To hear it from some, we’re in the midst of the grammar apocalypse. It’s not just that students can’t write well. It’s that they can’t even put coherent sentences together. And, the worst part is, it’s getting worse.
What to do about these errors is an important question, one of the inaugural questions of composition studies. But we might also benefit by asking: What is the actual extent of the supposed error epidemic? Is it really getting worse?
Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford offer some compelling answers in their article: “‘Mistakes Are a Fact of Life’: A National Comparative Study” (CCC 59.4, 2008; also available as a reprint with a new preface).
In this article, Lunsford and Lunsford present the results of their study of errors found in college student papers, in a representative sample from a range of contexts across the US.* They catalog the formal errors in the writing. Then they compare the rates and types of errors they find with the rates and types found in earlier studies, going back almost a hundred years.
Several findings contradict common narratives.
First, the current rate of errors is not really that bad: 2.45 errors per one hundred words. To put it another way, on average, college students today write in formally correct ways more than 97 percent of the time.
Second, the rate of errors is not really getting worse. This can be seen in the following chart, which shows that the rate of errors found in four different studies between 1917 and 2006 has remained basically stable: between 2.11 and 2.45 errors per 100 words (from Table 8, p. 800).**
This is hardly apocalypse material—especially considering that, as this next chart shows, the average length of student writing has gone up considerably in the same time: from 162 to 1038 words (from Table 5, p. 792).
The study did find, however, that the types of errors being made most often are changing. For instance, the use of the wrong word has replaced incorrect spelling as the top error. Lunsford and Lunsford speculate that this is probably a result of students using spellcheck and thesaurus tools on their computers.
The article provides a list of the top twenty current errors. The numbers given in the following chart indicate the number of incidents found in 877 papers (from Table 7, p. 795).
In their conclusion, Lunsford and Lunsford suggest that teachers “need to look beyond their own anecdotal accounts of student error” (p. 801). Indeed, their study can help us develop a broader and more accurate perspective on the scope of error in student writing, which, in turn, can shape how we think and feel about error, how we teach students about it, and how we respond to it.
As Lunsford and Lunsford offer, “Those who believe that we ought to be able to eliminate errors from student writing may need to realize that ‘mistakes are a fact of life’ and, we would add, a necessary accompaniment to learning and to improving writing” (p. 800).
*The papers analyzed were a “random stratified sample” that included a representative range of types of institutions (from research universities to community colleges), US regions, and levels and types of writing courses. However, only papers from writing courses were included. Lunsford and Lunsford do call for studies that compare error in different kinds of courses. It is possible that different rates and types of errors would be found in courses where writing is not the explicit focus, where teachers may have less training in teaching writing, and where students may presume writing to be less important.
**Lunsford and Lunsford note that spelling errors were excluded from the 1986 study (for separate analysis) but included in their own 2006 study. When they also exclude spelling errors from their count for the sake of closer comparison, their rate drops to 2.299 errors per 100 words, virtually erasing the small difference between the two studies.