I have just found out that 4 March is National Grammar Day – in the USA at least. It reminds me that there are thousands of people in the UK who are unsure about spelling, grammar and punctuation when they are writing. I know this because some of them become my clients and ask for private tuition in just those skills.
It’s not just that they are a bit shakey in their written Eng Lang (as we used to call it at school) but very often they feel a kind of shame or guilt about it, as if their uncertainty about the use of apostrophes and so on makes them a bad person – or at least shows that they are a bit dim. I’m talking here about people with very responsible jobs, who are no doubt very good at those jobs. I have tutored business people, lawyers, accountants, even teachers. What normally happens is that their lack of grounding in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation makes no difference to them for a while after they leave school. Eventually though, they find themselves a fair way up the career ladder, where suddenly they are competing for promotion against colleagues who clearly do know how to use an apostrophe, and suddenly they are at a disadvantage (at least a perceived one). If they run their own business, they lack confidence dealing with potential clients because they are afraid their use of English will let them down. The clever ones then come to me for help!
The thing is, being a bit dodgy with your Eng Lang does not make you a bad person, or an idiot. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are skills, and like other skills they are taught, learned and improved with practice. Not being totally confident with them just shows that you weren’t properly taught them when you were younger. That doesn’t stop you learning them now.
Of course the problem may be that you didn’t pay attention at school, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. For many years the detailed teaching of spelling, grammar and punctuation went out of fashion in English schools because educationalists felt it was unnecessary and a bit restrictive and old-fashioned. If you went to school during this period (it has changed a bit now by the way), the chances are the importance of these things weren’t impressed on you. The trouble is, they often do become important when you are all grown up and the quality of your communication is an issue.
I was lucky. In the first place I am extremely old and can remember when people wrote with fountain pens without spellcheck. More importantly I went to an old-fashioned school where the ‘correct’ use of English was expected of us at all times, so we quickly learned it. Please note that by ‘correct’ I am not talking about being pedantic and writing like Dickens (I’m not that old). I mean communicating in a fluent way so that you are easily and clearly understood, without any unnecessary distractions by way of odd spellings, twisted sentences or overdone punctuation.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Through my connections with Durham University I sometimes talk to academics who mark essays and exam papers and they often complain about the poor quality of Eng Lang displayed by some students. Those students really do lose marks for it, too – not because the markers are being picky but because they expect undergraduates to be able to express ideas clearly. Poor use of grammar is a barrier to understanding.
My experience with individual clients has led me to develop a one-day course called ‘English Language for Grownups’ which I am busy organising now. This is for anyone who feels they need a grounding – or a refresher – in the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation in English. It’s not like school though – it’s more fun and there are no exams. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll let you know how you can take part. I’ll see you there. Or is it their? Or they’re?