A number of years ago, an acquaintance enlisted me to help her search Craigslist for a sublet in New York City. This is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, but in this case the difficulty was compounded by the fact that my acquaintance was not a native English speaker—in fact, she did not speak much English at all—nor was she particularly internet savvy.

As someone who had spent a fair amount of time on Craigslist looking for apartments herself, I was well-versed in the various scams that flood the site and adept at the spotting the markers for them: TOO MUCH CAPITALIZATION or too much lower case. Word salad, word soup… Or wording that just somehow seemed “off,” in some vague, undefined way.

My acquaintance, on the other hand, was entirely at sea: she would call the numbers listed and be told that the original rental no longer existed but that she could be shown other, pricier options; or that she would have to hand over exorbitant amounts of money for a deposit, and so on.

I eventually got very frustrated trying to help her. She was oblivious to clear warning signs, and she went running to look at apartment after apartment that just obviously wasn’t going to pan out.

That was well before anyone started using the term “fake news,” but it taught me a pretty good lesson about how naïve people can be when navigating the oh-so-choppy waters of the internet.

I now regularly run across articles about programs designed to teach students to recognize fake news, and to be fair some of the techniques (particularly cross-checking sources) do seem to have an appreciable effect. But often, there is a much simpler way to tell whether a site is a credible source of information, and that is to simply look at the writing.

True, some untrustworthy sites are slickly produced and difficult to distinguish from more legitimate ones; however, the reality is that many—if not most—sites spewing questionable information are littered with flagrant spelling and grammar errors of just the sort one finds on, well, sketchy Craigslist apartment listings.

Consider, for example, this article challenging readers to identify real vs. fake Facebook posts. At first glance, most of the fake posts looked fairly convincing, but if you read really closely, cracks emerged in the façade. For example:

In case it’s too blurry to read (sorry! this was the clearest image I could get), the text above the image is as follows: Girls make rules and you follow them. If you don’t like them you live. End of the story.

If you read it carefully, there are actually three red flags: one tiny, the others slightly less subtle.

“First, girls make rules and you follow them.” A native English speaker would be more likely to say “girls make the rules.”

Second, the final sentence reads “end of the story.” That’s almost right, but the actual idiom is “end of story.”

And finally, “If you don’t like them, you live” NOT, “you leave.” That’s the biggie.

In and of themselves, these errors are minor, but taken together, they do strongly suggest that the person who wrote the post is not a native English speaker. In the context of an inflammatory Facebook post, that’s a big reason to be suspicious.

As the Times article points out:

Broken English is not a sure sign that a post is part of an influence operation. But grammatical errors were a common trait among the Russian ads Facebook disclosed in 2017—particularly the misuse of “a” and “the,” which don’t exist in the Russian language.

The substitution of “live” for “leave” is also a major clue—Russian speakers commonly have difficulty hearing the distinction between the long “ee” vs. short “ih” in English.

Another example, this one from a Washington Post article on teaching students to recognize fake news:

(Text: Breaking News! Authority is looking for this male in his early 20s located in the east bay. He was put in for mandatory quarantine after arrival from Hong Kong. He refused and has escaped the US base quarantine. We need your help to find him before the spread of the deadly virus.)

Look at the first sentence: Authority is looking for this male in his early 20’s located in the east bay. First of all, any native speaker would say Authorities, plural, are looking… That’s a really major error.

Second, the lack of capitalization in East Bay, which is a proper name. That kind of mistake is, as a former colleague of mine would say, pretty sketch.

Again, while improper punctuation doesn’t automatically signal a fake ad, a legitimate sponsored post of this sort would almost certainly not include these errors because, well, official CDC communications are written by educated adults with a basic grasp of English, and they presumably get proofed before being released.

If someone is attuned to the nuances of their own language and knows how to read with a modicum of attention, then these slip-ups range from pretty telling to screamingly obvious.

But what if someone isn’t attuned to the nuances (or even the basics) of their own language at all, particularly in written form?

What if the kind of writing found on scammy websites and in scammy Facebook and Instagram ads is actually their idea of normal writing?

And what if they’ve learned, implicitly or perhaps even explicitly, that there is no such thing as writing that is “better” or “worse”; that all text is equal and equally important; that basic rules of grammar and punctuation can be applied randomly and at will because…well, the internet.

In no way do I wish to imply here that there was some halcyon period when students’ writing was uniformly stellar. English teachers have no doubt complained about sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers since time immemorial (or at least the nineteenth century, when English was first considered a subject worthy of serious academic attention).

But in the past, even if students could not produce sparkling prose themselves, the damage was limited for a couple of very practical reasons: most of the text they read had been professionally written, vetted, and edited; and most of the writing they did was for school.

To state the obvious: not anymore, people. Not anymore.

Today, students are constantly inundated with enormous quantities of text that is none of these things. And many of them are also spending a lot of time writing very poorly. (Practice doesn’t always make perfect; sometimes it just makes permanent.) If their idea of normal written communication is “HAHAHHA lmao i dont beleive u,” then how exactly are they supposed to supposed pick up on things like missing articles, let alone know that they can be a warning sign?

Does anyone seriously think that people who are used to being surrounded by writing like this have the capacity to pick out social media-distributed agitprop based on grammar?

Incidentally, I started this post a couple of years ago, but I’m finishing it now because 1) the 2020 election, and 2) the insidious creep of texting-style writing creeping into students’ academic prose. (Recently, a colleague who teaches at an extremely selective high school school showed me a paper written by one of her strongest freshmen—a student who repeatedly wrote “im” instead of “I’m” and who spelled the word “read” two different ways in the same sentence. This was written on a physical piece of paper, not a computer.)

To know what is incorrect, one must first know what is correct—indeed, one must first be willing to accept that there is such thing as standard written English; that one can reasonably expect to find it in certain situations; and that violation of its conventions can serve as a danger signal.

If nonsensical, ungrammatical writing is the norm — and if the adult world considers this an acceptable state of affairs— then how can students be expected to apply those vaunted “higher-order critical thinking skills” to recognizing to things like fake news designed to foment discord?

Ideas anyone?