English, what for

That dude wrote good. Photo from www.schoolfamily.com.

That dude wrote good. Photo from www.schoolfamily.com.

Adjudicating articulations


I came to university with the impression that I would be writing quite a bit. This is, after all, big kid school and the supposed goal is to educate ourselves in order to enter into some sort of “professional workforce.” I made what I assumed to be a logical jump, to the idea that we should have at least a working knowledge of the language we will be using once entering said professional workforce.

Dear God, was I wrong.

I used to attend the King’s College tradition of study snacks, where upper year students peer edit the papers of first years in exchange for free coffee and a chance to scoff at frosh and their misuse of pronouns. On top of this, I have heard all manner of horror stories through friends of mine who have worked in university writing centres both here and at other schools around the country.

Through these sources I have come to the conclusion that an alarming number of students studying at the university level have only a passing acquaintance with the most fundamental rules of “The Queen’s” English.

It’s always tempting to point fingers when resorting to this kind of senile sounding logic: The kids are texting too much these days, they don’t read books anymore, they’ve picked up atrocious linguistic skills from The Jersey Shore, etc. That’s not necessarily the case though. Sure, things like email and text messaging have changed the way we communicate, but in no way are they endangering the fact that we are communicating.

Underlying the self-serving alarum I want to raise is a matter of education. We’ve all heard the stories of English programs around the country being the first to suffer whenever a public education system needs to trim the proverbial fat.

We never really hear any stories about how that’s affecting students after they graduate high school. I for one was never taught the different parts of speech in high school, and for the first few months felt like an idiot every time a prof mentioned adjectives or adverbs. Learning what those were (kind of) helped.

Frequently we, and by we I mean those of us who study English, are told that what we are doing is a waste of time. (Usually by parents who are well intentioned and would like to see us get something called a job upon graduation.) Not so.

Every day we see perversions of the English language. Not just minor things like the poor writing skills of many of our peers in science and commerce, or the addition of the word “jeggings” into the actual dictionary, but major things like the politically motivated changes of terms like “global warming” into “climate change” and “drilling for oil” into “energy exploration.”

Without a firm grasp of language, we lack not only the ability to articulate and express ourselves properly, but we also run the immense risk of falling prey to aggressive and/or nonsensical jargon due to our inability to see through it.

This is supposed to be an institute of higher learning and those of us here are, in theory at least, supposed to be of a high standard of intellect. If we lack the ability to understand the basics of English, what kind of chance does the rest of Canada stand?

If we fail to educate ourselves on the basics of communication then we are lowering the level of discourse in our country and beginning a frightening march towards an Americanization of debate in which words don’t actually have to have any meaning behind them to hold power.

1 Comment

  1. Guest on November 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    As a student of the Commerce program I couldn’t agree more. I know my English writing and grammar are most likely average at best but even at university these rarely get challenged, and I am not alone. Is the fact that I am studying subjects that are not based in literature an excuse to let literary standards slide? Your reference clearly indicates they have.

    The preservation and refining of anything must be accomplished through regular practice and criticism. That leads me to your point about texting and emailing. Yes, the lines of communication are more open than ever but in my eyes the dumbing down of communication is no different than the cutting of funding. If the regular use of English has been confined to 140 characters even if the knowledge of proper English were there, it wouldn’t get utilized. I also think that because we use language everyday people have a false sense that their current abilities are sufficient and that further study and refinement aren’t necessary.

    In a program that stresses content oriented assignments and tests, proper grammar and writing techniques are often neglected. This leads to most writing practices being achieved through electives that a student can choose; I could have arranged to write close to no formal pieces of English my entire stay at Dal. At an institute of higher learning, regardless of the program, I find that alarming. But it leads to a bigger question, if it doesn’t matter in school, when will it? When asked many of my peers will simply reply, once I’m out of here I’ll never write an essay again. Which in a lot of cases is true. For many the realization that there may be little use for eloquent prose or perfect grammar outside of a few courses makes the motivation to hone these skills minimal.

    Another point, a slight tangent, relating to the Jersey Shore reference is the influence the media has on language. The television and music industries have created a shallow corporate machine to generate huge profits at the sacrifice of talent and integrity. Popular musicians used to have to suffer and endure hardships to earn success, and it was reflected in honest lyrics that many would call poetry. Tales of loves come and gone, personal hardships, and experiences throughout life have been replaced by songs filled with excessive displays of money, subjective lyrics, and the image of a good looking a teenager singing something that was written for him/her about something that they have no idea. There is no doubt that entertainment is vital to society, but if we are constantly exposed to cheap watered down content then it will surely have its implications.

    If our culture and the things we interact with on a daily basis have put less importance on literary ability, then there will be less literary ability.

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