Education, Top Stories

Refighting the Usage Wars

On November 21, two educators published an article that lamented the declining quality of written work produced by American adolescents. Early in the piece, Temple University professors Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg cite a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics that yielded this disturbing claim: “Only one in four [high school seniors] can construct an essay that is coherent and well structured, with ideas presented clearly and logically.” To bolster their case, Hirsch-Pasek and Steinberg present anecdotal evidence from other university professors privy to what this deficit looks like (literally on paper) at the next level. One, from “a high-ranking state university,” resorted to altering “her syllabus to take two full days to review the idea of a topic sentence.” Illustrating the ubiquity of this trend, another professor, this time from “a highly ranked private college, wrote in a recent Facebook post that he took time out of class to explain how to write, noting that students had no idea what they didn’t know.”

Does this sound alarmist? Well, it shouldn’t, because we’ve been hearing about the problem for years now. If you’re a parent, you might be wondering how something this counterintuitive could occur. Don’t high schoolers need to write admissions essays to earn spots at elite universities? Wouldn’t those essays need to be both clear and logical? Are admissions officers unaware of these foreboding nationwide studies?

I shall spare you my answers to those rhetorical questions, and share instead a potential cause of this apparent epidemic that’s too often overlooked. It sounds hyperbolic, but according to a 2001 essay by David Foster Wallace entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” it’s been undeniable since the early 1980s: “In neither K-12 nor college English are systematic [Standard Written English] grammar and usage much taught anymore.” Again, this doesn’t sound plausible. How could teachers instruct students to write well without giving them any rules or basic conventions? No reasonable answer exists, but thanks to Wallace’s observations, I can assure you that our current condition was inevitable.

It all starts with the “Usage Wars,” a somewhat arcane but fiercely political battle over the English language that’s been raging for decades. “The average citizen” would actually know something about this conflict, Wallace wrote, “if [he or she] read the different little introductory essays in modern dictionaries.” No one actually does, of course, because they’re excruciating. A slightly less obvious reason, however, is that two tribes of nerdy lexicographers (i.e., people who decide what goes in the dictionary) are the target audience.

In one corner are the conservative Prescriptivists, who believe that the English language is a tool, and as such, can be used in a variety of contexts both more and less effectively. Wallace acknowledged that members of this group exist on a spectrum, praising some of them as “funny and smart,” while rightly labeling others “offensively small-minded and knuckle-dragging.” In all likelihood, you can picture the latter: a mean-spirited old English teacher who not only delights in subtracting points from essays for alleged infractions like split infinitives and terminal prepositions, but might even correct your speech in a room full of equally terrified peers.

In contrast, an image or even a possible name to identify the former does not materialize so easily. For Wallace, “Grammar Nazi” was too harsh. Instead, he preferred “the highly colloquial term SNOOT,” or writing instructor who “presents himself as an advocate of [Standard Written English’s] utility rather than as some sort of prophet of its innate superiority.” (In his family, Wallace explained, “S.N.O.O.T. stood for ‘Sprachgefühl  Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance’ or ‘Syntax Nuddniks of Our Time,’ depending on whether or not you were one.”) As a university professor and self-proclaimed SNOOT, Wallace did just that, and received at least one “Official Complaint” and a few accusations of racial insensitivity (more about which in a moment). At this point, we must take stock of those who oppose the aforementioned brands of Prescriptivism: the liberal Descriptivists.

This group of lexicographers includes representatives like Philip Gove, author of Webster’s Third, a 1993 dictionary that now sells for $121.78 on Amazon, and promoted “value-neutral principles of structural linguistics.” Additionally, Descriptivism attracted university linguists like Steven Pinker. Wallace quotes Pinker’s opinion on the continued existence of some Prescriptivist rules: “Once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the writing establishment, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations.” I’ll admit that sounds unduly harsh. But after teaching the subject for the last six years, I have found that grammar used to be taught “with the purpose of making clear to students the orderly structure of their language, a picture of God’s orderly plan for the world and for [our] lives.” Given that historical context, Pinker’s analogy appears less extreme.

But ancient tribal rituals aside, the Descriptivists’ primary belief is that correct usage is determined by the way human beings use the language. In short, it’s unacceptable to correct an errant phrase, as long as it is uttered by a native speaker. By implication, any form of Standard Written English would be impossible to attain. And here’s where things get interesting.

About midway through his essay, Wallace stresses “the Descriptivists’ influence on US culture.” I quote the following passage at length because of its prescience:

For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling”—a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmental movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair.

If I read that correctly, then Wallace, all the way back in 2001, was suggesting that many people now over the age of 50 were taught to write not for the purposes of communication, but rather self-expression, with little adherence to any set of “rules.” If this seems pedagogically misguided, that’s because it is. And such a philosophy can only endure for decades if its proponents wield a potentially career-ending weapon.  Banishing rival pedagogies from an English classroom is relatively easy once your case includes accusations of Prescriptivist elitism, especially when some of its adherents seem to actively embrace the snobbiest stereotypes:

As a result, SNOOTs like Wallace become unintended casualities in the “Usage Wars.” Remember the “Official Complaint” lobbed at him for arguing in defense of SWE’s “utility”? That complaint was levied at a self-titled “spiel” Wallace used to give to students of color, in which he declared that “anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE.” He carefully continued, citing all the “totally ass-kicking SWE” that’s been written by the Baldwins and Angelous of the world, and how “black judges and politicians and journalists and doctors and teachers communicate professionally in SWE.” Every one of them, according to Wallace, “realized at some point that they had to learn it and become able to write fluently in it, and so they did.”

In 2018, is it too difficult to fathom words like these earning Wallace (the famed American writer who delivered one of the most powerful commencement addresses in recent history at Kenyon College) a YouTube following on par with Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, and, ironically enough, Stephen Pinker? Answer that one for yourselves. Because here’s the thing: at present, teaching SWE in classrooms across the country is no longer an issue of race. The Descriptivist stranglehold on US English education has spanned nearly four decades, and the myriad dialects produced by technological advancements have scrubbed SWE out of existence across a wide range of students. If you don’t believe me, read Grant Addison’s recent review of Charlie Kirk’s new book.

It’s crucial to move beyond the “Usage Wars,” because the carnage has unintentionally deprived students of the most democratic tool English teachers have to offer: control over written language. Throughout American history, people of every race have used the standard form of English to transcend the levels of our social hierarchy. It’s why Thomas Paine, a poor kid from Thetford, England, could stir a population to revolt. It’s why Ralph Ellison, a busboy who grew up in 1920s Oklahoma, could write Invisible Man, a novel that employed both SWE and his native dialects, and arguably eclipsed the work of competing literary giants like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

If a palatable form of Prescriptivism isn’t permissible in the English classroom, the test scores won’t improve. More importantly, we won’t salvage our public discourse that continues to devolve. Indeed, as Wallace told his students, a “[Standard Written English] is the dialect our nation uses to talk to itself.” If that’s still the case, let’s create some updated ground rules. It isn’t about elevating to elitism. It’s about depoliticizing the printed word to establish a form of communication from which true equality of opportunity can emerge. I think, as Wallace notes in his final sentence, that’s “about as Democratic these days as you’re going to get.”


Michael O’Keefe is a boarding school English teacher, baseball and football coach. His writing has also appeared in the Washington Examiner and New Boston Post. A native New Englander, he has worked in both northeast Ohio and the Mid-Atlantic region for the last six years.


  1. Gringo says

    Teaching writing to adolescents has been problematic not just recently, but for decades and decades. When I was in high school. we were taught composition by being assigned essays on literary criticism. From what I am told, my high school still teaches writing via literary criticism. The problem I have with the Junior Literary Critic model of teaching writing is that I didn’t know enough about literature to write about it. Yes, I could talk about symbolism or metaphors and all those good things, but most of the time I was was making conjectures tossed off the top of my head. One should learn to write by writing about what one knows, not by writing SWAGS.

    John Rothwell Slater, late head of the English Department at the University of Rochester, wrote about how to teach composition, He didn’t like the Junior Literary Critic model. As Slater’sFreshman Rhetoric came out in 1913, it is apparent that the issue of how to teach writing has been with us a LONG time.

  2. college teacher says

    I teach at a community college with an ethnically diverse population. I have been shocked at the total inability for most (95% or more) to write. They also don’t know how to read anything that is longer than a blog post or tweet, often times preferring to not do the work if it involves extensive reading (more than a few pages in a week) or writing. Although I don’t teach a literature or english class, I spend a significant amount of class time explaining how to approach the reading (how to read a textbook, how to read a research article, etc,) or reassuring them that the reading isn’t as much as they seem to think it is, as well as going over how to write.

    The writing that I do get (when they bother to do it) is appalling. There is almost zero capacity for these students to engage with concepts, analyze, or even understand something they’ve read -and forget entirely about grammar or word usage. They don’t know how to organize a thought, let alone an essay, or present a cogent argument. They repeat back what they’ve heard in class or their opinions and feelings without any capacity to evaluate beyond their own opinions. These 18-23 year olds are writing and thinking at what I remember as 5th grade level (I’m 50)

    I’m deeply discouraged and frankly terrified; I have lost hope that our society has the capability to solve the problems that are presented to us now, if this has become the standard. And it is clearer and clearer to me how we’ve come to this point where dialogue, reason and rationality have become lost in our public discourse.

    Not to mention the attitude these kids have toward their coursework (‘how do a game the system and get a good grade without doing any work’)

    sorry for the downer. I’d love a little light.. if anyone has some to offer.

    • Stoic Realist says

      To add to this I would point out that many fiction writing communities tell would be writers that their target complexity should be an eighth grade reading level. Mind you as that is a subjective scale we get a nice death spiral out of it, but that is the standard advice. There are even helpful programs to evaluate your score to help you to dumb it down.

    • Maybe I can give you some light. I taught remedial writing and Freshman comp at a diverse community college before becoming a high school English teacher.

      First of all, in my own community college, we were told to expect to fail at least half the students; we had to justify passing, not failing. What I’ve seen in many community colleges though is that they view students as money makers, and so don’t fail them, lest they drop out and remove their money. So what you’re getting are the students who couldn’t write in high school either. They’ve spent their entire lives being passed along. So you get worse and worse writing. It sounds like that’s the case in your college.

      They shouldn’t be taking writing classes. They should be learning how to fix cars, build houses, work with computers, create graphic design–and so on. These students will almost all *never* learn to write. They lack the ability. They may have, say, IQs of 80. But they may be amazing in other areas. I found it very depressing to teach kids who were smart with their hands – one kid was amazing with mechanical stuff – but terrible with essays. Why teach them?

      *However*–you do reach a few. The ones who are capable of academic writing, do learn. You have to concentrate on helping one person at a time. If you help 3 students become better writers, that’s great.

      The basic problem is that we’ve had this mantra of college for everyone. Well, college isn’t for everyone and it’s a waste of time and money for many. I loathe how hands-on intelligence is sneered at by the very same people who are quick to call a plumber or electrician, or grateful for our armed forces, or happy at their hair style. There are many ways to be a productive member of society that don’t involve writing essays or writing much at all.

      But as for what is being taught–we’re teaching it, all right. The standards are higher for a greater quantity of students. But you’re seeing kids who in previous generations would never have gone to college at all.

      • J. Canuck says

        I like your comment. I took Engineering in university and the attention paid to being able to write a clear, concise explanation or report was nil. Painfully, someone pointed me in the right direction within the first 3 years of my career.

        And funnily enough, I wrote far more reports and proposals than I used any of the advanced mathematics I was forced ‘learn’.

    • Steve S says

      Some light: Every child is born with the identical knowledge of nothing. What you’ve learned, what I’ve learned, what our parents and their parents learned, was acquired within the course of a single lifetime. The Rules for grammar and composition were taught and exercised into habit at a relatively young age, which habit stays with the person for the remainder of time.

      Under a concerted program of instruction conducted across all schools, the first fruits of such language discipline will be visible in ten years. In ten more years, the entire school-age population will have been taught according to that model. That means that this entire problem can be rescued within two decades.

      Assuming that “concerted program of instruction”, of course.

      • Logan Chendle says

        This is called the blank slate myth: Read Pinker’s book about it. Everyone is different and has a different maximum aptitude. Half of people are below average. It’s clearer to see in math, but it’s there in English also.

        That’s not to say that English education is perfect right now. Too much effort is put into hopeless attempts to close the achievement gap, which will never be closed, and little effort is put into teaching average and gifted kids stuff that they do have the ability to master.

      • Anon55344 says

        “Under a concerted program of instruction conducted across all schools, the first fruits of such language discipline will be visible in ten years. In ten more years, the entire school-age population will have been taught according to that model. That means that this entire problem can be rescued within two decades. ”

        Bill Gates tried that with his Common Core. Common Core for writing tried to get students to read a text. Then have the students state what the author was saying and back up the student’s ideas with quotes from the text.

    • Angela says

      You need to keep in mind 50 years ago most of those kids wouldn’t have gone to college period. College was supposed to be for the gifted now we’re pushing kids who couldn’t do high school level work to go to community college.

    • Angela says

      You should also keep in mind there are a few people who are truly gifted in academics who are simply terrible at writing. One of my best friends in graduated from Georgia Tech with a mechanical engineering degree. He could do math that made my head spin just looking at, but yet he struggled mightily in a little old Composition 101 class. I had to write his essays for him in exchange for free weed. Now the guy is making mid 6 figures and doing great.

      Most of your kids are just people who shouldn’t be in college at all though.

      • college teacher says

        appreciate everyone’s contributions here. it is helpful to keep things in perspective.

        I guess the thing I find most disturbing is the inability of these students to think rationally and a disinterest in learning, as well as a willingness of many to use dishonest tactics to bully instructors into giving undeserved grades. students seem to think that it is the instructors’ responsibility to give them a good grade, rather than theirs to learn.

        • college teacher says

          … to expand on that: while it is true that many of these students would be better served in a different kind of learning environment and don’t need to be writers or academics, there is the issue that these kids are not being given a basic foundation for learning in K-12 which is important so that a democracy can function properly – clearly this is the cause of so many falling prey to deeply flawed political arguments and propaganda because they don’t know how to break down an argument logically or perform basic analysis in thinking.

          and on top of that, the take-over of political agendas in academia doesn’t let the instructors give the grades that are deserved or challenge the students to learn without putting reputation or livelihood of the teachers at risk. thus you get the ‘passing along’ of students that shouldn’t be.

          I actually love that I do reach and teach a number of students in each class, but I have to tread on eggshells in order to do this. ‘when I was a kid’ we did the work or didn’t pass and we were graded on the quality of what we turned in. I simply can’t do that as an instructor.

        • James McGrath says

          Part of the problem is education bureaucracy: when a professor gives everyone an A, for little or no work, the students are happy, the parents are happy, the administrators are happy, and the professor is not burdened. Everone is happy, but nothing is being taught or learned. Not just the students gaming the system …

        • Daniel says

          “students seem to think that it is the instructors’ responsibility to give them a good grade, rather than theirs to learn.”

          Bahahaha!! I totally agree. One of my students saw me shopping once. He jokingly offered to buy me something if I gave him an A. I told him he was thinking about it wrong, that he should ask ME to buy HIM something if he earned an A.

    • Michael Joseph says

      I taught high school and found a similar group of kids.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Yes, most people don’t read much therefore they can’t write. They talk a lot though so it’s easier to teach them to write like they talk. That was one of my topics of research. Why can’t kids write essays? Just listen to children arguing. It’s not logical. It’s emotional. Then I looked at newspapers, books, and magazines. Very little of what we read for entertainment is in an essay format. Essays were invented by teachers so they could grade the work in one pass. If you’re going to make teachers have 150 students a day, essays have to be organized.

      • Anon55344 says

        I learned a lot about writing by reading.

        1000 up votes for you.

  3. “It’s why Ralph Ellison, a busboy who grew up in 1920s Oklahoma, could write Invisible Man, a novel that employed both SWE and his native dialects, and arguably eclipsed the work of competing literary giants like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.”

    There is no point spouting stupidity. Ellison did no such thing.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Ellison did not such thing what? He was unquestionably born in Oklahoma, worked as busboy, waiter, etc. and employed standard English and local dialects in Invisible Man. Today he is arguably more well known than either Pound or Eliot, whose literary presence (like most poets of the past who could actually write) has receded into the Patriarchate of dead white males.

      • “arguably eclipsed the work of competing literary giants”

        It hasn’t. He is a quite well known as a good author of African-American descent. Eclipsed here means that his work is of higher stature and value and influence. But it just isn’t. I don’t wish to be unkind at all, but there is over-emphasis on his work due to his ancestry. As there is lack of such literary production and talent from African-Americans.

        Does that mean Ralph Ellison is a poor author or his work unworthy of classic status? Of course not. But comparisons with Eliot and Pound seem very over-stretched. And there is nothing wrong at all for reading him becuase he was an influential African-American writer either.

        “has receded into the Patriarchate of dead white males.”

        They haven’t disappeared. Eliot is still widely taught. And Pound was and still is influential – probably the most influential modernist of them all. It is just that poetry itself has greatly suffered for various reasons. And when was highbrow literature ever a popularity contest? This “dead white males” complaint is just silly nonsense which doesn’t really have much influence.

      • DeplorableDude says

        Let’s just say I don’t have Ellison in my library but I do have Pound and Elliot. Most people don’t even know who Ellison was.

        • Michael Joseph says

          The might not know Ellison but the know The Invisible Man.

          • yandoodan says

            It’s a science fiction novel written in 1897 by H.G. Wells.

            Eliot was a conservative and a practicing Anglican. Pound was a fascist. That may be why Ellison is a better writer, I dunno; I can’t say as I read any of ’em.

        • IsiahBerlinWall says

          Let’s just say I don’t have Ellison in my library but I do have Pound and Elliot

          In which case do yourself a favour and spell Eliot’s name right.

    • Peter Stephan says

      That was a genuflection. Every essayist has to bend a knee to Ellison, every anthology has to include Battle Royal, but no one has explained (to my satisfaction) why that awful mishmash of a novel was canonized.

  4. Language can be capitalistic, huh? It is genuinely remarkable how entire fields can be dominated by such inanities.

    • Stoic Realist says

      At this point it is going beyond just fields and into the general curriculum models. Omnipotent being of your choice help us all.

  5. Pingback: Writin’ Don’t Mean No Thing | Innocent Bystanders

  6. mamerica1 says

    It’s worth noting that I believe Pinker is actually closer to a SNOOT – he wrote a whole book about proper usage of written English (“The Sense of Style”). I think he considers himself a descriptivist only in comparison to the hard-core prescriptivists of old.

  7. Ellen says

    I’ll not speak to the organization of words or thoughts. Even further down, we have the inability to distinguish one word from another, especially when they sound alike. We’ve always had the standard confusion over to, too, two or its, it’s. Now we have people who don’t know the difference between “rein” and “reign”, and who resent being asked to “tow the line” in their grammatical labors.

    I suspect computer dictation programs are encouraging homonyms to run rampant.

    • Saw file says

      Generally, sure, but basically nonsense.
      Yes, SWL ( and English language generally) is difficult to learn, even for primary English language people.
      Classical English is a fukd language to learn, let alone properly write.
      I have coached, for yrs, ESL in my public library.
      I only coach professional men.
      Many of them have decent SWE skills, but there vocal skills are crap.
      Comsi comsa

      • thewerewife says

        Forgive me for asking: Are your last two sentences meant as sarcasm? It’s hard to tell in these days.

        • Jeff Denton says

          @thewerewife I was about to ask the same thing. The entire message is little more than a tortuously formatted non sequitur.

    • Martin Lawford says

      Again and again, I have notice wrong-word errors in text supposedly written by educated people. They flout their ignorance by flaunting proper usage. They hone in on a topic instead of homing in on it, as if they were honing pigeons. The reason they do not know the difference between “it’s”, which is a contraction, and “its”, which is a possessive, is that they expect their spell checkers to do their writing for them.

      • Chris says

        The one I really hate is “would of” for “would have”.

        • Ellen says

          The one that most often sets me off on a rant is when somebody sticks an excess “the” in front of a proper name. “Harry did well on the test, but the Fred flunked.” Where did they get the idea that Fred needed a “the” in front of his name, when Harry didn’t?

      • Defenstrator says

        To be honest I really wish there was an edit function on these pages. I hastily write things on my phone, and then cringe as I read them due to spelling errors and poor word usage.

  8. augustine says

    Thank you for this informative (and perhaps too brief) essay. Best bit for me:

    “Throughout American history, people of every race have used the standard form of English to transcend the levels of our social hierarchy.”

    This is undeniable and also encouraging. I would include class as well as race in this context.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Augustine, that is the objection minority communities have regarding SWE. It’s stands for Standard White English. Just think of the leg up you have when you grow up speaking SWE.

      • Daniel says

        Michael Joseph,
        The advantage a native speaker of SWE has cannot be ignored. You have a good point. Pushing back though, the difference between SWE and the various manifestations of slang that constitute spoken English wouldn’t even count as a separate dialect though, wouldn’t you think?
        Learning SWE is totally possible; it just isn’t enough of a priority. If parents want their kids to be able to speak formally, and if teachers want to reinforce it, it’ll start happening.

  9. Ray Andrews says

    How about the knowing when you are beat position? Fight tooth and nail for proper English, but when some new form insists on being born, then give up the battle and accept it.

    • Saw file says

      @@Ray A.
      Define, “beat”?
      You’re babbling nonsense.

  10. Saw file says

    In hindsight, I am now appreciative that I had enough ‘old school’ English Language teachers, throughout my education, to properly teach me SWE.
    I have resisted using commas, like ‘sprinklng pepper in sentences’, but I do love my comma’s.
    I must admit though, that I often receive written communication from’ young’ ppl that I have to follow up with a verbal communication, because I have no idea wtf they meant.
    I fail to lose hope though….

    • Commas save lives. The old line:
      Let’s eat grandma vs. Let’s eat, grandma.

      • Chris says

        Commas reflect the way the sentence is spoken, and make the written language easier to understand. In other wortds, they aid communication, and communication is what language is all about. The best comment I’ve ever heard about punctuation is that using it correctly is simply good manners. Why force your reader have to make an effort to understand what you’re trying to say?

      • Michael Joseph says

        No, inflection saves lives. If you write let’s eat grandma the reader will go, “oh, he forgot a comma.” If you say let’s eat gramma inflection on eat. The zombie will say, “good suggestion, however, I eat whoever is in front of me.”

        • IsiahBerlinWall says

          @Michael Joseph inflection? In a written genre? Leave the sophomoric Saussure assumptions outside, this is an article and discussion about writing, FFS …

  11. Mike Jefferis says

    I learned composition under one high school teacher who taught grammar and how to write an essay, starting with proper sentences. That was back in 1963-64. The classes were half literature, have grammar, so I got a whole year of grammar. I didn’t graduate an expert at writing by any means; it was a start.

    One should start with prescription and once one is good at writing standard English, one can begin to experiment. But wait! One still has to be a competent writer to turn out worth while experimental prose.

    Good writers should be able to write for different audiences. If one is writing for a fairly uneducated audience, then one best write at a 6th to 8th grade level. Put the hay down where the goats can get at it. (It takes practice.)

    The same competent writers should be able to turn out top shelf prose with time and diligence.

  12. Both the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists are right to a certain extent. My father, a retired university English professor, used an analogy that has always stuck with me. Communicating in English is like wearing clothes. Sometimes it is appropriate to dress very casually, and other times it is appropriate to dress formally. Using standard written English is entirely appropriate in formal settings, but not necessarily appropriate when texting your friends, or writing a grocery list. You would not show up to a beach party on the hottest day of the summer wearing a tuxedo. Neither would you attend a funeral wearing a bathing suit. If you use inappropriate English for your social setting, expect to encounter raised eyebrows, and be dismissed.

    A well-educated person should know how to use all forms of English, and know how to select them based on the social context.

  13. What has really exposed to me my lack of grammatical knowledge is learning a second language, in my case French. I am regularly amazed and rather embarrassed at how little I understand. I have to regularly ask for refreshers on concepts such as adverbs and transitive verbs. I may understand how they are used in English, or at least unconsciously understand, but when asked to utilize them in French I fall short.

  14. Learning grammar teaches you how the language works. How can you use something effectively if you don’t know how it works?

    • neoteny says

      How can you use something effectively if you don’t know how it works?

      Hundreds of millions of people use cars with automatic transmissions ‘effectively’ every day, yet it is very unlikely than more than 10% of those users have a firm grasp on how automatic transmissions work.

  15. Erica from The West Village says

    Artificial Intelligence may be able to ferret out the pretenders; those who submit college essays composed and written largely by someone other than the prospective student.

    By extracting a wide array of social media posts and comparing the style of writing the school can quickly find out if the student paid for someone to write the essay, or had mom/dad write it for them.

    My daughter just informed me one of her friends who graduated from college with a degree in English had her parents edit/write nearly every paper over her last 2 years of school.

    The kid is working at the Pet Food Store now…with $20k of college debt.

    Some might blame the parents. Some might blame the kid. Others yet should blame the professors.

    In math class, I was brilliant at solving any problem in my head and providing the right answer, but usually got B’s and C’s because I didn’t/couldn’t show my work. It took a math teacher who asked me to stay after class to walk through my process for solving problems that they finally understood that many styles of learning exist in these human brains and not all of them fit a template designed by Prentice-Hall or Houghton Mifflin.

    Teachers need to pull students aside 1:1 to apply Ronald Reagan’s lesson in life.

    Trust, but verify.

    • Anon55344 says

      It does not matter if your friend could write. With a degree in English all you can become is “The kid is working at the Pet Food Store now…with $20k of college debt.”

      • Michael Joseph says

        That’s why many English majors go for a masters in law, journalism, and business. I remember flying through graduate school and listening to the non humanities folks grouse about the writing.

  16. Nice to see the old DFW essay getting attention. That essay, at least in its current form, would not be published today (due to the PC police.)

    Errors I hear constantly that make me nuts:

    1. I wish I would have known.
    2. I wish I would OF known.
    3. I’m believing you. I’m understanding you.

  17. rickoxo says

    Having been in education for close to 30 years, I can’t remember a time when adults didn’t complain that students didn’t know how to read and write. TV destroyed kids ability to focus and read a book, computers destroyed kids abilities to focus and work, now it’s social media. This article seems like 98% explanation after the fact, looking for someone to blame about a problem I am not that convinced truly exists.

    I teach 9th graders at a large, urban, diverse public high school, and while I teach computer science, students end up writing a decent amount. Many of my students are lazy, don’t want to work, don’t like to write, and often turn in crap–just like students did when I was in high school back a long time ago. I have many good writers, some hysterical writers, some very stylized writers using very “descriptive” language and I have some amazing writers–I’m guessing just like when I was in high school a long time ago.

    I had been thinking about the issue of students becoming good writers myself, so I gave a big project early in the year to focus on writing development, writing a simple, clear paragraph. It didn’t go well, lots of confusion, lots of horrible writing, low focus, low energy and no interest in revision. I was thinking this was serious evidence that students can’t write or don’t like to write.

    We did two more big projects, and both of those projects had much more freedom in how students presented their information. On both of those, students did much better. Many didn’t write much beyond captions and blurbs, but many others wrote paragraphs and pages of information about topics they were interested in. The last project was a story project and students went nuts telling digital stories. Tons of descriptive language, but no lack of interest, energy, creativity, focus, along with quality, structure, style, and thoughtfulness.

    This generation actually reads and writes a ton. Granted much of it is in small doses, but compared to the tv generation and the computer game generation, reading and writing texts or instagram posts is a lot more voluntary writing than I ever did as a kid and way more reading than many of my friends did.

    And just about every day, I get way too many horribly written, nonsensical emails from many of the same adults who are complaining that students don’t know how to read and write.

    • Yes, thank you! I’ve been teaching composition to undergraduates at two different state universities for the past six years, and my students have always covered a spectrum of abilities and styles. I am, more often than not, incredibly pleased with my students’ talents and efforts. A lot of my work is actually un-teaching absurdly strict structure habits that have gotten in the way of the students actually SAYING something. Insanely strict adherence to SWE is not only incredibly common, but it’s also very often detrimental to the act of communicating, and certainly detrimental to the possibility of students caring at all about improving their writing.

      Frankly, my colleagues who complain the most are often the worst writers and teachers in the faculty. Everything they do is lifeless except for their incessant griping.

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  19. Jezza says


    Write in haste; repent at leisure.

    I learned to love the act of putting ink on paper in the nineteen forties and fifties, at a sloping desk with inkwell and steel-nibbed pen. This process made me think BEFORE committing words to the page, to clarify my comment and set it in words bold and trenchant. Learning to write well follows the same pathways as learning to play music well; one must do the drudge work first: spelling, sounds; vocabulary, scales; sentences, chord progressions; punctuation, rhythm; reading good books, listening to fluent musicians. The similarities are striking. At the age of fifteen I found it useful to make notes in pencil of appropriate words and phrases which could be used to convey my meaning, then write fair copy in the schoolbook which ended up beneath the teacher’s nose. It was an effective method. I wrote four to five five hundred to one thousand word essays a week for English, geography, history, science – four hours homework a night. All that practice brought me to a state where I experienced the sensation that something other than myself was causing the pen to fly across the page. I was outside myself as it were. Midge Farrelly, the surfer, described experiencing a similar sensation when he caught a perfect wave.

    Once embedded, these treasures endure forever (or for as long as you live, whichever comes first)
    . The texture of prose, the rhythm of a dance, the nuance of the circle of fifths, the moment of perfect balance on a board, are all the result of assiduous attention to basic elements. Persevere and just occasionally you too may experience a moment of pure perfection. I wish you all good fortune. Happy New Year!

  20. I always did well in math and sciences, but poorly in English.I was taught SWE. But the variety of SWE being taught was a random jumble. Math is s cohent whole that builds on itself. The SWE I was taught was a collection of rules with no internal logic. I learned to write through reading and by studying the Bible with others. Both exposed me occasionally to great prose, and the latter to a critical context in which we took sentences and paragraphs apart looking for the author’s meaning.

  21. Jezza says

    Grammar: woman married to Grampa. Syntax: what you pay for your pleasures. Tense: what you feel when you haven’t done your homework. Conjunction: where two roads cross. Any more?

  22. Robert Darby says

    We were discussing this issue over lunch on Boxing Day. Two young chaps (late 20s, university educated in sciences) remarked that when they were at school in Canberra in the 1990s they were not taught any grammar or other rules for writing, and they emphasised how much they regretted this. They felt the lack especially acutely when they tried to learn French and German, particularly the latter, as the inflected structure of the language makes it necessary to understand concepts such as case, number and gender. I contrasted my own experience of schooling in Melbourne in the 1960s, when grammar was a major element of the curriculum, covering everything from parsing and clause analysis to comprehension exercises and precis-writing. We were not discouraged from expressing ourselves in essays and other written work – on the contrary, were were given every opportunity to write stories, plays and other forms of creative writing, such as describing a painting, or musing on a rock – but the assumption was that if you wanted to write well (i.e. in such a way as to fulfil the purpose of your communication) you had to understand the tools of your medium. I do not recall the analogy being drawn at the time, but the principle was similar to the requirement on the part of painters to learn the appropriate techniques and acquire the necessary skills.

    I commented that one of the features prominent in the (mostly poorly written) essays I marked as a lecturer or tutor in literature and history at various universities in the 1980s was that hardly any students were able to punctuate correctly. The reason for this is that correct punctuation requires an understanding of sentence structure, the difference between principal and subordinate clauses and (to get even more technical) the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses. To people who have never studied or been taught grammar, these terms and concepts are a complete mystery: most of them would not even know what a clause was.

    We agreed that, as in the United States, the teaching of grammar and formal English was driven from the schools (at least the state systems – not sure about the private and independent schools) in the 1970s in the name of freedom of expression, creativity, doing your own thing, letting your hair down etc. These liberating ideas of the 1960s-70s (the Age of Aquarius, if I recall correctly) were valuable and truly progressive when they contributed to the elimination of censorship, sexism, racism etc, and to the increase of personal freedom and autonomy, but not when they were (mis)applied to language – which is in its very nature a system of (arbitrary) rules, without which there would only be grunts and gestures, and communication between people would be very difficult.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Sadly, anyone who can speak a language fluently knows their grammar. All you are talking about are little marks tedious people have invented to indicate where people pause take breaths and change subject. Many a brilliant story teller did not know those rules.

  23. Nakatomi Plaza says

    Something isn’t adding up. The original article was written by two psychologists. This is an obvious problem given the subject matter, but then again, the original article contains almost no actual research and mostly just speculates about the topic at hand. The main purpose of the article seems to be to bash No Child Left Behind and then Common Core, but to what end? There are no solutions, just platitudes and more bullshit about the “workplaces of tomorrow.” This is not credible research, just a opinion piece published by a think tank.

    The original article is garbage, so what’s the agenda here?

  24. yandoodan says

    I am ready to agree that Standard American English (or BBC English in GB) is a lingua franca important for students to master — at least those headed for white collar jobs. But this can be overemphasized. Mark Twain used a mildly Western English most of the time, and in Huckleberry Finn went Full Southern White Trash on us. JRR Tolkien used a medievalish voice in The Lord of the Rings which became more and more extreme as the novel progressed. William Morris used a pseudo-medieval voice so rococo that it’s hard to understand it (and not really worth the effort). And what about Robert Burns? Or A Clockwork Orange? Or anything by T.S. Eliot not involving cats?

  25. Daniel says

    Try as I may, I couldn’t find a grammar mistake in this article.

  26. Freidrich Goatse says

    The most major factor is falling average IQs as a result of mass immigration of genetically different races of people who, simply put, are not equal in ability.

    The “no child left behind,” commercialization of education and other such nonsense are highly related to this.

  27. Optional says

    Are you joking? Where have you been?
    English teachers don’t teach any English at all now, standard or otherwise.
    And haven’t for almost 3 decades.
    They have the students read 2 (maybe 3) books a year and they discuss (not write about) social justice and oppression and the evils of men and white people.

    I learned everything single thing I know about the English language from my French teachers.

    • markbul says

      You beat me to it. This is very old news. The removal of grammar from the curriculum happened decades ago. The self-expressive goal of writing came in with ‘whole language’ teaching, and never went away. Of course, the teachers who got their starts during these years never became competent to teach proper writing, so both pedagogy and competence equally the problem.

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  30. Cantankerous says

    I taught English (Language Arts) as a third career 2000 – 2014. During that time I saw the end of whole language, the return of standards, then the abandonment of all of it by universities. At a conference a professor of English at Cal State San Bernadino glibly told us that “we’ve given up on grading grammar and usage.”

    Common Core came the year before I retired; as I already had four sections of senior AP Lit & Comp., I was spared the indignity of spending six weeks teaching restless teens to cobble together a five paragraph essay on a singularly banal passage of two or three pages that some cabal of cat ladies at the CA Dept. of Ed. thought the kids would find irresistible.

    At 62, I just hope I die before the current rot becomes gangrenous.

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