The Written Word

Because I’m a writer, I do tend to judge people, to at least a certain extent, by the way in which they employ words, either spoken or written. And because my wife is a university professor, as is another professor temporarily residing with us, the subject does come up occasionally.  In addition, because Cedar City is a university town, we all know other professors and instructors. And… given all that, there is one subject about which all those we know in this field agree:  the vast majority of students matriculating at the university in the past few years are incapable of writing an essay test – about anything.  And most aren’t that much better at writing anything of any length, even with their computer and the internet to help, although some are adept at plagiarism, which they think of as cut and paste.

In the past, while there were some students who had problems with this kind of writing, most students could at least make an attempt that resembled an essay.  In the last two to three years, however, the situation has reversed itself, to the point that, in my wife’s current class, at least so far this semester, not a single student appears capable of writing a coherent essay test… or even a three-sentence short answer.

Mind you, this is despite the fact that the university has become more selective in admitting students, and that scores on the ACT and SAT are higher than ever. Of course, that might suggest that the ACT and the SAT have been dumbed down, but I don’t believe that.  I’ve talked to many of these students, and they’re intelligent.  They just can’t organize their thoughts in written form if they don’t have access to electronic aids, and even when they do, the results are usually pathetic.

Needless to say, this scares me… more than a little.

One of the great benefits of learning to write an essay on a test, or under pressure without computer back-up, is that to be successful, a writer has to organize words, facts, and concepts into a coherent and persuasive form with an underlying structure and logic… and these young people don’t seem to be able to do that.

Part of this is that they also have either great difficulty in remembering facts or no interest in doing so — or perhaps both – and it is difficult to write anything factual that is meaningful without a mental knowledge base.  The ramifications go far beyond writing, because without such a knowledge base, individuals have no factual internal framework by which they can judge the world around them, and their judgments and decisions become governed more and more by their emotional responses to what others have said or done most recently.  This phenomenon isn’t limited to the young, of course, but it appears to be more prevalent there.  How else can one explain the wide-spread lack of understanding about the number of political candidates who flip-flopped on their positions over the course of the last year – and how many people there were who claim that the “media” made it all up?

We’ve already forgotten that electronic books can be re-written without the knowledge of their users, and with a generation that is reading fewer and fewer print sources, and doesn’t seem to want to learn facts in a permanent way, how long will it be before whatever appears in their personal-media-electronica at the moment is the only reality there is to most people?

Or… have we already reached that point?


26 thoughts on “The Written Word”

  1. j says:

    A couple years ago I taught a university class, at a highly respected university, where the best written essays in the class came from a group of exchange students writing in their second language. There are clearly some major deficiencies in the way writing is being taught, or not taught, in American K-12 schools, and my secondhand impression is that this problem starts before the high school level. The main problem seems to be organization and disciplined writing–many students have learned that it’s good to simply spew whatever comes to mind out on paper. They have ideas but those ideas don’t lead anywhere.

    When the people in charge of primary school curriculum botch the job, society doesn’t feel the results for decades. Those who wield the most persuasive rhetoric in designing this curriculum can carry the day whether or not they have any sense of reality, because they are shielded from the real effects of their decisions by this long span of time. Not that rhetoric alone is to blame–probably it just reflects the views of the dominant culture. People want to replace an unpleasant but effective system of education with a new system that promotes self-esteem and ‘creativity’ but can’t get results.

    I do not think this problem is going to be solved. It may not be making kids dumber in the sense of being mentally slower, but it is making them poorly prepared and putting them too far behind to catch up, because writing skills take years to develop, whatever your intelligence level.

  2. Tim says:

    The problem is not limited to the US and has been with us for some time. In the past 15-20 years I have seen the standard of software design documentation deteriorate to the stage where it is practically useless for maintenance purposes.

    If I conduCted a spot check on the suppliers, and decided to challenge the presentation, style and maintainability of the documentation, I would get a reworked version 2 weeks later which was just as bad.

    No wonder we get such magnificent foul-ups in our software.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    As a programmer, I think a bit differently about memorization. I want to survey information (such as the specifications of a programming language and the available predefined library routines), but I only want to depend on my memory to tell me what’s available and the principles of how to use it; for the specifics, I’ll want an online reference to look up everything as I use it, because I’ll have a whole lot less errors to go back and correct if I use everything exactly according to specification.

    That doesn’t mean I couldn’t talk or write about how something like how TCP protocol works for example; but there’s no way I’d bother memorizing the bit values that represent various flags, the layout of the TCP header, well-known port numbers, etc; all that can be looked up as needed, avoiding readily preventable errors.

    So also, with history I was fine with remembering the sequence of events, or the points at which sequences interacted, but the less I had to do of memorizing dates, the happier I was.

  4. Bain says:

    As a nursing student,writing is very important feature for developing a care plan for the patient. One of my professor is a sticker for proper grammer and writing.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    “One of my professor is a sticker for proper grammer and writing.”

    Sarcasm or irony, right?

    When referring to one of a group, the group is plural – “professors”.

    A sticker is something on your notebook or laptop case; a stickler is “a person who insists on a certain quality or type of behavior.” ( from

    Grammar does not have an “e” in it.

    Here I thought the point about the demise of functional literacy was being oversold, and you go prove me wrong!

    I do hope you’re kidding…or else I hope that my well-being or that of someone I would worry about doesn’t depend on the accuracy and clarity of a care plan you’ve written.

    1. Bain says:

      Thank you for checking my spelling and leaving your comments regarding my statement. When I finish a care plan I do review for accuracy and clarity.

  6. K says:

    There’s two ways of looking at this.

    1. Specialized communication mediums exist when there are clear penalties within a group of users to not communicate without using their chosen medium. The breakdown of the mediums which define a teacher/student relationship in this context implies that modern decentralized information networks negate any such penalties.

    2. Specialized communication mediums are often used by those who will be making available specialized goods or services. This context would imply that the increase in speed for the manufacturing and delivery of goods and services results in a monopoly of fewer specialized individuals. This would make greater sense if there is also a relationship between the real loss of physical access to energy/materials relative to greater access to virtual information.

    Or perhaps both points are true.

    1. Ah, the plural of the noun “medium.” We have so inured ourselves to the misuse of the word “media” as a singular noun when discussing journalism sources (it should not be!), that now we have to bastardize any use of the correct plural form of the word. In my day, “media” was the plural of the noun “medium.”

  7. Wine Guy says:

    The lack of communication ability is directly tied to the lack of perceived need by those who are creating the message AND those who are receiving the message.

    If the message is not in ‘bullet form,’ my boss doesn’t want to read it. If the supporting evidence isn’t ‘easily digestable,’ he discounts it.

    For complex issues, he always wants them put on paper ‘so I can read it at my leisure’ but he never actually reads them. “It’s in my report” generally garners the reply ‘Yeah, so remind me anyway.’

    If essays are important, and I believe they are since I still read 2 newspapers a day (and you would not believe the crap the editors let through), then j is correct: the problem starts in K-12. My daughters, every day, have something called ‘sustained silent writing’ after lunch, but it is not structured at all. The teacher says that 3-point enumeration essays are too restrictive… and my counter-argument is that they need to start organizing thoughts somehow.

    It’s an ongoing ‘discussion’ that I am clearly losing.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Too many of the teachers and bosses are short on literacy themselves, so how can they be expected to have a positive influence on those that follow?

  8. Wine Guy says:

    I have high expectations. And I talk and write to people about those expectations.

  9. Wine Guy says:

    And yes, it gets me in trouble. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m in a position to be rather indispensable.

    For the time being, at least.

  10. Rehcra says:

    On one of the recent “Nova Science Now”s they made a point about the effect of multitasking on youths. Essentially the point being that although they might be capable of doing multiple things at once (homework, listen to music, network socialization) they had a dramatic lesser ability to focus completely on any single task no matter how easy it was for even a very short time.

    So although I haven’t the faintest idea about the degradation of college student’s abilities to write coherent essays I would personally lean more towards this being a factor then any change teachers may be implementing. As for my experience on the occasional creative writing web sites I would say that the quality has improved over the past decade or so. (Given it is a very limited experience and not limited to any single demographic it’s not really saying much; and I guess it could always just be me adapting the ability to over look a lot of the common mistakes)


  11. Alan says:

    The ability to string together words in a reasonable and coherent fashion seems to be departing most peoples’ scope of abilities. As noted previously, they use internet and other electronic media to assist them. I agree that for some applications, such as technical work, it really is not necessary to memorize the data. In fact it is preferable that people who work in technical fields refer to the source media nearly every time.

    However, having a thorough understanding of that technical knowledge, where to find information and how to utilize it is vitally important. As a technician myself, I often am faced with problems requiring system design knowledge. Through an application of functional knowledge and basic troubleshooting I can then proceed to a technical reference for the specific bits of data that will tell me the exact problem.

    Does knowing the color coding of a resistor help a worker perform his duties? Absolutely. An efficient and effective electrician will find this to be an invaluable bit of knowledge. Can he do his job without it? Of course. But he’ll be slower and far less efficient. I am sure this principle can be applied to many fields. I believe there is a limit to which it is reasonable to learn material, at the risk of being over specialized.

    I do concur with the use of language. It is absolutely imperative that you use not only the proper words, but in the proper context. My wife frequently makes statements which are improper, given the words used. And when I point this out to her, her answer invariably is: You know what I mean.

    I see this in my children and other young people I interact with. A lack of precision, a lack of articulation which causes confusion in much of their day to day activities. How can you adequately communicate ideas, relate events or share knowledge without clear, concise and accurate language?

  12. Tim says:

    Adding to all the above, the best documentation in my experience is that which is peer-reviewed. This is where the reviewers check content, logic, readability and use of grammatical English (or whatever language is used). For large documents, reviewers could also be assigned roles so that between them, the reviewers covered all aspects. The end sult is that the author learns how to present, how to communicate and how to convince.

    In recent years this process has be viewed as a luxury and unnecessary – in the software industry at least, – and a means of delaying the delivery process. I doubt if any programmer nowadays has to submit their code for review.k

    I cannot believe LEM does not use capable proof readers, including the content of these blogs – given their ease of understanding and lack of grammatical error. A lesson for us all ?

  13. Tim says:

    I would like to think that the syntactical errors were deliberate. However they were not. A combination of my trust in Apple spellcheckers and my laziness. Quod erat demostrandum.

  14. For better or worse, the blogs go from my computer keys to the blog file on my computer, where they reside for either several hours or a few days, after which I review what I’ve written before posting it.

  15. Cin says:

    I own a small bookshop and one of my customers is a chap in his early thirties who fancies himself as a writer. He has lots of creative, original ideas but rather tragically he doesn’t have the language and process skills to develop them. Last spring he completed a creative writing course where, sadly, his teacher was more interested in stroking his ego than honestly assessing his work. She simply praised him (which is the easy bit) and completely neglected to help him to build his vocabulary or to acquire the grounding in grammar, punctuation and process he needs. Interestingly, he recently demonstrated some of the comments above about the deleterious influence of the internet. Despite being a voracious reader his vocabulary is very basic so I set him the exercise my high school English teacher set me – learn and use a new word every week. Yesterday he came into the shop and said “Hey! Wow! I found an app that gives me a new word every week!” and showed me it on his mobile phone. So, instead of learning the joy of dipping into a fat dictionary and submerging himself in the rich world of words he gets a single word delivered to him in a neat, sterile little electronic package without any effort at all on his part. The word was “temerity” and despite his App giving him the definition he was unable to use it in a sentence. Pfaw!

  16. Shannon says:

    My coworkers and I were having a conversation on a similar topic the other day. One is Nigerian, the other Indian and we work in an international offshore environment where the nominal language of communication is English. However, for the majority of the crew, English is not their first language and they speak it with varying levels of proficiency. The Nigerian values grammar, spelling, and usage accuracy while the Indian does not. The Indian’s view is that as long a she can understand what the person is trying to convey, grammar and usage errors are irrelevant. I wonder if this is a result of having to learn four languages throughout her education. It is interesting to see what the industry considers “fluent” English for non-native speakers. That deficiency translates to their writing abilities if the emails exchanged are any indication. Fortunately, I don’t have to read their reports to clients.

  17. Tim says:

    @shannon. To your last point, I was the recipient of such reports. ‘Nuff said, to quote a comic brand i used to read when i was young.

  18. Joe says:

    I agree with you, but I have flashbacks to the druids who disliked the new technology of writing, since it would reduce the need to remember things.

    Electronic media and a globalized world means we each process more and more information each day. Yet it takes time to build a coherent map to relate facts. Perhaps most people have reached their processing limits, and have given up in face of the deluge of new information available each day? That might explain the modern “I can look it up online if I care” attitude.

    I hope we are just experiencing teething problems: people are adapting to the new fangled thing. Longer term, more intelligent computers could help us sift through all the information and relate it better. This might even boost civic participation. For instance the 538 blog has shown that statistics/machine learning is more accurate at extracting meaning from masses of noisy data than most of the “experts”. Imagine if the same techniques helped us track flows of funding — which entrepreneurs made it themselves, and which benefited from cronyism. It would not surprise me if most of the advertisements this electoral season were funded by the latter. Would that not affect people’s views?

  19. Lee, I hate to say it, but I agree with your post in its entirety. I do think we’re past the point of no return, in that a majority of even “educated” people cannot compose their thoughts or ideas coherently. K-12 no longer emphasizes this, and college-level English courses are simply a trial to be endured en route to the truly interesting and/or potentially lucrative subjects.

    As always — when discussing this topic — I am thankful to have found the co-op homeschooling program my daughter is enrolled in. She’s a 9 year old working at a 14 year old level, and is doing two book reports monthly. I’ve been overseeing her on these, of course, and it’s heartening to observe her progress and improvement. Most Americans in her generation won’t be able to write much beyond twit(ter)-speak, but she’ll have the benefit of a more rigorous education.

    Lord knows I’d not trade my reading and composition skills. And those skills came from being raised in a home that valued reading, writing, comprehension, et cetera. A sentiment I fear is becoming more and more scarce?

    1. Leo C says:

      I think we should be careful about denigrating things like “twit(ter)-speak” out of hand. Texting-talk, twitter speak are not an inherent cause of, nor the beginning of the end of, the written word as we know it. As a for instance, I feel that these examples are no different than the differences in which we communicate with our parents vs our close personal friends vs our significant other, etc. I often participate in twitter speak, as it were, and yet here I am (hopefully) also writing a cogent paragraph in reply to your thought. The two can and do co-exist.

      I think the larger problem is what you rightly alluded to, it’s not so much that reading and writing are undervalued these days, but I think comprehension is the thing that falls under the radar. Education is so quick to make sure you remember the facts being shoveled at you that they never stop to teach you to understand the whys, and discuss in an effort to comprehend.

  20. Leo C says:

    I agree with the majority of these observations, but I’m a little troubled by the thought that an inability to organize one’s thoughts on paper is somehow linked to being unwilling, or unable, to memorize facts and absorb information.

    I think some of my trouble may be from a vague context. What does it mean to be unwilling to ‘remember facts’? If I remember that the american revolution happened, and the bullet points that were the cause, am I part of the problem of those who chose not to remember facts if I can’t provide the dates of the incidents and all of the names of the people involved? (I can’t, by the way).

    Someone above (Joe) said something I agree with very strongly, with the deluge of information we are asked to process on a daily basis, it seems more worthwhile to learn how to properly search for factual information than it does to attempt to memorize it.

    In short, I feel it’s a little misleading – and I am by no means saying that it was the intent of the post to do this – to link together poor mental organizational skills with the growing trend of people not being walking encyclopedias.

    I feel that the biggest reason people can’t write, today, is not because they can’t memorize facts but because they’ve never been asked to identify whether or not something is a fact or a view/commentary, and more importantly they’ve never thought to question it. I think this was ultimately the point of the post, I’m not trying to be obtuse.

    1. The problem you’re overlooking is that in all too many fields, to be proficient, you have to know certain skills and facts. A pilot needs to know when to use certain emergency procedures and at what airspeeds and attitudes to apply them. An opera singer — or any professional singer appearing on stage — must know the words and music. Police officers must know certain aspects of the law cold. Beyond the basic knowledge requirements of any field, you need a certain amount of knowledge even to know what to look up. All too many students don’t realize these facts… and a growing percentage don’t know how to learn the necessary facts and retain them.

  21. L. E. Modesitt, Jr. wrote:

    “They just can’t organize their thoughts in written form if they don’t have access to electronic aids, and even when they do, the results are usually pathetic.”

    This is not just a problem in writing. My experience with younger adults is that they just cannot think critically. They cannot take a postulation and determine the expected results. They cannot watch a newscast or a political debate and pick the dross from the gold, the true from the false, the straightforward from the politically slanted.

    I currently live in New Jersey, whose current governor ran for office during a major state-budget deficit promising both to cut taxes and increase spending on education. The vast majority of the state’s residents seemed not to see the oxymoronic aspect of that juxtaposition.

    I do not hold much hope for our future.

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