual of geese over a Wisconsin jail. I referred to the geese as Canadian geese. Such birds are called Canada geese. At least 100 of the 20 million viewers of the documentary scolded me for the error. That means that at least 100 people stopped watching something important because I made a style error.

Second, readers and viewers may question the accuracy of the information provided if basic rules are not followed.

Third, I had the luxury of having excellent editors who would challenge almost anything I wrote. Today, there are virtually no editors who look over reporters’ shoulders for errors of grammar, punctuation, style, and most importantly, accuracy.

Lastly, if you seek employment in journalism, advertising, or public relations, you will likely have to take a writing test, which is intended to determine your abilities in accuracy, grammar, punctuation, and style.

Since this course is a writing class in the Department of Journalism, I think it’s essential that someone care about such matters.

One thought on “Readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic

  1. These days young people likely spend more time reading posts on social media than reading books written by good authors, or even mediocre authors. Truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

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