I came across a column by a former Australian politician, Mark Latham, on the state of literacy in schools. He wrote ‘we are witnessing the death of student writing and reading skills. The 2018 NAPLAN results produced the weakest standard of high school writing in the 10 years of the testing process. More than one-fifth of Year 9 students fell below the national minimum benchmark [ ] and reading results were no better. According to the Grattan Institute’s NAPLAN analysis, in a typical to slightly disadvantaged secondary school, one-third of Year 7 students are still learning to read.’
On the same day, I received the email below. I have changed a few details, but I have kept all the grammatical mistakes, even though Microsoft tried hard to force me to correct them.
I have been trying to reach you. I work for a recruitment company in Sydney we specialise in civil construction. My director and I met with [*Bob Smith] a few weeks ago and at the conclusion of the meeting he mentioned that i will need to get our terms and conditions across to you. Bob has mentioned to us that you are on the look for a Project Manager in sydney, I was looking to help him out with that role but as you had not returned my calls i have not worked it yet. I have attached our terms of business for you and will get to work on finding you suitable candidates.
Let me know if you have any questions
I did have a few questions. The first would have been, ‘Troy, are there earnest job seekers out there, investing hope that you will introduce them to suitable employment?’ Another question would be, ‘Troy, do you have anyone in your workplace who might help you with some basic written communication skills?’ My third would be to his boss. ‘Do you mind this quality of writing going out under your letterhead?’ And if they did not mind, I would then ask the boss, ‘do you honestly think this will inspire me to give you our business?’
My own standard of grammar is not special. I am often corrected by Microsoft and others. I draft and re-draft and I am still embarrassed to see my typos. I am impressed by people who write clearly and know the rules of grammar. With Microsoft doing its best to send us warning squiggles, how is it that Troy ploughs on ahead in the belief that his mistakes are acceptable and that his first impression, in writing, won’t matter.
A long time ago, I made the mistake of correcting the spelling of a primary school teacher. They had written do’nt instead of don’t. In fact, she had always placed her commas in the wrong spot for words such as wasn’t and weren’t, but I was making the point that she was now a vital role model for children and needed to get these things right.
I got a surprisingly hysterical lecture on the current ‘use of language’ philosophy of the State’s education department. It turned out I was quite wrong. It was quite acceptable to mis-spell and possess sub-standard grammar, because language was about freedom of expression. The catch cry was ‘It doesn’t matter how they write, it’s what they mean to say.’ I’m afraid this person did go out and teach children for some time.
Not very long after that lecture, I received a job application from a young person asking to ‘apply for a gob’. I knew it then and I know it now. It does matter. It matters if you want to get a start in life. It matters if you need to fill out a safety card, warning others of hazards in the workplace. It matters if you are submitting tenders or proposals or writing agreements and contracts. It might also matter if you are a Primary School teacher who wants to be promoted one day and communicate with parents and the wider community via the written word.
The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Lynne Truss
Ultimately, it should matter to our pride and personal standards. If you only possess one language, shouldn’t you understand and care about its use?
Today, people who making hiring decisions attend seminars and courses instructing them to minimise their unconscious bias problem when recruiting. When it comes to bias toward the written word, this is a pointless exercise in political correctness. In a pile of fifty applications, the person applying for the ‘gob’ will always go to the bottom of the pile, because the immediate gut reaction is; ‘this person is an idiot.’ Very few managers go out of their way to hire an idiot. Everyone wants their business or enterprise to survive.
My gut response to Troy’s email is also, this person is an idiot. If I had the time or if I wasn’t quite sure that my email would end up on social media in the hands of the Offenderati, I would reply; ‘Life is tough, Troy, and you’ve got strong competition. Asking for business is not the same as texting your mates. Keep working on your language skills. Read quality books or magazines, but just read. Get a dictionary or at least turn on spellcheck. Ask someone to look over your work and suggest corrections.’ But most of all, I would say, ‘don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s old fashioned or it doesn’t matter. It matters. It will matter to you greatly in life to be properly understood.’
Sometimes the feedback we most need to hear, is the feedback that no-one dares to tell us.