by Will Lloyd
Tuesday, 13
April 2021
Campus Wars
11:06

The decline of Standard English is not progress

Hull University betrays its students by not docking marks for spelling mistakes
by Will Lloyd
What would Dr Johnson make of today’s students? Credit: Getty

There is something rather melancholy about Hull University’s decision not to dock marks for spelling mistakes because requiring good English could be seen as “homogenous North European, white, male, elite.” 

Hull is one of several universities that are adopting “inclusive assessments”. These are designed to narrow the attainment gaps between different ethnic groups in higher education. Hull insisted that dropping the requirement for a high level of proficiency in written and spoken English will “challenge the status quo”. The University of the Arts has issued similar guidelines, telling staff they should:

…actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication unless the brief states that formally accurate language is a requirement”.
- UAL

It is extraordinarily tempting to be angry about this — woke university bureaucrats trash the English language! Could anything be more patronising than the idea that accurate spelling and grammar are somehow for “North European people”?

Didn’t Frederick Douglass teach himself vigorous English by reading The Columbian Oratorthat spellbinding assembly of the finest rhetoric in the language, composed by Sheridan, Milton, Fox, Washington and Jefferson? Didn’t James Baldwin and C.L.R. James know — at the very, very least — how to spell, and where to place a comma?

Any look at the historical record would show that good English is not the patrimony of “white, male, elite” from, say, Somerset. Modern English is a tool that’s there for whoever can be bothered to read and study deeply.

But in truth this is just the latest phase in a much longer-term trend. Over the last decade there has been mounting evidence that University leavers do not know how to communicate in clear and concise English. “People do not know how to write,” the historian David Abulafia said a few years ago. “Command of grammar, punctuation and spelling is atrocious.”

Abulafia was talking about first year undergraduates at Cambridge. Imagine what they’re like at Hull.

The truth is that Hull and other universities are not “decolonising” the curriculum or ensuring “equity of opportunity” between all students with these reforms.

Instead they are rubber stamping a process that has been ongoing for some time — a general collapse in the standard of written and spoken English. Instead of rousing (underpaid and overworked) academics to improve these standards, they have decided to repackage their decline as a progressive outcome.

The creation of standard English — a non-linear process that involved Dr Johnson, huge quantities of brandy, and thousands of candles — was a genuine historical triumph. Standard English allowed for the easy exchange of information, freer debate, and a level playing field for individuals of all classes to compete on. As Jonathan Meades once said of received pronunciation, standard English is “a sort of glue, a force for uniting a country.”

It is unsurprising that our own era, which has an oligarchical character and a stalled machinery of social mobility, should be one where nobody is taught how to read and write.

Join the discussion


  • Ever since unis became businesses with a profit motive run by overpaid technocrats the student became the valued customer. Hence safe spaces, radical left wing thinking and no real need to think or perform. I don’t know why they don’t just hand out certificates for a thumb print.

  • Mysteriously their pay packets never seem to be calculated using standard-free addition.

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