Bernard Lamb:Written evidence of a decline in standards

I have taught genetics at Imperial College London for many years and am increasingly finding that the students' poor standards of English result in errors in their science, as well as giving a bad impression in job applications.

My list of selected errors from this year's essays and practical books, from 54 second-year and 21 final-year students, ran to 30 pages. This coursework counts towards the degree and should have been checked before being handed in.

In 1992, I made a national survey of English standards of home undergraduates in many departments in 17 British universities, and found poor standards in most of them, including departments of English and other arts departments. The problem was widespread then and is worse now.

Imperial College is ranked in the top three UK universities and our students are highly qualified. My 2007 survey excluded the one dyslexic student. British undergraduates generally made more mistakes than those educated overseas, with the Singapore Chinese frequently being the best at written English.

Blunders included astonishing errors of word-choice, spelling, punctuation and grammar. One student mixed up semen and seamen: insemination of these cows at the age of three with their fathers (sic) seamen. Other confusions included compliment/complement (the gene products compliment each other), rouge/rogue (rouge genetic elements), sewn/sown (several plants are sewn together…) and sun/son (conceive carrier females and normal suns).

Two UK-raised students who were awarded first class honour degrees made bad errors. One consistently put implicated for implemented, peace for piece, and defiantly for definitely. The other wrote: "It initiats a undisired non-specific response in mamammals".

There were clumsy unscientific passages such as: "When the plant wishes to not self fertilise..."

There were wrong word orders, confusions of nouns with verbs, and wrong prepositions changing the meaning: Sickle shaped blood cells were removed from (by) the spleen; a characteristic acquired by (from) the environment. There were very many examples of plural nouns with singular verbs, incorrect plurals such as theorys (several students), tomatos, varietys, phenomenon's (phenomena), bodys and donkey's.

There were wrong capital letters, many run-on sentences, wrong commas, semicolons used to introduce lists, and very few correct semicolons or colons. The number and variety of spelling errors were astonishing, including recieved, wieght, hieght, occassions, ocour, occurance, expossed, feetal, abbertoir, peicing (piercing), wrinckled, compleamentry, comprimises (comprises), inteligence, seperate (many students), analine (aniline), percicution, ssponanious, leathal, susseptible, nessecary, heamophilla (haemophilia), stryliky (strictly), scitzophrenia, schitzophernia, preffered, prevalient, dissapearance, lead (led, many students).

Many errors were consistent, not "slips of the pen" or typing errors. As much of this work was word-processed, the students must often have ignored their spell-checkers and grammar-checkers, as well as failing to proof-read their work themselves.

The essays included the nonsense sentence: Sheep are the sheep genome was sequenced in.

Other confusions included: There are many more pre-natal multiple births than recorded live births, and Genetic twins have all their genes in common, so variation in them is due to their finger prints.

At times, almost one word in three was wrong: …male fighting offer female whom usually have mating preferences getting and keeping males (males fight over females, who usually have mating preferences in getting and keeping mates).

In their first year, I gave these students two lectures and an exercise on writing scientific English. They had many pieces of work returned with comments, and I had corrected their genetics and English errors. I specifically stressed the differences between where/were, their/there, affect/effect and compliment/complement, but they still made those mistakes in all years.

Although the National Curriculum Order for English specifies that pupils should be taught various aspects of grammar, spelling and punctuation, one would never guess that this had been done.

When I point out errors, most students say: "I've never been told about that before". If pupils are not corrected at school and later, they will never know what is right.

Teachers have many burdens, especially too much form-filling and discipline problems.

They often think that correcting errors might make them unpopular, but it is only kindness to point out how to do better. Many teachers of English are themselves uncertain about grammar.

I think that the present standards of English in school-leavers are far too low, and so do many employers, the CBI, the Institute of Directors, and university admissions tutors.

Unfortunately for this country's competitiveness, Government ministers and most of the educational establishment are utterly complacent, telling the public that standards are always rising.

I hope that this evidence from my research at Imperial College will increase pressure on the educational establishment to bring in improvements in what is taught, how it is taught and how it is examined.

Dr Bernard Lamb is Reader in Genetics at Imperial College London. He is the author or co-author of nine books, including The Applied Genetics of Humans, Animals, Plants and Fungi; How to Write about Biology; English for Technology; a book on wine and beer judging, and more than 100 scientific papers on genetics.