Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Don't Let English Die

Recently I made a big gaffe in one of my columns. Despite the fact I read my columns over dozens of times, and then I have a peer edit, and then there's a Visual Thesaurus editor who reads and edits, I still misspelled the name of one of my favorite authors. (I also was chided for making up words, but as an author that's my creative prerogative and we can debate my taking that license another time.)

Oddly, I wasn't as upset as I normally would be. You see, I'm in good company. Before the NFC playoff game, the Green Bay newspaper spelled the city of Chicago C-h-i-c-a-c-o, and even though the misspelling was in the dominant headline not one person caught it until after the issue had already hit the newsstands.

If a major newspaper can screw up that badly, well, it made me feel a little better. Once in one of my books everyone missed that it said "pit car to pit road" instead of "pace car." I'm not alone. In fact, I'm actually part of what is becoming a majority of English language slackers.

Perhaps it begins in the schools. I've noticed lately that students seem to fail even basic proofreading. I clearly made the wrong assumption of my brilliance, and didn't verify names, something I constantly chide my yearbook students to do. However in our quest for higher-level thinking skills, we've somehow forgotten that the basics are essential and must be taught. If not, the results can be quite embarrassing, as I personally just proved. Yet how many didn't catch the name error? Our mind often fills in the blanks and corrects the mistakes.

It's hard to be meticulous, and one common goof that often slips by are the words it's and its. A local grocery store bought a half-page ad in a special advertising section in my hometown paper so that the store could entice customers to try "it's friendly staff."

It's easy to make these mistakes, yet we must grow out of them. Teachers are on the front line of this war. In a discussion on a national listserve I'm on, teachers shared these gems that they'd found in essays: 

  • Mary Shelley is an important figure in women's writhing.
  • They stormed the beeches.
  • Eugene O'Neill won four pullet surprises for his plays.
  • Business tycoons have a tough time competing in today's doggy dog world.
  • John Steinbeck wrote a wonderful book called Of My Cement.
  • People should be able to count on their next store neighbors.
  • Julius Caesar found he couldn't count on his closet friend, Mark Antony.
  • Diana, Princess of Whales.
  • The fryer in the Canterbury Tales.
  • We take things for granite.
  • Defiantly to blame
  • Resuscitate the poems

These examples simply represent the tip of the iceberg. Many times student mistakes are poor word choice. However, more often I find that students simply pick the wrong word and then assume they know what they are saying. One of my favorites is when students use a lot, and they don't realize it's two words. So the spell check changes it to allot.

I am especially picky on the words their, there and they're. Students simply must know how to use these, and often, if spell check does flag the word, spell check simply wants the student to verify the sentence is correct. Kids have to be taught that spell check is not an automatic "make change." Many times when I'm writing I hit the ignore button. (And by the way, spell check doesn't catch names.)

Yet what I'm really worried about is that perhaps it's too late to save anyone, including me. Perhaps the English language is already dead, as the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten wrote Sept. 19, 2010, in his article titled "Goodbye, cruel words: English. It's dead to me."

Weingarten lamented that the "end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the 'youngest' daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their 'younger' daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the 'Obama's.' This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame."

Weingarten went on to state that the death of English took few by surprise, as the amount of proofreading errors found in other papers has already increased. Newspapers, to cut costs, have eliminated or reduced copyediting. He also states that English has become irrelevant, especially with young adults. After all, this is a generation of IDK and LOL. Even I admit to being sloppy with my Facebook posts. My phone hates the shift button, so I never use capitals. I've stopped worrying about it. I should, especially after providing so much entertainment value with my last column.

As an English teacher, I am on the front lines of the war against the demise of the English language and I too must be meticulous. While we as Americans seem to despise "drill and kill," sometimes we must practice and practice until our skills are perfected. Maybe showing kids that English matters is simply a matter of semantics. I like to use the analogy with my students that even Albert Pujols takes batting practice, LeBron James shoots free throws and Drew Brees makes passes. All of these top athletes still practice and hone their craft. They are ready when it comes crunch time. We need to have our students ready as well. After all, the cliché that practice pays off is true.

My daughter is editor of the yearbook. She copyedits everything twice, scouring for errors. She's gotten quite good at catching things that others miss. Because of this practical application, her English ACT score jumped five points to a 32. Her reading went up three to a 33. She's only a sophomore, with even more time to hone her skills. However, already she's proof that continual practice and application work. We must use everything in our arsenal to help students master not only writing, but also editing and proofreading.

We must not lose sight of the beauty of English language and we must reinforce with our students why perfecting our writing is important. Essays get them into college. Resumes get them interviews, and interviews jobs. Yes, our language is tricky with all its rules and regulations, but there is nothing like a well-crafted sentence. This building block is what sets us apart and makes us appear like the intelligent people we are. It would be a shame to lose it now, and that's one lesson I've learned personally.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 8th 2011, 4:08 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
OK - so what was the misspelled name - we simply must know! And an interesting article btw(!)I never make prooof reading mistakes.........
Mike (currently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

[It was Jane Austin instead of Jane Austen, here. —Ed.]
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 4:54 AM
Comment by: Meen H. (Chilmark, MA)
Dear Michele:

I applaud your appeal not to let English die.

In that context, are you sure that you are comfortable using 'gotten' in the second-last paragraph? I acknowledge that it has become common usage in at least the spoken English language in the US, but it remains a 'no-no' in either spoken or written form in most other English-language settings. For you to use it in writing, even in a piece written in the US, seems to me to sanction a decline in standards.

David (a Canadian)
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 6:40 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Dear Michele,
I too applaud your appeal - we have newspapers (in Australia)which publish some very odd mistakes - homophones, plus those words which are words, but don't make sense in their context.
Add to this those on television who talk about the "amount" instead of the "number" - today it was "the amount of women on boards of management".

Add one (high school student) contribution, from a test on Art History:
"The Egyptians raped their mumies in rages".

Noel (in Launceston, Tasmania)
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 7:25 AM
Comment by: John M.
One of my students attempting to write about a baby delivered
by means of forceps had the poor child delivered by means of
fossils suggesting perhaps a delivery team well passed the
age of retirement. Two advertisements in an upstate New York
newspaper are truly memorable. One restaurant advertised
"the cat of the day!" If my memory serves correctly, it was
a nearby hotel that advertised "bathroom dancing" undoubtedly
targeting those experiencing difficulty digesting their "cat of the day."
John A. Miller at the "Soldiers Home," Washington, DC, site of
the President Lincoln Cottage now open to the public. Here Lincoln spent a quarter of his time in office and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Come visit!
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Jan T. (Cincinnati, OH)
Fun article. Isn't it hard to write something that can't be picked apart? I pity you. But thanks for trying.
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 7:54 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Too funny, there are so many.
In a recent news release: The wife was found shot in the bedroom and the husband was shot in the chest.
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Woody
I've lived for several years in both Australia and New Zealand and am amazed and amused, and sometimes doubled over in a huge belly laugh, by their mangling of the English language--especially the Aussies whose total lack of concern is heartwarming. I can say with authority that we Americans are obsessed with correctness in comparison with the Aussies and Kiwis.

Oh, I, too, cringed at "she's gotten."
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I sometimes write 'there' for 'their' (and vice versa) even though I know there correct usage. Can I suggest a completely different approach to this and other common errors? Why not go with the floe? Lets regard our common erors as the language undergoing change, not crisis.

Without the pursuit of perfexion, humankind probably woodn't be any good at anything, but in certain circumstances this pursoot might be interpreted as pedantry.

Eglish is littered with homonyms. We can cope with sentences such as 'This port imports a lot of port' so I'm sure weed soon get used to 'There books are over there' and, in time, 'Ther books are over ther' and even, perhaps sooner than we think, 'Thr buks r ovr thr.'

(Sorry I didn't proofread this - no thyme.)
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 10:52 AM
Comment by: modesto B. (san jose, CA)
My phone also dislikes the shift key. I rarely send text messages because of it. I feel that writing should be like music that pleases the ear, stimulates the mind, and soothes the soul. A successful song is well composed, delivered with great technical prowess, and received by an educated ear. How we write and the literary company we keep is choice that each of us can make. Aiming high has its own rewards.

Peace- Moe
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
'Despite the fact I read my columns over dozens of times, and then I have a peer edit, and then there's a Visual Thesaurus editor who reads and edits, I still misspelled the name of one of my favorite authors.'

I was one of those who commented on the author's original errors in writing both 'Austin' and 'Dickensonian'. These errors were described later as 'typos', but I'm not so sure.

A typo usually describes a mechanical error: the writer knows the correct spelling but their fingers go astray on the keyboard. Most of us can identify a typo, and why it has occurred.

That so many literary-minded people read this (relatively short) piece, but failed to pick up the errors strongly suggests ignorance to me - especially since these are proper names, unlike the other errors cited above.

The many readers simply did not recognise that Austen and Dickens were wrongly spelt. To me, that's the most depressing thing here.
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Jason I.
Mistakes happen! Just do your best.
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 3:21 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
In the old days, we used to check for spelling errors by reading the text from back to front. That way, there is no sense to the flow, so you actually look at each word. Now the spellchecker does most of that work.

Re "she's gotten": the heartburn over this must be regional. It is certainly an acceptable way of saying "she's become" where I grew up. On the other hand, we made a distinction in the sense of "got" as "have": if I say "I've got" something, it means I have it already. If I say "I've gotten" it, then it means I obtained it specifically for the purpose.

Finally, I love the John Steinbeck title "Of My Cement." I heard similar when I was in University, where a first year biology student supposedly asked at the library for a book called "Oranges and Peaches." The librarian couldn't find it in the catalog, and came back to check with the student about the author. It was, of course, Charles Darwin . . . .
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Americans shouldn't be cowed by Shaw. Nowadays that literary giant's plays are infrequently performed, but ordinary Americans continue to have a huge impact on the English language and will do so, I'm sure, for many generations to come.

My earlier contribution wasn't entirely serious. I do recognise that clarity and the avoidance of ambiguity is vital, but I don't think we sufficiently respect the fact that languages have a life of their own. They belong to the people who (mis)use them, not to literati and grammarians. A language that is spoken by more than a billion people, an official language in something like 70 nations, is scarcely a single tongue any more anyway, to have a single set of rules and spellings. If America and Britain are divided by a common language, I imagine that's even more true between those 70 nations. I heard what Woody said about the Aussies and Kiwis.

We in Britain used to have a Received Pronunciation of our language - roughly as spoken by 'ah' royal family - which is how the Queen pronounced 'our'. To get a job in the early days of broadcasting you had to have RP. Now no one speaks with RP, least of all the Queen, who must have had anti-elocution lessons. The Queen's English, it seems, didn't belong to Her Majesty after all, but to the people. Our call centres are staffed with people from Scotland and the north east of England because customers find these accents friendly - even though they're among the most difficult to understand! That defies logic.

The champions of Received Spelling, even Received Grammar, will possibly fight their corner for longer than it took the people to consign RP to history, but it's also possible that the fight is already lost and distant cries can be heard (from the Antipodes?!) 'English is dead! Long live English!'
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 8:25 PM
Comment by: Jorge E. (Miami, FL)
As an a learner in the english realm, it is crucial for students such as myself to hone this special craft. This article really enlightened and changed the way I thought, which is utter disregard for the english language. Obama's plan to reform the educational system based on the falling standards on math and other subjects. However, crucially, our critical thinking and the way we craft our papers solely relies on our careful scrutinization on how and where we place our words. It is essential that students of the future should be able to write at a college level as soon as they graduate, thereby cutting short the statistics that shame our country on high drop out rates or illiteracy rates.
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 10:01 PM
Comment by: polymath
To Woody and Meen H.

"She's gotten quite good at catching things that other's miss". (next to last paragraph in the article)

I am assuming that the writer is speaking in the PRESENT PERFECT TENSE using the past participle of the irregular verb, "get".
Conjugated: get got gotten

PRESENT PERFECT TENSE refers to a period of time beginning in the past and continuing up to the present.

She has been copyediting for some time in the past and continues to be copyediting up to the present time. The use of the past participle, "gotten", is required here preceded by the helping verb, "has". She has gotten...

The usage of the past participle of irregular verbs require helping verbs: has, have, or had depending on the time frame to which the writer is referring. I'm sure you know that.

Past tense refers to a specific point in time, as yesterday, last week or two hours ago.

I haven't seen a good movie in a long time. (see, saw, seen)
I saw a very good movie last month.

I haven't gotten a good hair cut in a long time. get, got, gotten
I got a good hair cut yesterday.

I'll go with the grammarian here in spite of what has become common to the ear or what is common usage in other countries.

Carole A
Tuesday March 8th 2011, 10:08 PM
Comment by: polymath
Make that others missed, not other's missed. Opps
Carole A
Wednesday March 9th 2011, 5:05 AM
Comment by: Meen H. (Chilmark, MA)
To: catwalker, Geoff A., polymath:

The Oxford dictionary conjugates the verb as: 'get got got'. It also notes that 'gotten' is used in North America and in archaic English.

As I reflect, I think that my mildly allergic reaction to 'gotten' is an artifact of both my age and my place of primary education. I had English grammar, spelling and syntax drilled into me more than 50 years ago in Ontario, Canada (I am going to bet, catwalker, that you are NOT yet in your mid-sixties!). It is very hard to let go, even as I avidly consume much contemporary literature and journalism (I still cringe slightly at split infinitives, for heaven's sake!).

Geoff A., thanks for the reminder about RP and related phenomena (in my case, particularly RS and RG); it's too bad that the Queen's elocution has slipped so badly, but that may be an acceptable trade-off for having got/gotten the marbles out of her mouth.

Sidebar to Geoff A.: I always thought that one 'goes with the flow' but, come to think of it, I guess one could could 'go with the floe' just as well (particularly if one is a Canadian).

This is fun. One of the upshots of my stage in life and the rapid changes these days in contemporary English is that I don't get much chance to debate this stuff.

Wednesday March 9th 2011, 5:22 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Hi David, mid 60's - is that age or date(?) - anyway they both apply as I too had a very strict English Language teacher in my grammar school who was an absolute stickler for RP, and I too find 'gotten'almost unacceptable - and or course it's very American. But I would add that many expressions coming from that side of the pond are very sensible and acceptable and quickly become part of acceptable english - just my 2 cents (well i did spend a little time working the in States the early '90's). Mike Riyadh
Wednesday March 9th 2011, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Interesting, Michael W. In the 50s (date!) I went to a grammar school in the Midlands but no one bothered with elocution. Mind you, the head spoke broad Yorkshire, as did the English teacher. I see you're in Liverpool. What a wonderful city! I met my American wife outside Lime Street Station. It was the first time she'd heard Scouse and she was puzzled why so many Liverpudlians spoke German!

I've never liked the word 'got' and avoid using it if I can - for example, 'She's become quite good at ...' and so forth. It's not so bad in an American accent, sort of 'gaht', but I find 'ot', when pronounced in the abrupt British way, is not an attractive sound. This is reflected in the words: grot, not, knot, blot, clot, (go to) pot, rot, sot, shot (= ruined), which all have negative connotations. So I'm hoping for a revival of 'gotten' in the UK. One problem is that it is a longer word than 'got' and the trend is to make everything shorter, so it's probably a forlorn hope.
Wednesday March 9th 2011, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Terri W. (Beaverton, OR)

Thanks for the great article. I appreciate your pursuit of effective, accurate writing.

Writing is about communication. It is about the reader understanding the writer’s arguments, thoughts, etc. To reach a reader, well-crafted writing will always be essential. We ultimately save time and face when we proof our writing. We also increase our effectiveness.

Alas, we are human, and we will make mistakes. But we can strive for quality. One person asked for suggestions on avoiding mistakes. I recommend using your computer’s speech option and have the computer read the article to you. You won’t “hear” all the mistakes, but you’ll catch some that your eyes will miss. I think this practice is fairly effective, and it engages other parts of the brain.

I’m younger, and it saddens me to see that many of my peers (and younger) lack writing skills (whether by laziness or lack of proper teaching). It’s scary to think how—and if—people will communicate effectively in a few years. Ha!

So I give you a hearty amen! Let’s encourage smart writing and effective communication!
Friday March 11th 2011, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
You write that Weingarten lamented the "end" of English "when a letter writer called the first couple the 'Obama's.' ... an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy." However, the letter writer was following an old rule, one that was widely promulgated in the mid-twentieth century, which is that words that normally do not take plural forms should have an apostrophe when forming the plural. Besides family names (the Johnson's), this included numbers such as dates (the 30's), and singles letters (H's). It was a rule that was never universally followed and is now largely out of fashion. However, the apostrophe for numbers remains common in newspapers and elsewhere (though MLA style advises against it) and can be seen in one of the comments above. And in sentences such as the following an apostrophe of this sort seems unavoidable: "His habit of not capitalizing his I's is distracting."; "That teacher never gives A's."
Friday March 11th 2011, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Russell, I also remember when those apostrophes were common usage, and I also agree that you still see a lot of them around. In the examples you give, an apostrophe is avoidable if we slightly change the wording:

Circumlocution wouldn't always work, of course.

I wonder if the popularity of this use of the apostrophe was a Canadian/British phenomenon?

A decade ago my daughter spent a year in Toronto and it is still her favourite city in the whole world, even though she now lives in London!
Friday March 11th 2011, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Oops! I used the 'more than' and 'less than' symbols as quote marks, with unforeseen consequences! Or rather, unseen consequences! The missing sentences, in the off chance anyone is curious, are:

"His habit of not capitalizing 'I' is distracting."


"That teacher never gives A grades."

or is " ... gives 'A' grades." more correct? A-grades?
Friday March 11th 2011, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
No, that rule was taught me as a high school student while I was still living in the US. (But I agree with your daughter about Toronto!)

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

How to get students to realize that literary allusions are everywhere.
Michele Dunaway shares some of her favorite teaching touchstones.
English education has left behind a very important area: writing the letter.