I Will Judge You by Your Spelling, Punctuation and Capitalization

As I complete another round of marking, I cannot help but wonder to myself:

When did it become acceptable not to care about the font, colour, size and overall appearance of your writing?

As any regular visitor to the Socratic Dilemma will know, I am no stranger to the occasional typographical faux pas, but I each year I grow increasingly concerned about the lack of care, or perhaps interest, my students have in the presentation of their written work. I have already written at length about a lack of consistency in student citations, but what I refer to now is something far more fundamental, and worrying. Take, for example, the follow extract:

The american Civil war was fought almost completely primarily to free the slaves as Framer has correctly argued that; ‘the Civil War was first and foremost a struggle to end slavery” this quote proves that the Government wanted the abolishment of slavery and that is way they fought in the Civil War4.

Although I have, for reasons of data protection, somewhat altered the precise language used, the formatting errors are identical to those appearing within essays I have marked over the past few years at a variety of institutions. The preponderance of errors within this sentence is, I admit, somewhat unusual, but by no means unique.

These errors include, but are not limited to:

  1. The lack of capitalisation for proper nouns.
  2. The use of synonyms in direct sequence.
  3. The misspelling of an author’s name.
  4. The use of the adverb ‘correctly’ without evidence or argument to support such an assertion.
  5. The improper use of a semi-colon to introduce a quotation.
  6. The unnecessary italicisation of quoted text.
  7. The use of a historiographical assertion directly following or preceding a paraphrased summary of that assertion.
  8. The use of a historiographical assertion as proof that the assertion is correct.
  9. The inconsistent use of single and double quotation marks.
  10. The lack of punctuation at the end of a sentence that ends with a quotation mark.
  11. The use of the word quote rather than quotation, when used as a noun.
  12. The incorrect use of capitalisation for common nouns.
  13. The use of the word abolishment when referring to slavery.
  14. The lack of superscript formatting for the citation numeral.
  15. The placement of the citation numeral before the full stop (period).

Even if I accept that numbers eleven and thirteen verge on pedantry, which I do not, thirteen grammatical and presentational errors in the space of a single sentence is abhorrent. How did such a state of affairs come to pass?

A few weeks ago, in a moment of mid-marking despair, I literally slammed my head against my desk while expelling a monumental sigh of defeat. My colleague kindly inquired as to my particular distress. I pointed to a horrifically formatted sentence, similar to the one above, and the nonsensical, partially purple, citation attached to it.

“How,” I asked, “could a student submit a paper in such a state? Even if they do not know the grammatical rules surrounding certain punctuation marks, even if they cannot remember the precise information we require in our citations, surely this must look messy to them?”

“Perhaps it does not,” was his accommodating reply.

After a moment’s discussion, he conveyed to me his burgeoning belief that a reliance upon digital media, where strict rules of formatting, punctuation, and grammatical convention are just as likely to be absent as rigidly applied, where reputable writers, such as news agencies, regularly bend (or brutalize) the rules of grammar in order to construct pithy headlines, had created a generation of scholars for whom that little voice that says “this does not look quite right” is simply absent.

At this stage he joked, with no small hint of melancholy, that perhaps we were moving into a post-typographical age. After all, eighteenth-century writers were able to communicate well enough with wild variants in spelling, syntax and grammar. Perhaps the old rules no longer applied. Perhaps I was, in my own words, an old fogie at 31.

Yet, I refuse to submit to such a notion. However feral digital text becomes–and let me stress that there are many digital writers with impeccable grammar and spelling, far beyond the ability of your humble correspondent here–yes, however feral writing becomes online or in casual communication, I know that there will continue to be a cohort of young writers who maintain these old rules and they will continue to excel in their chosen professions, trampling avant garde wordsmiths underfoot in their search for graduate employment. They are not necessairly cleverer or better suited for leadership than the author of the above, but they know the rules and this will work to their advantage. I know this because not too long ago I worked as an assistant to a Human Resources Manager who, when faced with a chest-high stack of applications, routinely binned them at the first typographical error.

Thus, however many red pens I exhaust, however many welts I inflict upon my poor forehead, I will not give up on my students. On the contrary, I will do whatever it takes to impress upon them the ludicrous state into which their papers have fallen.

When I return to teaching next week, I will institute the Trial of the Sorrowful Wolf*, whereby I will produce a list of ten of the worst sentences I came across** in this round of marking, properly anonymised, and I will make students work through them, one by one, and explain to me precisely where each and every one has gone wrong.

And before you think me cruel, know that my own English composition tutor engaged in this shame-inducing practice my first year of university. In a class of only ten students, we quickly realised which student had written which grammatical catastrophe, and the utter shame (mixed with a fair bit of camaraderie) meant we never made those same mistakes ever again.

*No, I did not attend that school, nor one remotely similar, but that chapter of that book made me laugh, and thus has earned a special place in my affection.

**Excluding, of course, papers by students with learning difficulties that disproportionately affect compositional skills.

***Image courtesy of quinn.anya

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