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Good grammar, vocabulary, and syntax is [sic] hard to find

By: Laura Paton (, Editor-in-Chief

“Actually, I’ve always had a rather extensive vocabulary, not to mention a phenomenal grasp of grammar and superlative command of syntax. I simply chose not to employ them.”

That is a hilarious quote from the 1994 film The Little Rascals, a film adaptations of the 1920s TV show Our Gang.

That quote also rings true for the conclusion I recently reached; I have come to realize that college students are bad writers.

Everyone at UIC is required to take both English 160 and 161 (unless you test out of them by receiving a high enough ACT score). For quite a lot of people, this is a drag to go through. However, when you have a good topic, the class can be fun – but is it really teaching you writing then? As Professor Stanley Fish, professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, said, while investigating the poor writing skills of his undergraduate and graduate students, “Unless writing courses focus [exclusively] on writing they are a sham.”

If you look at the statistics, it seems to start with freshmen. According to an article written about freshmen at California State University, “About 60 percent of first-time freshmen enrolling at the CSU each year do not show entry-level proficiency in these assessments, even though they have earned at least a B average in the required college preparatory curriculum.”

This in itself is a shocking number. It seems high school teachers are not preparing their students for the reality of college writing – indeed, this article from Tufts Daily stated that there is a “perception gap” between what high school teachers believe is proficient writing, and what college professors believe is proficient writing.

Even so, apparently college writing courses are exactly what Stanley Fish says they are–shams. According to Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association, “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.” That remainder is 69 percent of our college graduates.

What has happened to our generation? How is it someone can go through four years of college (or even five or more) and not have proficient reading and writing skills? It doesn’t matter what your major is; writing and reading are life-long skills you use every day, no matter if you’re an engineer or a psychologist.

Some of you reading this may scoff and disagree. But according to a report by the National Commission on Writing, employers nowadays use writing as a “threshold skill” when thinking about who to hire and who to promote. And this is not just for careers in the writing industry – about 80% of employers in the Finance, Insurance or Real Estate industry consider writing skills when making hiring decisions.

It’s true that one could make the same argument with math, or even computer technology, which is completely valid. However, writing is a form of communication that exists in all mediums, whether they are digital or not. And people need to be able to communicate effectively in the workplace and in the world.

So why is it that students are leaving college unprepared for the real world? Our society is in the process of switching to one of instant-gratification and reliance on the internet to do our work for us. The numbers weren’t always this bad. According to a federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, “Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as “proficient” in prose — reading and understanding information in short texts — down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient — compared with 40 percent in 1992.”

Mark S. Schneider, Commissioner of Education Statistics, stated, “The declining impact of education on our adult population was the biggest surprise for us, and we just don’t have a good explanation […] It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV. It’s a different kind of literacy.”

While Schneider classifies it as a “different kind of literacy,” I say it’s a tragic turn away from real literacy and from the values our society used to hold dear. I am playing a bit at devil’s advocate here, because I, enjoy the technological advancements of our society as much as anyone. However, I fear we are losing what used to be important to our society, and I for one do not want to live in a society of illiterate, technology-hungry individuals who don’t have a large enough attention span to finish reading an e-mail, let alone a whole book. As Ray Bradbury said, “’You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (I really hope that doesn’t happen to us.)

Funny tips of basic writing:

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Online resources to improve writing:

UIC resources for writing help:

  • UIC Writing Center (Grant Hall)

UIC has various academic support services in Student Services Building (SSB):


1 Comment

  1. I love the efforts you have put in this, regards for all the great articles.

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