The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why mistakes matter

Last week, I clicked on a link on a friend’s Facebook page to read an interview in an online fashion magazine. As I started to read, I found that I had to reread the first few lines a couple of times and still couldn’t quite get the flow of the writing. Thinking that in a slightly trendy, arty publication the writer was trying to achieve some kind of creative effect, I read on. I kept, however, stumbling over sentences, having to go back and reparse again and again. Inevitably, given my day job, I started to analyse what it was that was troubling me about the writer’s style, and I started to pick out grammatical errors; missing subjects, mismatched subjects and verbs, awkward parallel constructions. After a while, the awkwardness of the grammar started to really irritate me and eventually, became so tiring, I gave up reading.  It was only then that I noticed the name of the writer and after a bit of clicking around, realized that the website was based in Spain and quite possibly not written, or I suspect even edited, by native English speakers. This perhaps explained the slightly odd writing style, but my first impressions stuck and I couldn’t summon up the energy or ‘understanding’ to go back and finish the article. I don’t mean to be disparaging about the writer’s attempts to write in English. He was clearly a very proficient English speaker and had been ambitious in his writing style and very nearly pulled it off – the errors were not basic, but generally stemmed from his use of more challenging structures. But it seems to me, that if you’re going to publish for an international audience in English (or any language come to that), then you really have to get your writing edited by a native (or near-native) speaker.

I’ve long been interested in the area of learner errors, especially through my long-standing work with the Cambridge Learner Corpus. When I started doing talks about learner errors and how to help students eliminate them, I often came up against resistance along the lines of; but shouldn’t we be encouraging fluency and confidence, not focusing on errors all the time? And I would find myself explaining that yes, of course fluency and confidence are very important, especially in spoken communication, and no, I wasn’t advocating a focus on error correction “all the time”. I do firmly believe though that if we’re going to teach writing skills, then helping students to identify, correct and eventually perhaps eliminate errors has to be a part of that process. And in some contexts, a very important part.

In my own current area of interest, EAP, we bang on a lot about critical thinking and we encourage students to ask critical questions about the accuracy, reliability and credibility of information. These are all qualities that are highly valued in academia – if you’re going to make a claim, your arguments and evidence have to be clear, unambiguous and precise. If a student hands in a piece of writing to their subject tutor that contains inaccuracies or ambiguities, they will quite likely question the students’ understanding of the topic before they put the deficiencies down to language errors.

It seems to me that we’re selling our students short if we mark a piece of written work littered with language errors as “good”, when it clearly isn’t (a brief nod to Jim Scrivener there). Ever since I’ve been involved in ELT, there seems to have been a general distinction made between errors which hamper meaning (bad and to be marked down) and those which don’t (okay to let slide). Whilst that may be valid where simply conveying a message by whatever means possible is our aim, especially in high stakes writing, I don’t think that’s always enough. In the same way that I got tired and irritated by the awkward grammar of my Spanish fashion journalist, a subject tutor ploughing through a pile of student essays may equally feel the linguistic strain placed on them by the errors of their international students, even where they don’t directly impact on the basic meaning.  Even apparently minor errors in academic writing can undermine the writer’s credibility and the degree to which their reader is persuaded of their argument.

So for me, regular error analysis and correction (in a variety of different forms) and occasional activities on ‘basic’ areas of grammar (articles, prepositions, subject-verb agreement) should always have a place in any EAP teacher’s repertoire, even at the highest levels.

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Blogger Andy Gillett said...

I agree with much of what you say, Julie. In fact I've spent some time over the last few years trying to persuade people that professionalas, as well as knowing their subject well, need to be able to communuicate about their field well, too. But most people disagree with me and I've had some strong arguments from lecturers who say that the only thing that matter is the communicatiion of meaning. "If I can understand what the student is writing about, then the English is good enough! Some things are more important than grammatical accuracy." So as pragmatic EAP teachers, what do we do? One thing, I think, is clear: we are not going to get our students interested in accuracy if their lecturers aren't.

One thing that you wrote that I do disagree with though, is your comment that "you really have to get your writing edited by a native speaker". It is not my experience that the best writers are native speakers. In fact I have heard several examples of competent writers who have given their text to a native speaker to proof-read before sending the piece off to a journal, only to have it sent back with most of the changes the native speaker made being underlined in red. A related matter is where our standards come from. Whose standards of accuracy are we interested in? In a world where most academic writing is by non-native speakers intended for a non-native speaking audience, I think we need to question whether our native speaker standards are appropriate.

Andy Gillett

9:10 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Andy,

Thanks for taking the time to comment and good to hear that you agree with my main point.

I take your point completely that just because you're a native speaker, doesn't make you a good writer. When I said 'edited', I meant by an 'editor' - a case of my own writing not making my case clearly enough! As someone who works in publishing, I know the importance of a good, professional editor and to me, there's no excuse for anything that's to be published not going through a proper edit - and not by a friend who just happens to be a native speaker.

As for the 'whose standards' question, I don't think that all academic writing, which as you point out is for an international audience using English as a lingua franca, has to exactly follow 'native speaker' norms and style. But I do think it should a. be clear and unambiguous (the old, 'does it hamper meaning' test)and b. it shouldn't put a strain on the reader. If a non-native-speaker writer uses phrasing that doesn't sound quite natural to me or a collocation that perhaps I wouldn't choose, I'll accept it as their 'style'. However, if, as in the online article that prompted my post, there are repeated and clear grammatical errors (missing subjects, subject-verb agreement errors, etc.) which mean that I have to keep rereading sentences to make sense of them, then that's just poor communication - whoever the writer is. I admit though, that it's often difficult to know quite where to draw that line.


9:44 pm  

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