Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yup, They Said It

Once upon a time the type of vocabulary a person used could clearly indicate the level of education that had been achieved. The college graduate was clearly recognizable because he/she spoke "better" than the less well educated in society. Somehow that is no longer the case, or certainly not the case across the board. A wide and varied vocabulary doesn't seem to be valued as much by society in general. And, unfortunately, that also includes many college students/graduate school students.

Some people will hear a word--sort of--and can pull up that word to use later, again sort of. Some people will write a word and assume they have the correct word needed with no checking necessary--hey, spell check will catch any of their errors, right?

I've noted before that one of my students wrote that he was taking Advanced Suppository Writing--that's Advanced Expository Writing for those not familiar with the actual course. This past week my students gave me two examples yet again for why English teachers not only go grey but tear their hair out at the roots.

One student, in writing a letter of apology to a customer who encountered problems with a product, wrote the following: "Thank you for writing to us about your problems in using our wet/dry vacuum, model #69A. First, we would like to apologize for any incontinence our product caused you."

Then there was the student who was writing about popular tourist attractions in New York State. This gem appeared in his writing: "One of the most beautiful scenic wonders in New York is the upstate Viagra Falls."

I've got a whole stack of papers waiting to be marked--I can't wait to see what "gems" will be there--not.


Anonymous said...

First, at least these are college students and are trying to learn. Second, it's very hard to know what you don't know.
Third, I think part of the problem is so much less reading go on. It's important to see the written word in well-written books and articles.
Fourth, the Viagra was probably a typo, not lack of familiarty with geography and lack of learning on how to proof read -- i.e. you need to put the finished product down and walk away from it for a few minutes, and, for many, you need to proof on paper not on screen.
Fifth, the incontinence example is hysterical.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

And of course you know classic examples, such as 'Magellan circumcised the globe in a clipper' ?

My mother was an English teacher. Started dying her hair very earl on...

Happy Yom Ha-atzmaut!

G6 said...

I disagree with you.
Aside from typos, you can very well judge a persons level of education by the manner in which they speak and write. At the very least, you can judge how "well read" a person is. Nothing has changed in this regard except the fact that in Yeshivas today it has become less and less of a priority.
It is a pity that so many of "our" children cannot speak a proper English.

Anonymous said...

Thanks ProfK - all good fun!
I trust your students have passed a basic English course prior to arriving in your class.

JS said...

I disagree as well. The problem, however, is that nowadays everyone is a college graduate. There is simply no comparison between graduates of a community college, for example, and a more elite, selective university. This is true if for no other reason than the elite university requires high SAT scores and part of getting a high SAT score is scoring highly on the verbal section which tests vocabulary. The same is true in graduate schools as well. There are numerous graduate schools which cater to students at all levels. In my graduate program, depending on whom I am speaking with, I sometimes get blank stares when using certain words, which forces me to repeat myself using a simpler synonym. It's annoying, but I think it's a symptom of creating schools for all which necessitates lowering standards.

Also, in terms of reading more, this isn't really a solution in my opinion. Most literature and newspapers today are incredibly dumbed down. As an example, compare a New York Times article from 2010 to one written in 1950. If you want a good vocabulary today, you need to either study vocabulary words as one does for the SATs or read more of the classics.

alpidarkomama said...

I have an incontinent steam vac, but I think a trip to the repair shop will fix that! As far as the other goes... OY!

100 years ago an 8th grade education really MEANT something.

Aryeh said...

JS, going to an elite university doesn't automatically equate to having a good vocabulary. If it did, how would you explain the language problems President Bush had, Yale and all? Getting into an Ivy isn't only about high SAT scores and memorizing a bunch of words to do well on the verbal portion.

You're right though that college is a catchword that doesn't mean the same as it did when the prof was a student. So even though you are disagreeing with her you're sort of agreeing also. College students today can't be identified by their level of vocabulary as a sure marker. It depends on the college and it depends on the student.

NonymousG said...

I laughed really hard at both pieces of writing! :)

Anonymous said...

More than one of my fellow engineers used to spell the word "winch" with an "e" instead of an "i". Not the same thing at all.

efrex said...

Anonymous: I seem to recall a "Far Side" cartoon that played off of that error ("No, you fool! bring me the wench! The wench!")

JS: I have known many elite school graduates (particularly in the sciences) to have extremely poor English skills, even if they were native speakers.

Far too many inappropriate one-liners come to mind for each of these ("that's not what a wet/dry vac is used for!" "I always wondered why advanced English was such a pain in the ***!"). As for "Viagra Falls," your student might want to take a listen to a suggestive-but-funny-as-heck Camille West song.

An equally interesting (or irritating, depending on your point of view) phenomenon is people trying to display erudition by using "twenty five cent" words that they picked up someplace, regardless of appropriateness. Someone in my company's purchasing department was legendary for this, and when someone responded to one of his verbose emails critically, began, with zero sense of irony, "I am not at all appreciative of your rather sardonic email communique." Ah, fun times... :)

Mike S. said...

Hey, some of us are reaching the age where we might appreciate a visit to "Viagra Falls." :)

I have had to go over the writing of a fair number of Ph.D's from prestigious schools whose writing was atrocious. Granted, they were science and engineering students, but they were all native English speakers.

Zach Kessin said...

When I went back to college (as a physics major) after a 8 year gap I made it a point to work on my writing skills. I actually went up to the English department to ask them which course I could take to do this. I ended up taking one on writing fiction which was probably not the best thing (as I hate doing it).

But on the other hand I have published a number of articles in computer magazines and have the contract for another one in my email inbox.

I also proofread technical books for a major computer publisher.