14 August 2015

It doesn’t matter how high your score is if you can’t apply the skills in real life

As I wrote about recently, I’ve seen a recent uptick in email. In addition to requests for my books, I also receive everything from straight up fan mail (always exciting), while others involve questions or comments.

Now, some of these missives are absolutely lovely. The writing is not only grammatically correct but also polite, clear, and fluid, and could easily have been produced by someone a decade or two older. I assume that even if these kids don’t get into fill-in-the-blank-Ivy, they’ll most likely be fine in life since anyone who has mastered the rules of written communication at 16 or 17 will almost certainly be able to find a job doing something or other. If these letters include a request, I usually try to answer them when I have a moment and am not so mentally burned out that I can’t manage to string five or six sentences together.

Alas, other emails are, to put it bluntly, sloppy and ungrammatical, some with a whiff of entitlement.

To be clear, I am not talking about typos, which everyone makes, nor am I referring to understandable errors made by people whose first language is not English. It takes some serious gumption to write in a foreign language, and far more gumption to even contemplate applying to college in a foreign country. In addition, I’m aware that certain rhetorical flourishes common in some languages can translate awkwardly into English. Those don’t concern me here.

For the record, I am also not looking to pick apart anyone’s writing in the course of a normal email exchange. Yes, I write grammar books, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and I know how and when to shelve it. If you have a question, by all means write to me — I’m not trying to scare anyone off.

That said, I’m also not letting people entirely off the hook here. If you know English well enough to be aiming for a high score on the SAT, and to apply to study in the United States at the university level, chances are that you know English well enough to follow its most basic rules. And if English is your first language, or if you’ve been going to an English-language school for years, you really have no excuse. The assumption on the reader’s part will be that you know perfectly well how to write correctly but simply couldn’t be bothered to do so. That is not an impression you want to make. In fact, it’s just plain rude.

This may sound obvious, but the point of writing is to communicate with other people when you are not physically present. Your writing is a stand-in for you, a delegate on your behalf, if you will. And in the absence of any other information, you will be judged by it — consciously or subconsciously — because it’s all that the reader has to go on.

Furthermore, different situations call for different types of communication, and what’s perfectly acceptable in one situation might not even be remotely appropriate in another.

When you are texting your friends or posting on Facebook, it’s perfectly fine to write things like “HAHAHA ROTFLMAO!!!”

When you are writing to your parents, you can say things like “hi, ill be home at 6, when r we eating”

However: Any time you communicate in writing with an adult you do not already have an established, familiar relationship with, you are expected to write  correctly. Admissions officers, college professors, and prospective employers all fall into that category. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution. Trust me when I say that no one cares whether you got an 800 in Writing if you cannot actually express yourself in clear, coherent, grammatically standard English. Test scores only have meaning if they reflect what you actually know.

This does not mean you need to be stylistically brilliant, nor does it mean you need to pack your writing full of ten-dollar words and use convoluted sentences that are five lines long. It does, however, mean that you are expected to follow the conventions of standard written English (electronic) communication.

These include:

  • Capitalizing the first letter of every sentence, proper names, and the word “I.” Moreover, capitalization must be consistent — you can’t capitalize in some places and use lower case in others. It is almost impossible to overemphasize how sloppy that looks. (It also comes off as a little unstable.)
  • Ensuring that your writing does not contain any egregious grammatical errors — that means things like comma splices. Most people aren’t interested in picking apart your grammar, but they will notice if your mistakes are glaring.
  • Phrasing things politely and recognizing that people will not necessarily be able to accommodate you simply because you’re making a request.

And if you really want to make a good impression:

  • Separating ideas with a space between paragraphs. Large blocks of text can be extremely difficult to process mentally, especially on a screen. Creating clear visual divisions between thoughts makes your ideas easier to follow.

Perhaps I’m turning into an old curmudgeon, or perhaps capitalization is just a relic that can’t be seriously expected of 21st century students (who are presumably all going to become superstar coders who have no need to write anything), but I’m not quite willing to throw in that towel just yet.

In some ways, I feel bad for picking on people for this — some of the emails I receive are terribly, almost painfully sweet. When I jotted down the first handful of exercises that would eventually become The Ultimate Guide to SAT® Grammar, I had absolutely no idea that my books would help students in places like Egypt and Tunisia fulfill their dreams of studying in the United States. I’m staggered by their impact, and I’m truly sorry that there are limits to how I can distribute them. But on the other hand, it seems like a disservice not to point these things out, and not (only) for the sake of being a nitpicky grammarian.

I think that this problem seems particularly acute to me precisely because I’m not a teacher. Website aside, pretty much all of the people I exchange emails with are other adults (of varying degrees of education, I might add) who invariably follow the basic standard rules of written English — even in a casual, two sentence exchange. It’s therefore very striking — and irritating — to me to receive an email that does not contain a single capitalized letter. I’m also not subject to administrators or educational fads that subscribe to the belief that it’s normal or acceptable for high school juniors to write like fifth graders.

Given the obsession with “real world skills,” I find it frankly bizarre that schools are not actually impressing upon their students the importance of mastering this exceedingly fundamental real world skill. But as someone who’s basically made a career out of teaching very important (basic) things that no longer get taught in school, I feel responsible for bringing it to people’s attention.

The reality is that in college, in the professional world, the ability to express yourself well still counts enormously. Like it or not, poor writing will reflect poorly on you. You have no idea what sorts of opportunities you might miss out on simply because you made a questionable impression. You also have no idea whose hands your emails might end up in; the “Forward” button is a powerful tool. If you are the one-in-a-million exception who starts the next Facebook, you’ll get a pass. Otherwise, you probably won’t.

So in the immortal words of adults everywhere, I’m not just trying to be mean; I’m actually doing you a favor.

Someday, you’ll thank me for it.

(For further reference about what will be expected from you in college, see http://www.math.uh.edu/~tomforde/Email-Etiquette.html. Note that this was written by a MATH professor.)

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