Clarity and Criticism

Some of my students this semester were unhappy that I made comments about the ways in which they expressed themselves in English. Here are some quotes from assignments I received this semester. I’d welcome input from anyone, but in particular other professors, about the standard of student English in our time, whether I’m too fussy in pointing out such instances, and so on.

Below are just a few sample quotes. What grades would you give to assignments typified by such writing?

Genesis 1 is the true beginning of what life is known as today. But at the beginning the minor differences are being shown.”

This can be an easy interpretation for the sky, as it is very popular to look for the sky when looking ‘towards’ Heaven.”

The New Revised Standard Version has The Bible in a little different set up. It has Genesis one separate from Genesis two and three. It says right before Genesis two that Genesis two is “Another Account of the Creation”. This means that this version of The Bible is to have believed that Genesis one creation story is different then the Genesis two and three creation story.”

There is only one creation story that is seen in every translation, displayed by chapter two in every translation.”

“Though man was created in the first chapter of Genesis, or the first story of creation, here woman is presented to accompany man on earth. The second story also brings upon another element of the Bible, sin, where the fruit from the middle tree of the Garden of Eden after God had strictly spoken against it. Because of consumption, the punishment is conceiving and giving birth to children, while the man’s punishment is the hardships of work.”

“I think that the commandments should not be allowed into a government building because that would refute the freedom of religion for every citizen.”

“There is a theory that Jesus was on Earth before his birth in Bethlehem. Some believe that he had been on Earth before as a great person and was reincarnated in order to re-live his wisdom. The other part of this theory is that until his birth as a human, he had lived on Earth in spirit. These theories are based off of a field of study called Christology.”

“There are two distinctive sides with very strong opinions, and perhaps other groups of people who have opinions that are somewhere in between the beliefs of the other two groups. Valid statements can be found for any of the various sides, but some of the arguments are more prominent than others.”

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  • Jim

    Tis what happens when students want to sound smarter than they are. They overreach and thus end up saying nothing.They need to learn to write concisely and compactly. There is no more benefit to lengthy papers than there is to repetitious prayers.

  • Considering half of those examples include not just poor grammar, but incoherent and illogical statements as well, I’d say they have little to complain about if they are marked down for them. That said, how harshly such should be judged would seem to depend on who these students are – freshmen, or grad students? Personally, my grammar was never that poor, but I’m thankful that most of my undergrad profs didn’t punish us too severely for typographic errors, because my early work was filled with them. Heck, they’re still tough to completely avoid, especially on a deadline.

  • In my view, your criticisms are are legitimate. However, I’m not sure that grading students down will help solve the problem. Grade them down too much and they lose interest in you and your courses (and their course work). Yet, if you don’t mention anything, they may regret later in life that nobody pointed their errors out to them. I’d say: Point out the errors but take it easy on the grading at first. If the problems persist, take more off each time. I think there is theological precdence for being clear, concise and cogent in one’s answers.

  • Wow! These are really bad. My students are also equally inarticulate. Makes me feel better. Yes, they need to know that their work needs to be refined. However, if you aren’t careful students might think that you are grading their grammar and NOT the content.Make sure you explain that if one can’t understand what the writer is saying, then the overall content suffers as well.

  • Anonymous

    It could be worse. They could write like Judith Butler.– refugee from academia

  • Tom

    I grew up in a working class town where nobody worried about grammar at all. I’m now applying to med school and constantly worry that I sound uneducated when I speak and write. I’ve finished two bachelor’s degrees (decided a little late that med school was for me) and have found that most of my profs. over the years don’t worry about grammar either. I would have appreciated more guidance on such things over the years. as far as grading, poor grammar doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue as unclear arguments. you can make a good argument using poor grammar, you can’t use good grammar to turn a poor argument into a good one. The first poster pointed out that this is what happens when people try to sound smarter than they are. this is also what happens when profs worry more about meeting a length requirement than the actual content. I’ve always been a big fan of profs not having strict length requirements, but instead offering fair warnings as to what is typically necessary to address the topic at the level the prof would like.

  • In addition to my earlier comments, I’d like to echo Michael’s point that while too much stress on grammar can back-fire, they are unlikely to improve if you don’t point them out, and will hurt them in the long run – especially if they intend to continue in academia.

  • In my own post grad work, I am lucky if I produce a thorough second draft. Since I receive top marks, I am left to believe that the profs show immeasurable grace in grading. I would be alot harder on me. I don’t think, however, that I’d have a shot at an “A” if I read Gen 3 and deduced that conception was a result of the fall (that was my personal favorite). As an church-educator type dude, I am amazed at the low grammar of our younger folks. The other day, I found a note on some lighting equipment that read, “DO NOT TOUCH UNDER PENALTY OF PAINE.” Yep, if you touch it…we’re gonna make you read him. Lots and lots of him!

  • see, I goofed the comment (first draft). “an” church educator…grammar discussions make me flinch

  • dave

    Perhaps I’m rather insensitive to the grammatical errors that are so common on the internets, but to me it was more interesting to see that while one or two students just didn’t get it, others clearly had the right idea about treating Genesis as two somewhat contradictory myths, and about separation of church and state, even though some seemed a bit muddled about the details.

  • As a non-teacher, I have to say that many of these phrases are literally incomprehensible.For example, the first phrase you cite: What did the person mean to say? I have no idea. I even feel that guessing would be difficult.It’s not a matter of grammar. ‘I ain’t goin’ to the doctor’ is perfectly understandable. How can a teacher grade an essay if s/he doesn’t know what the student means to say?

  • From an editor’s perspective, these quotations betray a severe lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the student. I understand what each student desires to say, but that’s only because I’m familiar with the context in which he or she is writing. To someone unfamiliar with the material, it would take considerable effort to identify the point being made. During my undergraduate years (hard to believe my freshman year began 20 years ago!), I found it extremely helpful to have my peers proofread my work before submitting the final version. It saved me a lifetime of embarrassment.I wouldn’t necessarily mark down for grammar errors, but I’d certainly mark down for an inability to communicate effectively. I might also show the university’s English comp profs examples of your students’ writing. It could help them target problem areas and improve their own teaching methods.The biggest problem I see here is that your students may be trying to sound smart by writing lots of words. Unfortunately, that backfires in most cases. If your students’ grammar is this poor on a routine basis, I’d give them periodic exercises on reducing an unwieldy passage into something that’s brief, concise, to the point, and (most importantly) accurate.If you’ll indulge me, here are examples of what they could have written given a little extra effort:”The first chapter of Genesis depicts the true origin of life …” [I have no idea to what these “minor differences” refer].”As a carryover of our previously-held geocentric beliefs, it is still common to look to the sky when speaking of ‘heaven.'”[Deleting the blatant falsehood that the NRSV somehow presents two different creation accounts while other versions don’t, as well as the common misperception that chapter headings are somehow a part of the biblical text …] “The first two chapters of Genesis present two separate and literarily distinct creation accounts.”[Ignoring the writer’s apparent misconception that Genesis 1 isn’t a creation account …] “Every translation of the Bible presents a single, unified creation account in Genesis 2.” [Actually, I think this one is unsalvageable.][Deleting the error that Genesis 1 depicts the creation of the first man but not the first woman, as well as the idea that conceiving children is some sort of divine punishment … I actually think it’s awesome recreation! ;-)] “While Genesis 1 depicts the apparently simultaneous creation of male and female human beings, Genesis 2 depicts the creation of the first woman some time after the creation of the first man. Genesis 2 differentiates itself further from Genesis 1 in its depiction of sin’s entry into the world. In this story, God commanded Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil located in the center of the Garden of Eden. As a result of Adam’s (and Eve’s) disobedience in this regard, Eve was told that she would experience increased pain during childbirth, and Adam would find his agricultural endeavors beset by numerous hardships.”[Ignoring the implication that “separation of church and state” is a constitutional issue …] “The placement of the Ten Commandments in government buildings constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state, potentially infringing upon a citizen’s Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of religion.”[I could be wrong, but I never considered reincarnation as a legitimate study in the realm of Christology …] “Some who believe in reincarnation hold that Jesus lived on earth as a wise, spirit-being prior to the Incarnation event depicted in the Christian scriptures. His Incarnation was brought about to allow Jesus to live out his wisdom in bodily form, thus providing mankind with a superior example to emulate.””[X] and [Y] are two widely-held, yet distinctive, opinions on this matter, with other varied and/or nuanced stances existing within this spectrum of belief. While all of the various opinions possess valid arguments, some arguments are more effective than others.”Well, that was a fun exercise! Got my brain going this morning. Here’s hoping my own contribution doesn’t undergo similar scrutiny. =)

  • First you have to decide are you teaching a grammar class or a theology class. If the former then by all means detract severely from their scores, but if the latter then a gentle reminder that poor writing will be deducted from their test results but not too severely. ;)By the way I enjoy reading your thoughts even if I don’t always agree.

  • Wow! My (linguistic) mind boggles. In general, I agree with Michael: don’t downgrade first but point out each mistake. (That’s for truly grammatical mistakes not logical ones which should be rightfully downgraded.)I too liked “Because of consumption, the punishment is conceiving and giving birth to children” best. However, I doubt that the writer is a mother tongue speaker of English. The grammatical structure of that entire paragraph suggests an underlying non-Indoeuropean language to me. Can you confirm?

  • I have sometimes asked students to let me know if they are non-native speakers, since I’d make allowances in such cases. Alas, no, that has never turned out to be the case, although I’m sure the students were insulted. But it is nice to know that I’m not the only one who has reacted to their lack of writing ability with that diagnosis! 🙂

  • Bad

    I don’t think their English is entirely to blame here. It’s not knowing exactly what they want to convey, and why. When the point that you want to your readers to find contentious and surprising isn’t clear in your own mind, it’s rather unlikely that it will become so on paper.

  • Mike J

    I make my living as a writer (biomedical). My wife makes curricula to teach writing. Both of us would say that you aren’t being too fussy. Rather you’re being too soft on them. Your field is one in which the use of language is central and critical. Any student who cannot use it well, is failing. And students whose writing is as poor as what we see in your examples are being crippled in their ability to succeed in the world of work.Do them all a favor. Tell them at the outset that you expect them to write VERY WELL, and that you will hit them hard for lousy writing. Then give them resources to help them learn to write better should they need the help.

  • Amy

    Those quotes are atrocious and make me sad. I think you should grade them harshly for bad writing and bad grammar, or else how will they ever learn? Their grades should not only depend on content, but also on whether or not the intended content is understandable. If students get upset, direct them to a grammar handbook or writing center.