Think Literacy Levels Are Fine? Read This



Ah, England, home of Shakespeare! Also, a land where people apparently can’t string two words together, a country with a literacy rate that places us 44th in the world order, rather a long way behind, say, Latvia and Moldova, not quite as low as Tunisia or Papua New Guinea. The source for literacy rates is here although be warned, there are a lot of different ways to measure these and many Russian news items about literacy are fake. It didn’t shock me, though, as I had just been attempting to read The Independent online, in which every article is peppered with elementary spelling mistakes.

The Independent, let’s remember, was billed as a world class literate newspaper before its destruction at the hands of its new Russian owner, who wanted to play at being a press baron for a while. When I worked for them we had to answer our own readers’ queries personally and fact-check every sentence. Those days are long gone. Now not only is the spelling atrocious, the grammar and comprehension is so poor that whole paragraphs make no sense at all.

Oh, sorry, I should explain – ‘comprehension’ was a test kids once did at school in which we had to precis what we’d read to see if we’d understood it. Perhaps it is still taught, although clearly not to the Indie staff. Try this chunk of unedited gibberish from the paper’s article on Jacob Rees-Mogg; ‘when they were discussing their free trade deal with the US and they found nobody had ever had any adverse consequences from chlorinated chicken which basically just kills germs, other than the inspectors who went round seeing how the chlorine was put in on the chickens and they breathed in a bit too much and felt a bit queasy.’

Perhaps the paper’s writers were  busy gluing pasta shapes onto tinsel while everyone else did their ABCs. If I sound annoyed, blame it on the fact that I’ve devoted my life to a career that now ranks literacy somewhere beside wicker repair as a dead skill.

Without typographers or actual writers there are just unedited news sources and web designers. If you would care to make a comparison, try setting any UK newspaper other than the Telegraph or the Guardian beside El Pais, Le Figaro or just about any German national paper. I can read the English editions of other far more balanced, intelligent and – one shouldn’t even have to type this – literate – papers from around the world, but I shouldn’t have to.

To the right and left we have the Spectator and the New Statesman, but what we really lack now is in-depth reportage. The New York Times is almost overwhelming in its dedication to detailed, lengthy articles. El Pais frequently runs complex, long pieces about culture and politics. Meanwhile the UK Times is asking ‘Should you wipe down your yoga mat?’

If I could do one thing, I’d buy the defunct Punch magazine and breathe life into it again, making it more like the Modern Review, with intelligent, informed writing. That would doom my investment overnight.

*grumpy writer goes to make tea, scowling and muttering under breath*


25 comments on “Think Literacy Levels Are Fine? Read This”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I don’t understand how spelling mistakes can creep into any publication these days, unless people turn off or ignore their spell checkers.

    After my father retired he put a lot of time and effort into researching our family history. As well as the usual BMD certificates and census returns he dug out an obituary of my great great grandfather in a paper from around 1900. Now this was just a local paper in a provincial rural area, and his only claim to fame was that he had served as a churchwarden in his village for most of his life. Despite that the paper had put together a long, detailed and well written article, which I found astonishing. It even mentioned that one of his sisters emigrated to America and was a servant at the White House at the time of Abraham Lincoln, “who saved his nation and freed a race”.

    Hatchards in Piccadilly has a window display of a book of photographs by war photographer Don McCullin, probably best known for his work in Vietnam. It got me thinking that press photography is also going down the drain, being replaced by photos taken by people waving their iThing in the general direction of something which might be vaguely interesting.

  2. brooke says:

    “But I spelled-checked it!” This was the White House assistant’s cry regarding Trump’s inauguration poster, which read, “No dream too big, no challenge to great…” The Library of Congress (!) republished the poster.
    Our Department of State issued a notice saying the U.S. is committed to lasting “peach” in the Middle East. The same communication went on to speak about the Israelis (sic) government.

    The inability to spell and use correct punctuation and grammar also pervades corporations and law firms, complain my senior clients. Now comes augmented writing (“the algorithm did it”). “You can’t distinguish AI writing from a human’s!” Oh, joy.

    Rain down your wrath upon us, Mr. Orwell.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    Angela Rayner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education:

    “The Bombardier situation is quite a crucial one because these are UK jobs that we depend on – thousands and actually the Government were in that contract process and were robust and I think that we have to defend the fact that the contract was awarded and we followed the rules”……”That contract, in particular, what we was talking about, the fact is, that we followed the rules, we won that contract fair and square. You can’t turn round and say you don’t like it now, well that was the rules and we followed the contract in terms of that and the Government need to be robust in their defence of that.”

    BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ 27 Sept

  4. Steveb says:

    If you write down how people actually speak they will always sound stupid
    @Admin You are completely right. The diminution of logic and structure and attention span goes hand in hand with the rise of twitter trending and emoticons. Behind the gated walls of silicon valley, I’m very sure the zillionaires make sure their children still get to learn grammar and structure. But for the rest of the world, ‘roughly right’ is ‘good enough’ apparently.

  5. Roger says:

    “No dream too big, no challenge to great…”
    They used the wrong homonym: He wanted a challenge to grate.

  6. Chris Webb says:

    I have just bought my copy in Forbidden Planet. They are bunging them out at £2 off!

    Pleased to see from the dust jacket you are still alive. Sitting in Soho Square drinking a flat white and trying to figure out whether the silhouettes on the cover correspond to the people inside.

  7. Chris Webb says:

    Oops, that was supposed to go in yesterday’s post about the Forgotten Authors book. Sorry.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. The standard of written English is simply disgusting nowadays.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    A very clever man once said to me that concern for spelling and grammar is a great barrier to creative thought. It’s probably true and, when evolving our ideas, we can well allow ourselves some freedom. That freedom should not extend into the subsequent expression of our thoughts. Accuracy is essential both to logical review and effective communication. It’s obvious in mathematics and, remembering that mathematics is ultimately another language, should be as apparent in all written language.

    We suffer from innumerate politicians and celebrities who boast of their lack of numeracy. Perhaps, they are leading the way or, in the case of the politicians, looking to profit from an electorate even more incapable than themselves?

  10. Chris Webb says:

    Maybe education and life in general is getting too complex for people to be proficient in all expected or required disciplines. Quite rightly science and technology is given much higher priority in education than in the past (until the not too distant past a typical English public school would not have touched that stuff with a bargepole) and something else has to give. An almost stereotypical complaint amongst IT recruiters is that people with the right technical skills have poor language and communication skills. OMG, WTF and LOL isn’t a very comprehensive vocabulary!

    I think the Independent example is rather extreme but I don’t read it so could not say how typical it is of that particular paper (ePaper?).

    Newspapers in Britain at least and probably many other countries have been in decline for years, I believe much of their function being taken up by more specialised online blogs and services. Many of these are very high quality and I regularly read a several in the fields of IT and photography, all of them being well written and authoritative.

    On the odd occasions when I see an article in a mainstream news source on a subject I know about I often find it incomplete, misleading or just plain wrong. You get the impression a “general purpose” journalist has an hour or two to research and write an article on a subject he knows nothing about and inevitably makes a mess of it.

    From Peter above: “A very clever man once said to me that concern for spelling and grammar is a great barrier to creative thought.” When I was at school in the late 70s our English teacher was always moaning that grammar had been taken out of the O Level syllabus. I therefore know literally nothing of the subject whatsoever. I don’t even know what a grammatical rule looks like, and certainly couldn’t name one. (Actually, I have some vague notion that there is a thing called a split infinitive and that it’s considered bad.) Despite that I think I usually speak and type with reasonable grammatical correctness so something must have sunk in from somewhere. (To prove my point, I’m not sure whether I should have said ‘sunken’ instead of ‘sunk’.)

    If my grammar is actually rubbish please feel free to shoot me down.

    Peter again: “We suffer from innumerate politicians and celebrities who boast of their lack of numeracy.” I’m always dumbfounded by this. Why do people flaunt their stupidity and ignorance. “I can’t even boil an egg”, “I can’t even change a lightbulb” and so on.

  11. Davem says:

    Bring back Punch …absolutely!

  12. Brooke says:

    @ Martin– an official photo (with White House logo and US flag) of our Secretary for Education shows a picture of Ms. DeVos surrounded by children. The caption reads, “Secretary of Educatuon Betsy DeVos.”

  13. Steveb says:

    Grammar is most useful and important for learning other languages I think. Sometimes learning another language makes you notice things about your own language that otherwise you never would.
    When I was at school in the 60’s we somehow managed both literacy and numeracy!!!

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Forty years ago my neighbour sent her 15 year old daughter over to me to learn how to write an essay. Marty had been handed back a piece of writing with a comment on it regarding mis-use of tenses. She did not know what a tense was. That would have been in the early 70s. On the other hand my mother in her one room prairie school had been required to recite English verbs in present, past, subjunctive and other tenses that I wasn’t even sure about in French, which was where I learned the terminology beyond past, present, and future. There is such a thing as too much grammar, I think, but you really should learn how to put your language together. I often go back to reread what I’ve written because my pronoun references sometimes become confused and I tend to use “it” instead of being clear.

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    Chris Webb; maybe sank?

  16. Ian Luck says:

    There does seem to be a feeling among some people that it is somehow charming and ‘trendy’ to not know anything. Some of our friends formed a pub quiz team, some years ago. We regularly won – and never once used our phones. Somebody actually complained that we did not use our phones, and even said: “They must have the answers, because they write them down straight away.” No. We knew the answers, simple as that. We read books, paid attention in school, scandalous cheating techniques like that. Oddly enough, these complaints were never made straight to our faces – we were seven big blokes. Oh, and possibly because of our team name. One of our number, who has no gearing between what he thinks, and what he says, suggested: “Seven big c***s”. True, funny, but not acceptable. I suggested a trailer I’d heard for an ancient Kung-Fu movie – “The Certified Masters Of Death”. Everyone liked it, so that’s what we were(if somebody couldn’t make it one night, then the team name was “The Brides Of Fu Manchu). When the quiz was in progress, you could hear some of the other teams trying to work out answers to simple, simple questions, and it made you want to go and bang your head against something solid. It’s also the reason I gave up watching ‘University Challenge’. Some of the teams were well deserving of Paxman’s scorn. I never went to University, not enjoying school. I’m happy to be an autodidact. I was once asked to compile some questions for a pub quiz. I did so, checking, and double checking the questions (50, of varying degrees of difficulty), got them printed up, and gave them to the quiz organiser. A few days later, several people rang me up to say that all my questions were rubbish, and had turned the night into a shouty farrago. I asked about the questions, and some that I had not written were told to me. I asked to see the question sheet. Not one question was one I had written. It turned out that the organiser had read mine, and thought that they were far too hard, and had compiled her own, checking them using Wikipedia and Facebook. My questions were of a level that anyone who had read a book or watched well made documentaries, would have had no trouble answering. I was asked again, more recently. I said: “No.” Ignorance. In this day and age, there is no excuse for it. None at all.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Peter Dixon, no, Chris is right with sunk. It’s sink, sank, have sunk. Wherever sunken fits in I think it’s archaic, possibly.

  18. Peter Dixon says:

    Helen; sank you very much. I’ll sink about this later.

  19. Peter Tromans says:

    Is sunken the adjective, as it sunken eyes or ship? The condition one is in after being suncked.

  20. Bill says:

    Teaching grammar is a pleasure, and so gratifying inasmuch as children are so open to analysis of language structure. I speak as an ESL teacher, TESOL, probably, to many of you.

  21. Debra Matheney says:

    Just returned from Jane Austen conference in Huntington Beach, California where a presenter shared a quote from an English publication which said, “Unlease your inner Jane Austen.”

  22. keith page says:

    Clever, articulate people are not much liked nowadays, I’m afraid.My computer’s so-called ‘spellchecker’ doesn’t even appear to understand English, and no-one seems capable of saying anything at all without the use of ‘so’.We won’t go into ‘like’ which currently seems to be the ignorant person’s substitute for any number of words, phrases or punctuation.

  23. Peter Tromans says:

    I once had a manager who, after I had delivered a report written in the first person, informed me that he preferred reports written in the subjunctive. Since in English a subjunctive usually follows a ‘that’ or similar, I asked him what I should use in the other half of the sentence. We never understood one another.

  24. Helen Martin says:

    We had an ESL teacher who was proud of having taught several ten year olds how to use shall and will correctly. When used with some pronouns either can indicate future time or determination, but 99 44/100 people couldn’t tell you how to work it. I certainly couldn’t because when we speak we always abbreviate them to ‘ll so you can’t hear any difference. I don’t think there was any great priority to put on that usage but I praised the boys anyway.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    What about the pronounciation of the ancient ‘Cinque Ports’? I know that Cinque is pronounced ‘Sank’ but I have heard it as ‘Sink’, and as ‘Sunk’. Which is correct? Is it important? No, but it bugs me.

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