Once famous for its legendary spelling and grammar test, as of yesterday the University of North Carolina’s journalism school is now famous for turning its back on a time-honored, old-school teaching tradition. The school is dropping the spelling part of the must-pass test.
Like many other journalists, I cringed when I read the news at JimRomenesko.com. A journalism school deciding that spelling doesn’t matter in the era of word processors because we have spell check, and this after media organizations have spurned copy editors? Journalists are lowering the standards of the profession so much that we all might as well have unedited blogs!
But as I read the school’s explanation for the change, the decision began to make more sense:
I am still concerned that entirely killing the spelling portion of the test sends the wrong message to future journalists — that training their brains to spell words doesn’t matter because they can rely on the engineers who build technology to do it for them. But no one can deny that, with the exception of names and other proper nouns, spell-checking tools do a great job of catching misspelled words, whether they are the result of typos or the poor spelling skills of the typist.
On the other hand, spell-checking programs don’t often catch errors in word usage. I can’t tell you how many times a day I have to change “their” to “its,” “it’s” to “its,” or “effect” to “affect.” The words are always spelled correctly, but they are used incorrectly in the context of the sentences. And no matter how many times I correct people, they keep repeating the mistakes.
This tells me that word usage is a bigger obstacle than word spelling in the modern era. The journalism school has recognized a greater need in testing and is adjusting its process accordingly. That strikes me as a good move.
I’m more bothered by the fact that UNC journalism students only need to get a 70 on the word usage and grammar test to graduate. As a journalism major at West Virginia University in the 1990s, I had to score an 85 on a grammar test that included spelling and word usage just to get accepted into the journalism school.
As an editor, I don’t want my writers to get it wrong 30 percent of the time. That just makes my job tougher. If UNC wants to emphasize word usage over spelling in its must-pass test, that’s a legitimate choice. But the school needs to up its grading game.
Filed under: Grammar and Media