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Mind Your Language
June 18, 2012 - 9:15pm

We’re halfway through the academic year in South Africa, and like many of my colleagues, I’ve been catching my breath after the deluge of marking which arrived at the end of the first semester. I’ve taught since beginning my graduate studies, and have marked students’ essays and exam scripts both in South Africa and the UK. Over the past eight years, what has struck me is that the quality of students’ writing and research hasn’t varied all that greatly; I can remember a few very bad, and some brilliant, pieces of work, but I haven’t noticed a decline or marked improvement in the standard of the work submitted to me.

This year, though, while marking slightly more than a hundred essays written by final-year students, I was astonished by how poorly they were written. The grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling were so faulty that, often, I was unable to understand the essays. What concerned me more, though, was that students did not seem to understand the language they were using: some could not distinguish between ‘feminist’ and ‘feminine’, for instance.

This left me in a quandary. I am an historian and in all of the departments where I have worked, I have tended to ignore spelling and grammar errors as I mark because I am more interested in how students argue, in how they construct their essays, support their statements, and analyse primary and secondary material. I only deduct marks for bad spelling or grammar when they inhibit my ability to read an essay.

This policy stems partly from the most useful training session I attended when I began tutoring: a course on identifying and helping dyslexic students. It made me rethink how I marked and evaluated students’ work, and I came to the conclusion that if I could understand their meaning, spelling and grammar were not all that important. After all – having helped to edit a number of journals – I know that many good historians are indifferent spellers. Bad grammar does not make a bad argument.

In addition to this, my university has a bilingual language policy and more than half of my students write in their second or third language. They have the choice to write in either English or Afrikaans, and most prefer the former, usually because they want to improve their proficiency in a language which, they feel, will be useful in finding employment after graduation.

Indeed, I believe that it is precisely for this reason that the essays were so badly written. I have noticed that students feel that they should switch to language which is more complex – more sophisticated – than that which they speak or write informally. As a result of this, they produce convoluted, over-complicated writing which is rendered almost incomprehensible when accompanied by faulty grammar and bad spelling. Those students who wrote in Afrikaans produced clear, concise essays. Ironically, students’ writing in tests and exams – when most prefer to write in their mother tongue – tends to be considerably better.

But I think that the reasons for my students’ poor writing go deeper than attempting – and failing – to reproduce a formal, ‘academic’ tone in a second or third language. I am concerned that they don’t read enough academic writing. As a student, I tried to replicate the style of the historians whom I most admired. Scholars like Eric Hobsbawm are readable precisely because they write simply and avoid unnecessary jargon. 

Also, as class sizes and academic workloads have increased, it’s relatively rare for students’ essays to be comprehensively commented upon.  Lecturers and, more frequently, postgraduate tutors focus on students’ arguments and essay structures, rather than their language use, because this is a far quicker way of getting through an enormous pile of essays.

I wonder if my usual view – that correct spelling and grammar aren’t all that important as long as an essay is comprehensible – has contributed to this problem. As a lecturer, I don’t feel that I should correct students’ spelling and grammar. My university has an excellent writing laboratory to which I direct students in need of help with their essays.

But as an historian I feel strongly that we should train young scholars who produce writing that is accessible both to other academics and to the public. And as a lecturer, I don’t feel that it is responsible of me to allow students who can’t write comprehensibly, to graduate. So should universities provide students with spelling and grammar classes?

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at


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