Grammar, writing jobs and the bottom line

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Betsy EdgertonCan better grammar skills lead to a better job as well? So argues Columbia College Chicago journalism professor Betsy Edgerton in the piece below. Feel free to leave your comments on Betsy's views or contact moneycollege@walletpop.com.

You know grammar, right? Of course you do. So why pay for your teen to sit through an old-school grammar course in college -- isn't that what middle school was for?

Sadly, it wasn't. Nor was high school, and freshman-year English Comp 101 won't help either. That's because decades of research in English education have convinced academics that teaching grammar is a lousy idea. Students, they say -- and they're adamant on this point -- will only learn grammar as part of the process of learning to write, not as a standalone subject. Any other method will be soul-killing and a waste of time for the student.

Well, people doing the hiring in the writing professions beg to differ. Public relations professionals recently added to the chorus of complaints, telling researchers the writing skills of their entry-level colleagues "are bad -- and they are getting worse." I run the magazine program in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago, and I couldn't agree more. An increasing number of journalism programs, including mine, have grammar tests and classes and don't allow students to continue in the major until they pass one or the other.

Many journalism professors still work in the field, and they tend to be a very plugged-in, practical-minded bunch. They do not want to send a bunch of newly-minted writers, producers and editors out into the world who can't string together a grammatical sentence. The same rules apply for graduates bent on working in the online space only, which might come as a surprise to the tech-savvy job hunter.

Can't properly write a report, email, chart? Sorry, new graduate. It's really competitive out there.

What's ironic is that over the last decade we've seen a boomlet of colorful, reader-friendly grammar books: Just check out the table at Borders where Eats,Shoots & Leaves is cuddled up next to Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. But these brush-up grammar books don't help young writers, who usually don't realize they made a mistake in the first place.

Here's a very short list of the stuff students need to know but rarely do:
  • Grammar terminology. Students come into college with no common language to deconstruct a sentence. Learning to tell the difference between a verb and a preposition is a necessary evil.
  • There's something out there called a gerund, and using one correctly signals that a writer cares about precise language. (A gerund is a verb with an "ing" ending that functions as a noun. Check out "using" in the previous sentence.)
  • Commas are not the Vitamin C of writing; liberal use does not ward off trouble.
  • Everybody gets to use one exclamation point per day.
  • "This is she" sounds like Shakespeare, but it's correct.
The folks in my corner of academia don't purport to have a magical cure in our grammar classrooms. We try like heck to keep class upbeat, fun, supportive. At Columbia College, we've just instituted a new version of our grammar class, and under this new setup, three-quarters of our students will be required to meet with one of our tutors every week. That tutoring, by the way, will take a chunk out of my department's budget, not students'.

Something big is happening in journalism and mass communications, and it's happening across the spectrum of universities. Here's a partial list of the schools tackling the grammar issue or considering doing so: University of Florida, Stony Brook University, Ryerson University, University of Wisconsin at Madison and Eau Claire, New Mexico State University, Ohio University, Temple University, Arizona State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We realize it's a bottom line issue for you, too. But speaking for the grammar nerds at Columbia College Chicago and elsewhere, if you see a grammar class pop up on your student's schedule, know that we have the best interests at heart. This isn't our attempt to load up on more required courses; this is our effort to correct a culture-wide problem.

Betsy Edgerton is an assistant professor and the director of the magazine writing and editing program in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago. She is a magazine editor, specializing in business publications, a consultant and book editor.

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