An American Editor

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?


  1. I earned a journalism degree in the mid-’80s at a highly regarded school. At that time, sophomores had to pass the English Proficiency Exam to remain in the program. A few years after I graduated, the school scrapped the test in favor of a “Precision Language” course — or, as I saw it, began teaching remedial English to journalism majors. And yet the writing I see from students in the school (I volunteer as a mentor) remains substandard, riddled with grammatical errors, misspellings, and poor usage.

    Of course, what can we expect when standards for teachers are so low? My son’s tenth-grade English teacher majored in theater. When I read her syllabus, I wanted to cry.


    Comment by Bandana Bob Publications — December 9, 2013 @ 8:12 am | Reply

  2. Not just in the USA. The western world generally. As the language becomes more global – and adapted by ESL speakers to reflect a more flexible (creative?) approach to the language with twists and nuances possibly unfamiliar to native speakers – I think you’re going to see more of the same.
    I can remember being impressed by the language use in a collection of letters to loved ones at home written by ordinary foot-soldiers in the US Civil War and published some time in the 1980s: so poetic and vivid (and extensive vocabulary reflected). Sometimes I feel like weeping at the loss of a beautiful language style, but at other times I get more optimistic and accept that a different kind of beauty will arise as a result of contributions from the perspectives of what were once alien cultures and values. ‘Qat’, for instance, could revolutionise competitive strategies in Scrabble; ‘safari’ (Arabic derivation) has been around for yonks. There are lovely rhythms in Polynesian and Melanesian languages, too. A friend named his first-born daughter Moale (pron. Mo-arly), Melanesian (Papua New Guinea) for ‘happiness’.
    A delightful article and social commentary. Thank you


    Comment by michael dale — December 9, 2013 @ 8:37 am | Reply

  3. I agree, and find it very frustrating that newspapers especially are so sloppy. Lots of people still care about that – many readers, not just professional wordworkers – but we’re probably increasingly in the minority, and we don’t include the powers that be.

    The “you understood me anyhow” argument is such garbage!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — December 9, 2013 @ 9:31 am | Reply

  4. I enjoyed this post and share your frustration (And I too grew up with the joy of reading a daily newspaper at home
    and in school — in my case the Chicago Tribune).

    As a former newspaper editor who took pride in our (then) award- winning product, I share the sadness and frustration
    at the “demize” (sic!–as a recent news article put it (! )of the language, correct grammar and English language skills in general. In fact it’s so bad that newspaper/editorial colleagues and I routinely e-mail to one another bad headlines and clips of poorly written copy we find — both for a mutual cringe session and occasional “humor moment.”

    One blog I enjoy (and learn a lot from) is Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words. In addition providing background
    on word and idiom usage it always includes a “Sic!” section, replete with published fiascos. While as one writer noted it’s not just a U.S. problem, I did notice that the majority of the most egregious errors do originate in the United States.

    Other than laugh or cry, what can we who love words do? Take the time (well, occasionally!) to let your newspaper
    editor or TV news desk know that “she had laid down on the bed” or “car could have went over dam” or…. “man kills himself with gun, then shoots wife (Yup!!) are NOT correct (or in some cases even plausible!) uses of the English language. When our paper includes an e-mail for the reporter or columnist, I write — politely and kindly to point
    out the error. Many say thanks. Others along the lines of your quote above: “You understood me, didn’t you?” or…
    “SpellCheck said it was OK” or…. (sad but common): We now allow reporters to post copy without review by an
    editor, or: They eliminated all our copy editors in the last budget cuts, so we’re on our own.

    Sad indeed, but I for one intend to keep fighting the good fight… Too soon to bury the language we love or
    cave in to idiots who don’t know and don’t care about good writing!.


    Comment by Patricia Morrison — December 9, 2013 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  5. […] read this blog post from Rich Adin, a colleague who writes the acclaimed An American Editor blog. In it, he recalls […]


    Pingback by The Ghosts of Grammar Lessons Past | Editing By Sue — December 9, 2013 @ 10:49 am | Reply

  6. I think I am a few year older than you, but I remember being educated in elementary school. Also, my mother never gave me the easy way out. If I was reading something and asked her what a word meant, she always replied “look it up in the dictionary.” I was always annoyed and lazy, but look it up, I did. I was a faculty member of teacher education programs (here in Los Angeles) for over 20 years, and so many of my future teachers always got “there, their, they’re” wrong. Also, less often but frequent, were the words “to, too, and two.” It is painful to see the calibre of teachers that we are now producing.

    My mother always had a good time sending letters to the New York Times (I grew up in Larchmont, NY) indicating the “horrific” mistake that she had just found in their paper. Or is it “there paper?” Just kidding.


    Comment by Mary-Anne Pops — December 9, 2013 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  7. Not only has the distinction between formal and conversational English disappeared, search engine developers are encouraging public relations professionals to write press releases using phrases that mimic “the way people speak” to increase the possibility of hits. Another culprit in the increase of typos and spelling errors online are the thumb pads found on tablets and phones. People are forgiving of errors others make since they make the same errors while typing using these tiny keyboards. People do not yet understand that we can ignore errors and accept acronyms in place of entire phrases since we continue to have a solid, common base of language knowledge. For how long? Who knows. Sadly, today’s children probably will never experience the genuine joy of nuance, the confidence that comes with being able to communicate well, verbally and in writing, and will never enjoy the sophistication of language. Editors became necessary mediators in a society where the population was literate, but not consistently so. Clarity, implied in the goal of correct use of language, was valued. Now personal expression and rapid response are valued uber alles.


    Comment by irene j — December 9, 2013 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  8. I agree wholeheartedly (or is that holeheartedly 🙂 ).

    My pet for many years has been the incorrect use of “your” and “you’re”. I wrote a short article for the Society of Technical Communicators newsletter espousing this sad situation. Since then this misuse (abuse?) has become worse than ever! Now, as mentioned in the original article, I see more and more instances of the incorrect use of there and their!

    There is NO excuse for these mistakes. In my article, I wrote the sentence “Your as old as your your”. While many of you may “interpret” this sentence, mentally substituting the correct spelling, it otherwise makes no sense.

    With the correct spelling it does of course make sense “You are as old as your yore”. One day I’ll try to create a new sentence to include the word “yaw” but spelled as “your”, feel free to create such a sentence and share it here. 🙂

    I still try to help people with the correct use of the language. English has the ability to be very quirky, adaptable and superb for double entendres. Here’s something I believe was a rule for the Gurkha soldiers in the British army.

    “Beds will be made up as laid down in standing orders”

    To an English speaking person it is simple, to foreigners and possibly the Gurkha soldiers, not so simple.

    Kind regards



    Comment by Peter — December 9, 2013 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

  9. Your thoughts brought a number of concerns into my head and the 9-year veteran teacher encounter sparked some fireworks. The accusing, confrontational response and attitude reflects complete disrespect for language and teaching. The lazy-mind perception that the other person in a communication is responsible for comprehending what is written falls far short of being able to perform as an editor. The assumption that an editor can ignore rules, proper word use, and assume that every reader will just, well, like, know what I mean? Ya know? This just makes the top of my skull rattle.

    And that one encounter illustrates why I often spend significant time explaining to clients what I do, why it must be done a certain way, and how it will allow them to produce work that will express the concepts they actually wish to convey.

    The pride should not be to communicate through a single-digit gesture, hand-in-the-face stance, or rolled eyes. The pride should not be to communicate at the level of a teen or kid. The pride should be to continually evolve in communication skills, as an adult, in order to better the world and expand shared learning.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


    Comment by Maria D'Marco/TigerXglobal — December 10, 2013 @ 11:23 am | Reply

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