• Written by Tess Sanders Lazarus

According to grammar expert Deb Doyle, Australian educators are failing to teach grammar and punctuation adequately.


Doyle has worked as a grammar and punctuation educator for 25 years. She teaches grammar and editing at the Australian WritersCentre and The University of Sydney.


“The reason I have a job is that so many students are slipping through the cracks in the school system. Commentators should discuss grammatical ability alongside mathematical ability,” Doyle said.


“High-school teachers aren’t trained to value correct sentence construction. They don’t police it enough. When they’re marking assignments, they let too many mistakes through. Unfortunately, either they’re too busy to correct the mistakes or grammar isn’t important enough to them to bring it to the student’s attention.


“In my experience, the biggest error is that grammar and punctuation aren’t priorities in the crowded English curriculum. Primary schools might make grammar a key part of their curriculum, but in high schools it’s barely a footnote.


“As a result, students might be reasonably grammatically literate when they graduate Year 6, but when they go through high school, they forget all the knowledge they’ve acquired.”


According to Doyle, these systemic failings are having an impact on the quality of Australians’ written English, and could even be having an impact on our economy.


“We’re surrounded by dodgy sentences and incorrect use of grammar and punctuation. Every day, I see primary-level mistakes on the front pages of leading newspapers,” Doyle said.


“Writing will become increasingly important as Australia’s economy becomes more service oriented. Commentators have a lot to say about numeracy but not nearly enough to say about literacy.


“Australians who are strongly literate will have a serious advantage over everyone else. Employers will eventually recognise that ability to write a well-constructed paragraph is an extremely desirable skill - if they don’t already.


“As a society that says we value education, we need to place more emphasis on grammar and punctuation.”


Doyle says that even some of the smartest people she knows need help constructing sentences and punctuating them properly. According to her, guessing is endemic among Australians.


“Many of the people I teach are incredibly successful in their own right but are confused about the basics of the English language. Some have a degree; some don’t. Many tell me they were never taught grammar and punctuation at school or university. I’m often shocked at how many people lack knowledge of the elements of our language,” Doyle said.


“The fact is that when it comes to grammatical accuracy and sentence construction, most Australians simply have to guess. Most don’t know why they conform to a grammatical rule – or whether it’s indeed a rule, or a convention, or an editorial stylepoint.


“Misconceptions about grammar and punctuation are rife, have you noticed the gremlin lurking within these 17 words?


“To know that a comma is too weak to separate two sentences, you first need to know what a sentence is – and what the six types of sentence are. This information is vitally important for anyone constructing a paragraph.”


Deb Doyle is the author of a grammar textbook and workbook, Grey Areas and Gremlins: A grammar and punctuation refresher. Her clients have included the Productivity Commission, the New South Wales Police Force, Sydney Trains and SBS.