The standard of English grammar, spelling and syntax is abysmal in my country. High school students generally learn such things by studying a foreign language.

As a result, the written work I receive from students whose native tongue is English frequently has many errors - including the usual:

  • Typographical errors
  • Apostrophes in the wrong place (its, it's)
  • The following fails: their/there/they're; whose/who's
  • And, generally, failing to check spelling, grammar and to proof read thoroughly.

The typos and failure to proof read thoroughly I can understand and treat accordingly, namely encourage students to proof read and check their work carefully, or get a friend/colleague/family member to help.

The failures in English grammar, syntax and punctuation - which I suspect arise from a deficient treatment at school - I find hard to forgive.

Our University has extensive support for improving the English for both native and non-native English speakers.

I feel concerned, however, about suggesting to those students who are native English speakers, but who need more training, to attend the help workshops available to them. This is for fear of embarrassing or alienating the students. Is there a sensitive way of dealing with this? Should I even try to spare the students' blushes?

  • 5
    I can tell you one wrong way. Back in college, my professor wrote on the very front of my midterm paper in red ink: "Is English your second language?" (I'm ethnically Asian, but born and raised in the States.)
    – Compass
    Oct 30, 2014 at 1:48
  • 2
    If it can be of any comfort, I can tell you that the problem you're pointing out is not specifically related to English, but it happens in other countries as well, with the corresponding native language. And about minimizing the discomfort: when some 20 years ago I had written my Masters' thesis (in Italian), my advisor corrected a number of errors and then told me: "You know, they teach this stuff at the primary school..." (it worked...) Oct 30, 2014 at 7:19
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    Why would you want to minimize the student's discomfort? They should be uncomfortable. The trick is making it clear that you are criticizing their writing, not their character.
    – JeffE
    Oct 30, 2014 at 9:39

1 Answer 1


One way to approach this is from the perspective of why the quality of prose matters in the first place. After all, why should we bother with spelling, grammar, etc? Having good spelling, grammar, etc. is important because not having them puts roadblocks in the way of communicating with the reader.

You can minimize a student's embarrassment by emphasizing this aspect. Assuming that student is otherwise doing well, you might can bring up grammar by approaching it from this angle. You can emphasize the pragmatic aspect that, in pretty much any career they choose, written communication will be important, and that it's important to not have others' appreciation of their good work be impeded by problems with grammar and spelling. It's really the linguistic equivalent of keeping yourself clean and well-groomed.

If a student is not doing well with the core material... well, then grammar's not really the key problem to talk to them about anyway...

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