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Monday, December 13, 2010

Vocabulary Expands, Need for Clarity Remains the Same

The English language has undergone immense change from when it was first introduced to the British Isles in the 5th Century by three Germanic tribes -- Angles, Saxons, and Jutes -- through its transformation into Middle English at the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, to the present day (Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson). Our language is still in flux as vocabulary continues to expand.  The folks at Merriam-Webster have added at least one hundred words to their dictionary each year since 2006.  An example of this expansion can be found at, where the 2008 additions are discussed. What remains the same in the midst of these changes is the skill necessary to be clear and communicate intended meaning when writing.

Although I have been writing throughout my adult life, I have still managed to accumulate a number of text books and handbooks explaining the common errors made in English and how they should be corrected. From The Technique of Composition (Taft, et al.) published in 1960 to A Writer's Reference (Diana Hacker) which appeared in 2003, the topics remain the same: writing mechanics, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, research techniques, and spelling. I believe tools for clear writing should be available to everyone, and not just English students and writers. These skills need to be made relevant to everyday life and not just a list of rules in some obscure textbook. 

My first job out of college was as a corporate newsletter editor and "information specialist." My boss's favorite saying? "Abjure obfuscation." Brevity combined with clarity became my ever-present goal, and he taught me more about writing than any English teacher. What about today's students? Are they receiving instruction that helps them write clearly? I suspect that some of the rules get drilled into the cerebral cortex but with little relevance. Students deserve to know why they must learn these skills.

The National Commission on Writing for America's Schools, Families, and Colleges, identified writing as "The Neglected 'R'" in a study published in 2003.  Have we given this crucial subject any more attention since then?  If writing assessment scores are an accurate measurement, then it does not seem we have made much progress.  Where do we go from here?  How do we make real improvements?

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