The following note was sent in response to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal about what it called Grammar Gaffes in the Office. This article was brought to my attention more than once.
Dear Ms. Shellenbarger:
Thank you for your article on Grammar Gaffes in the Office. While you did attribute some of the problem to informal usage with e-mails, text messages, and the like, that is not the root of the problem. There has always been some kind of informal English, dialectical or otherwise. But people used to understand that in order to communicate effectively, it was necessary to learn standard English, even if they only used it in formal reading or writing. Your example of the Oxford comma is a good illustration of the confusion less precise grammar can cause.
The main problem nowadays is that many schools no longer teach grammar. I teach high school at a private school, and we get a lot students transferring in either middle school or high school who have never had any grammar at all. Each year we have some ninth graders who have never been taught how to use a dictionary or what a part of speech is.
I have had conversations with businessmen and college professors who complain that in the last twenty years they get applicants even with advanced degrees who cannot write a clear sentence. Such conversations usually include something like, “I hope you’re teaching your students grammar!”
A science teacher at my school asked me about this, since she knew of elementary schools that teach writing without grammar. It reminded me of when I was in fifth grade and we were being introduced to basketball in gym class. At first, some of the kids took the ball and ran with it down the court as if it were a football. The gym teacher then took the time to explain the rules to us. You cannot play a sport properly until you known the rules, I told this teacher. It is no different with a language.