News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Your writing says more about you than you realize

Teaching Old School



I have been writing all my life. It is my passion and my vocation. I wish I could make more money at it, but I have come to realize that I live in a post-literate culture. Serious reading will soon be a lost skill, and with it writers will no longer be needed.

In a culture obsessed with sound and image, there is shrinking appreciation for words and ideas and for the people who deal in them. But my need for food and shelter has not diminished with America's appetite for the written word.

For that reason, I started teaching writing a few years ago at the College of Charleston. It has been a rewarding experience, and I have learned much about our culture and our nation's future as I have mingled with classes of bright and idealistic young juniors and seniors in the College of Communications. And I have met the post-literate future face to face.

Many of my students demonstrate an indifference to proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure that is rooted, not just in their previous education, but in their broader culture. The time to address that problem was at least a generation ago.

Today, I look around and see a culture of declining literacy in which few know enough to recognize declining literacy. When interpretive signage in the Charleston Museum and even historical markers placed by the City of Charleston clearly need another round of editing, it's hard to mark my students down for making the same mistakes. But I do. Sloppy punctuation. It's everywhere.

For all of its convenience and virtues, Wikipedia offers millions of pages of bad grammar and punctuation. I have a friend who is retired from a Washington, D.C., publishing company where she spent her days editing professional and academic journals. Now when she gets nostalgic for the old days, she goes on Wikipedia and spends a few hours cleaning up the mess. It's a brave but futile gesture.

I recently read a mass-mailer from a Mt. Pleasant company. The four-page, single-spaced letter went to thousands of residents. I immediately started marking up the pages. By the time I had finished, I had red-lined dozens of missed and incorrect punctuation marks, examples of garbled syntax, incorrect word choices, and other errors that would have earned this letter a C- had it been submitted in one of my classes.

I like to show my students examples of horribly written commercial tripe and ask, "It's one thing for tire dealers and ghost tour operators to write this way, but would you seek financial or medical assistance from someone who could not write and edit any better than this?"

One thing that drives me nuts is people who insist on putting a question mark at the end of a command, as in "Guess what?" I have seen it in The Post and Courier several times, including this teaser head at the top of the lead Sports page on March 24: "Guess who is on top of the leader board at Bay Hill?" Totally unacceptable.

Now Heinz wants to promote its new ketchup bottle, partially composed of plant material. Its label reads, "Guess what my bottle is made of?" AAAIIIGGGHHH!!!

Of course, most people who read this will shrug and say, "What's the big deal with grammar and punctuation?" But that's the point: It used to be a big deal. Correct grammar and punctuation were considered the mark of an educated and disciplined mind. In our post-literate world, they seem to be optional and perhaps even a little effete. Who needs grammar and punctuation in the age of Kanye West?

Appreciating good writing in this age is like having an ear for perfect pitch in a world where no one else can hear the shrill, flat, horrible notes sounding all around. But just because you don't know the difference between good writing and bad doesn't mean there isn't any. I will be hammering that point to my new class in a couple of months.

Will Moredock is a South Carolina native with degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. He is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.

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