Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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The write stuff


A READER’S letter to the Guardian the other day condemned attempts to make university and college students write correct English.  

It was headlined ‘Correct English’ is a guise for class snobbery.  

The reader was commenting on a report by the Office for Students,  the regulator for higher education, which found that some academic staff are failing to mark down undergraduates for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, leading to grade inflation. 

The letter said: ‘Language and vocabulary have long been used by the upper classes to arbitrarily distinguish themselves from the lower, less-educated classes.  A policy to punish students for poor writing skills is only a policy to punish those from the wrong sort of background and to give unfair advantage to those who have had the benefit of the “right sort” of parents, with the money and time to instil particular writing skills in their children.’   

Well, I’m using correct English right now to say: What a load of codswallop. I’ve rarely read such nonsense, even in the Guardian.   

I can only go by my own experience and that of many contemporaries, but I can tell you that learning to write English correctly, expressing yourself clearly and succinctly, has nothing to do with social class.  

The only class involved is the one in the schoolroom, where you sit at your desk, open your book, knuckle down, apply yourself to what the teacher says, and learn.   

I hate to sound like one of the Four Yorkshiremen, but when I started school in the mid-1950s, my background was as ‘lower-class’ as anyone’s. My parents worked hard, but had little money or opportunity to turn themselves into home teachers.   

So when it came to learning written English, there was no ‘unfair advantage’ or upper-classness involved for myself and many fellow pupils, and we definitely came from ‘the wrong sort of background’.   

The saving grace was that for the most part we had decent State schools, and teachers who knew their business was to teach. In writing lessons, there were no compromises or short cuts. You had to get your punctuation, grammar, parts of speech, sentence construction and particularly spelling right.   

It was achieved only by effort. If we had a query about something, the teacher’s response would often be: ‘Don’t ask me, look it up’ – that is, check with a dictionary or grammar guide, the better to remember.   

Some kids may have been slower learners than others, but when we left primary school at the age of 11, I knew none who was ‘functionally illiterate’.  

Okay, we all still made mistakes. But by the time we went through secondary school and on to further education, I doubt if there was anyone who could not write at least correctly and coherently. So why can’t today’s students do the same?   

Instead of fatuously complaining that these young folk are being ‘punished’ because of their lower-class origins, the Guardian letter-writer should perhaps look for the causes of their poor writing skills, not least the dogma and wokery that now infest our education system and most areas of public life.   

I know not everyone has the aptitude for writing – as you may have noticed, I’m no Shakespeare myself. But it’s important that these students, and indeed all of us, should strive to write correct English, especially to counter the gobbledegook that’s swirling online and in the mainstream media these days. It’s an increasingly precious skill.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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