by Jean Roberta

My day job is never boring because it is constantly changing. As I plan to start teaching three new English classes in the local university in January, a project I worked on during my last holiday break (December 2013) is coming to fruition.

Last year, I worked with someone who teaches English as an Additional Language to devise a test in English fluency/comprehension to be administered to first-year students to start generating some data about their ability to function in university classes. Unfortunately, the original test took three-to-four hours to write, and therefore it wasn’t practical to use in regular classes. Over the past year, a committee in the English Department has tinkered with the test and reduced the time it takes to approximately fifty minutes, the time-span of a regular class that meets three times per week. The current department head has asked me to administer this to my first-semester class on the first day.

I am curious to find out if the hard data confirms what I have observed over a quarter-century of teaching mandatory first-year classes to a very diverse student body. The administration has been recruiting students from other countries, many of whom have had to learn English as adults, and these students often beg me on the first day of class to give them a passing grade because they need it to complete their programs. They hope I can overlook their grammatical flaws. The more desperate they are, the more they are tempted to hand in plagiarized essays, and when the students are caught, they claim they had no idea this isn’t allowed. (In all fairness, they might not have understood my warning lecture.)

Locally-grown students aren’t necessarily better-prepared or better-behaved. Even students who speak English fluently, with a local (Canadian) accent, often tell me they didn’t want to take an English class because they have never understood grammar, and they hope I will overlook any silly little mistakes they might make. When/if I question the home-grown students about their backgrounds, some of them tell me the first language they ever heard was spoken by their immigrant parents, and it was not English. In all their years of public-school education, apparently no one ever explained to them the differences between English grammar and that of their mother tongue. Some local students grew up in households where reading was treated as a waste of time. In most cases, they decided that precision in written communication just wasn’t important.

I devoutly hope that if the new placement test (as it is called) shows that more than half of all first-year students really aren’t ready to study literature in English and write essays about it, the administration (and above that, the various levels of government that fund the education system) will find some spare change for more basic language-and-composition classes. I wouldn’t even mind teaching at a pre-first-year level, especially if this would mean that I would see more progress and hear less begging.

What does all this have to do with writing? A lot. I honestly don’t know whether the mix of students in my classes is a microcosm of the public at large, but the possibility scares me. Grammatical mistakes in their writing are only part of the problem. (Here are some examples: plural subjects with singular verbs, as in “the students studies real hard,” object pronouns used as subjects, as in “Me and Joe went to the bar,” and dangling participles, as in: “Flapping in the breeze, Dee looked up at the flag.”) These glitches are bad enough, but as some students claim, grammatical mistakes are not a huge deal if the reader can guess what is really meant.

In most cases, grammatical mistakes are accompanied by a lack of logic: contradictory statements, needless repetition, the startling interjection of commands to the reader (e.g. “This novel is about racism. Stop using stereotypes!”) An example of a tautology, or circular reasoning, is this sentence from an actual student essay on literature that I graded in December: “The end of domestic violence would stop men from beating their wives.” Duh. But what unnamed force is (or was) supposed to stop domestic violence, according to the work under discussion?

I jump between piles of (largely) unclear or inaccurate writing, and writing projects of my own. I often wonder for whom I am writing. Who, in general, reads erotic fiction? Is this audience more literate than the average person, assuming the word “average” makes any sense in this context?

The word “sex,” apparently so simple and so clear, really doesn’t mean the same thing to every person who hears or uses it. Over thirty years ago, I was told by my husband at the time that he knew some women who “masturbated” each other, but “they didn’t have sex.” The apparent lack of sex meant that these women weren’t really lesbians, according to him. And like most of the men I knew at that time, my husband was convinced that unwanted sex (especially if unwanted by the female partner) was very different from “real rape.” And sex, by definition, was both consensual and natural, so after sex had occurred, none of the participants had a right to complain that it should not have happened.

So when we write about sex, we can’t afford to assume we know how our words will be understood. (I always hope that a lot of sensory description will be clearer than abstract terms.) This problem is amplified when the more advanced (beyond the basic grammar of cock-in-cunt) varieties of sex are introduced. As the public release of the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey approaches like a speeding racecar, widespread concern about its content is, if possible, more urgent than before. Will hordes of readers and viewers assume that the movie accurately represents BDSM (itself a very general term that needs to be clarified in specific cases)?

I could mention a specifically Canadian example of the misuse of the term “rough sex” to describe the nonconsensual treatment of at least nine female complainants by the minor male celebrity who dated them, but I am running out of space. Suffice it to say that by all accounts, the women accepted invitations to the man’s house because they were willing to have “sex” with him, according to their understanding of what that meant, but what the host dished out was something else entirely. This case seems to involve more than a tragic misunderstanding, but it does show the need for negotiation in good faith whenever two or more people get naked together.

Meanwhile, I keep advocating accurate expression and large vocabularies as sexy things that can lead to wonderfully satisfying encounters between (say) a reader and an author. Am I indulging in intellectual masturbation? It’s hard to know.