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The Daily Tar Heel

To seek the place of writing

Propositions: College students cannot write worth a damn. The business world values stellar communication skills. Yet universities do not teach how to write clear and precise prose.

Examine the evidence: It surfaces in business publications bemoaning the stumbling emails from job applicants. It runs rampant across the editorials of writers attempting to fend off the stultifying, jargon-saturated, preposition-heavy, hopelessly cautious style of academics.

In a 2011 nationwide assessment of writing skills, only 24 percent of 12th graders attained a mark of “proficient,” and a mere 3 percent scored at the “advanced” level. Almost three-fourths of high-school seniors fell below average.

The argument itself has become a trope. Yes, our generation struggles with writing.

As a former editor of student writing who trudged through mires of adverbs, as someone who relishes the fresh snap of a declarative sentence, I am sympathetic.

But this is indulgent of us. We should stop composing elegies for the writer. The written word is not yet dead; it is not even dying.

Instead, I would venture that what we have lost is not the ability to write, but a respect for the full range and potential of language.

We have reduced our conception of language to an abstract currency of words — logical units that designate and denote first and foremost. We exchange parcels of meaning.

The primary test of this language becomes intelligibility. Did you understand what I said? Did it make sense? Did I follow all of the rules — put the subject and object of the sentence in the correct order?

Communicating concepts is clearly an important function of writing. I do not wish to banish it to the linguistic hinterlands. But it is not all that language can accomplish.

We forget that words themselves are objects: breaths of air, layers of sound.

“People tend not to think of it in that way because they cut out the process, they go straight from the thing in the head to the thing in somebody else’s head,” literary historian Raymond Williams conceded.

I love verbs. Teem. Wallow. Ferment. Squelch.

I relish the yawn of the vowel in “yam,” the mountainous consonants of “blackbird.”

I snag on the unexpected word or the syntactical snarl. I swim in the cadence of a sentence that builds, layering sediment and details ever higher, stacking prepositional phrases like so many slabs of sod, until it breaks.

Words affect us. Sentences heighten or quash the intensities with which we feel something in that cavernous space beneath our ribs.

And so it is no surprise to me that our writing suffers. It is not fun to string together words as dry logical units, to bow before the rules of grammaticality and order one unit after the other in the expected fashion.

We no longer teach writing as play; we do not feel it as rich, textured, brimming over with potential.

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