The writing’s on the wall

The Nanny’s Fran Drescher eats a bad piece of cake and then says in her trademark whiny voice, “I’m nauseous” (phonetically: nyaww-shuss). She follows this up with some abrasive cackling. I say to myself, “You sure are!” then change the channel.

If you’re feeling ill from a bad piece of cake, the correct use of language is to say you’re nauseated. The word nauseous does apply to feelings of illness or upset stomach, but in proper context it functions like the word obnoxious-a nauseous person makes people in their presence feel sick. Get it? The Nanny does it to me every time.

Confusing nauseous and nauseated is pretty common, but then so is misusing the words your and you’re. This is ridiculous. Regardless of your actual intelligence, poor usage of the English language makes you look dumb. Language is our primary medium for communicating ideas, our main tool for understanding the world around us. How well you use language influences how well you can explain your thoughts and ideas to those around you, and how well you can convince others.

Over the past five years our university has accepted approximately 4,000 new students each year. Of these, over 3,000 each year have been required to write the Effective Writing Test. That’s three out of four new students who aren’t up to university-standard writing proficiency. Three-quarters of the students coming to school here need to improve their writing. Does anyone else besides me find this appalling?

Of course, there are those students for whom English is a second language, who make up roughly a third of the ewt takers. I’m not going to criticize ESL students in the same way because I understand it’s really hard to become skilled at a language you weren’t raised with. For these people I think it’s acceptable or at least understandable that their English skills aren’t as good as they perhaps ought to be. They have an excuse.

What about the rest of you test-takers out there? One reaction would be to point fingers at the school system. It pushes kids through the ranks at an ever-quicker pace, teaching them less and ignoring the fact that many may be graduating without having the necessary language skills to function properly in the world, let alone get into university. Thank you, Ralph! Think about the people in your high school who didn’t make it into university because of bad marks. What must their writing standard be like?

“In part, the test is a response to the fact that students were coming into the university with weak writing skills,” says Director of the Effective Writing Program Joanne Andre. Is there something wrong with secondary education in this province?

“There may be a bit of a problem,” Andre says. She tells stories of students coming for instruction who say they learned more from one tutorial in the Effective Writing Centre than they did in their entire grade 11 English year. This sounds to me like a problem.

Then there’s the infrequent but still noteworthy cases of engineering or science majors who come in and get huffy about taking the test. “Sometimes they don’t see the test as justified given their field of study,” Andre explains. “We get engineering students in who say, ‘I’m just going into engineering, and I don’t know why I have to write this test.’ They have the impression that writing skills aren’t important in engineering.” I guess some think they have more important things to do than learn how to write well.

This is patently untrue. Whatever faculty you’re in, it’s good to have solid writing and communication skills. Do these individuals who complain really want to perpetuate the notion that engineers and scientists are clever but inarticulate, socially-inept people?

As someone who reads often for enjoyment, I am extremely fond of writers who have a background in mathematics or science. Lewis Carrol, Carl Sagan, Rudy Rucker and H.G. Wells are only a few thinkers who have merged their gifts of language with their formal academic knowledge to create great literature. The greatest engineers and scientists and mathematicians appreciate the value of language, art and expression. It’s time for more people to think this way and start doing something about it.

Maybe we should start by reducing the allotted time of two-and-a-half hours to write the 400-word Effective Writing Test. You read that right: ewt takers have 150 minutes to write 400 words. That’s one word every 38 seconds. The kind of person who might need all this time would be taking two whole minutes to come up with the sentence “See Dick run.” Let’s keep in mind that the average final exam is only two hours long, and students are expected to write 2-3,000 words or more on a topic of substance. If you’re still incapable of passing the ewt after a couple of tries, something tells me you won’t be able to hack it at university. The fact that people are often in this situation is a scathing indictment of the grade school system.

Maintaining the Effective Writing Requirement is a start. It is a band-aid solution, though. What really needs to happen is an increased appreciation and level of attention paid to developing English skills in this society. In general these abilities are declining, due to poor standards of education but also the dangerous institutionalized notion that they’re not as important as they truly are.

Gareth Morgan can be reached at gdlmorga@ucalgary.ca

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