“Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”—John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire.
I was pretty sure that it would be bad, but I just didn’t know how bad.
I can’t tell you how many press releases announcing the results of an equal number of studies on this and that my newspaper receives on a daily basis. But they are legion, almost all of which are summarily discarded and properly ignored as the propaganda or thinly veiled advertising that most of them are, but I got one the other day that caught my eye, dealing as it was with a subject that is near and dear to me—writing, and the inability thereto.
It seems that an outfit with the suitably appropriate name of NoRedInk had just completed what I didn’t know was its annual scholastic review of grammar and writing for the 2017 year. NoRedInk, the release informed me, is a online language learning platform, designed to help students in grades four-12 improve their grammar and writing skills—a noble endeavor if ever there was one.
And these folks did themselves one sho nuff study, analyzing three million U.S. students in grades five through 12, who answered no less than a billion questions last year to measure their writing skills.
The results, as many would expect and the rest might fear, were not pretty.
Our kids may be electronic wizards and computer geniuses but they just smooth can’t write a lick.
Only 30 percent—3 out of every 10—of these million kids, ranging from grammar school to near high school graduates, could identify the subject of a sentence. Let that soak in.
That’s pretty basic stuff. We aren’t talking about subject/verb agreement here, we’re just talking about figuring out what the subject is.
The kids were a little better at detecting and avoiding plagiarism (Do we thank or blame Wikipedia?) in their writing, as 51 percent could do that.
However, only 39 percent (remember, now, that’s 39 percent of a million students) knew how to pluralize proper nouns that end in -s or-z (like Joneses, or Alvarezes).
And only one out of every three of the kids was able to identify unnecessary or redundant language (There could actually be an upside to this one, should they ever find a newspaper editor foolish enough to hire them as a freelance writer and pay them by the word.).
And you know what?
Based on the writing I see on social media posts every day, this ole editor is not a bit sure that the mommas and daddies, aunts and uncles of these kids would fare just a whole lot better were their writing skills to be similarly examined.
It is absolutely mind boggling to me how many of my contemporaries and those just a few years younger, many of whom I know to have attended good schools, demonstrate consistently that they do not know the difference between to, too, and two or their, there, and they’re.
And I must admit, it is hard for me to understand, because there are some things that a person simply has to learn, has to commit to memory—just like multiplication tables, you practice until you learn them; you memorize them—because it is just something that you have to do if you are going to be functionally literate.
According to the NoRedInk folks, the following list represents the most frequently occurring misuses of the English language in the writings of contemporary school children.
How many of us would know better?
• Lay vs. Lie.
• Discrete vs. Discreet.
• Anyway vs. Anyways.
• Among vs. Between.
• Prejudice vs. Prejudiced.
• Everyday vs. Every day.
• Number vs. Amount.
• Farther vs. Further.
• Altogether vs. All together.
• Fewer vs. Less.
The thing about education that nobody ever quite seems to get around to talking about is learning.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork and also writes a syndicated column.