Thursday

On classism and grammar


Deep breath. Ok, this might be long. Before I start, let me tell you that I have a massive chip on my shoulder about class. I grew up on a council estate, in a broken home, on free school meals with a summer birthday. For this reason, I am passionate about defending equal opportunities for the working class, and let me tell you, I mean passionate. I'm also passionate about written English, as I demonstrated in my Grammar for Bloggers post. I strongly believe that it is a key skill for life and that everyone should leave school competent in spelling and grammar. I also fight doggedly for educational opportunities for children of other nationalities, especially Pakistani children. 

Now, I saw a tweet this evening that made me giggle, so I retweeted it. It read:

"I don't judge people based on their race, gender, colour, or sexuality. I judge people based on spelling, grammar, and sentence structure".


Let me make this very clear: It is a tongue-in-cheek comment, clearly aimed at those people who speak English. (I'll start by saying that people with learning difficulties or special educational needs are obviously exempt from this as they do have real barriers that could- although not necessarily- become a barrier to their learning). However, within a couple of minutes, I'd received a tweet saying that this was a "classist and potentially racist" comment. The reasoning behind this was that people from working class backgrounds don't have as much access to education. 

I'll admit that I have never considered that people might use incorrect grammar because they're poor. I've probably never considered this because it's a ridiculous assumption. Education is free, and has been since 1944. Therefore, all children can attend education up to the age of 18, and not have to pay a thing, regardless of their background. 

The implication that people may have bad grammar because they're poor is an offensive and damaging one. It assumes that people from working class backgrounds are less able to achieve and that, therefore, there is something inherently wrong with their ability to learn, since we've already established that they have the same access to education as anybody else. It does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype that the working classes are uneducated. 

Middle class and rich people can have poor grammar just as much as working class people can. The view that poor people are more likely to be uneducated throws up all sorts of logic puzzles- What if you're born rich but some problem results in a loss of family earnings? Or what if you're working class through and through but win the lottery when you're 16?

Let me put it this way: As already mentioned, I grew up about as working class as you can get. I achieved well at school and college, and eventually graduated with a first class honours degree. I am not the exception to the rule. There is no rule. 

I never once considered that my background might be a barrier to my learning, and I will never have lower expectations of those children from poorer backgrounds. In fact, I've never even thought that it might be a barrier... because it's not. Every child can achieve just as well as any other and I will defend this for my entire life. 

Quickly, let's mention the fact that there is no racist element whatsoever. I teach a mix of children, from Pakistani to African, Polish and White British. In all my years of teaching, there has never been a correlation between race and attainment. Of course people who don't speak English as their first language might find it tricky, but that's nothing to do with race. There's a difference between race and nationality, but we won't go into that now. 

We are all human beings. We are all born with the same chemistry and the same ability to learn. The balance of our parents' bank balances play absolutely no part in this. 

59 comments :

  1. Replies
    1. Not sure how to reply to this haha. I'm really glad you liked it!

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  2. This is brilliant and wonderfully sensitive post. Very well said. xxx

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  3. ace post! I think people are far too quick to jump down the throats of those who they 'think' are making classist/racist...whateverist comments!

    I for one, wholeheartedly agree with the fact that there is very little excuse for anyone with a standard learning ability to use bad grammar/spelling because we've all had access to the same education it's just whether we have chosen to use it to its full potential.

    I am so glad that people do realise that being working class doesn't automatically give people the right to plead ignorance to things like grammar. I know school is maybe not as easy for those with a more difficult home life but it is also about your personality; anyone who wants to succeed at school, can! Nowadays more than ever there are so many different support mechanisms in place in help children achieve to the best of their potential!!

    /ramble

    Jade | Beauty Butterfly

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    1. I don't mind a bit of rambling haha! I totally agree with you! I don't think anyone can justify poor grammar just from their social standing.

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  4. FINALLY someone puts it all into real words! This is brilliant, and very well put. Thank You!
    Steff Xx
    http://www.youtube.com/user/stephaniemaverick

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    1. Thank you Steff! I'm really glad it came across the way I intended.

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  5. All I really have to say is AMEN. Amazing.

    www.liv-in-fashion.blogspot.co.uk

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  6. I agree to some extent with this post, and it brings up a lot of questions for discussion!

    Coming from a working class background myself, I have noticed that there can be some difference with attitudes towards learning. From personal experience I've seen a 'what's the point attitude' towards high academic attainment and eventual employment from working class parents - "What's the point when you can just go on the dole?" etc.
    And I've also seen some children from wealthier families actively strive for the closest to perfection they can at school because of the hard work ethic they have inherited/picked up on/been forced to have from/by their parents.

    Conversely of course, you can get 'poor' working class kids who strive to be the best they can, and very lazy over-indulged well-off children who don't see the point in working hard when they're going to end up with a job/supported in the future anyway.

    I hope my point has come across here! I agree - there definitely isn't a rule when it comes to correlation between academic achievement and 'class' (although an argument can be made for it!)

    I could rant for hours but will end here!

    Fab post :D

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    1. This is interesting! Like you say, it's a problem with attitude to learning rather than class or income.

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  7. I totally agree. I had pretty much the same up bringing as you but me and my siblings have all done well through education. I also don't mention it often but i have mild dyslexia, i know my grammar etc. isn't perfect but i try so hard to do my best in everything, I think some people are just lazy and aren't willing to put the effort in to be the best they can.......quite sad really xxx

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    1. That's the thing! It's all to do with people's willingness to learn and you prove that!

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  8. Agreed 100%. I'm of Indian origin and am a grammar-freak; I worked as a sub-editor and kept quoting Wren & Martin to people who didn't have a problem with "None of them have... or none of them are..." It has nothing to do with race, class or country and everything to do with wanting to get it right.
    My Beauty Junction

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    1. Exactly! If people want to learn, they will!

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  9. I knew you were going to write a post about this from the moment I received your text!

    I have nothing to say on the matter as I am from a poor background and therefore cannot put together a sentence that will convey my feelings well enough.

    innit. x

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    1. i no but wat do u expect wen u grew up on a counsel estate like

      (You have NO idea how much that hurt me!)

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  10. Perfectly put! I have debates with my mom on a regular basis over this because she seems to think that money equals intelligence because of higher opportunity. My thought is that they may have more opportunity for better schooling (i.e. private schools, possible university/college, etc.) however everyone has the same opportunity based on efforts. If you don't apply yourself, then naturally you aren't going to excel in the knowledge department. That has nothing to do with money.

    THANK YOU FOR THIS.

    xo Kristina Rose
    www.thewhimsicaldays.blogspot.com

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    1. Exactly! If you go to a private school and don't put the effort in, you're going to be a lot worse off than somebody who goes to the local comp and works their socks off.

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  11. Oh Becky, why are you not Queen of the World already? x

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    1. Because I'm just far too busy! The People are begging me but I've had to turn it down time and time again. It's a shame, I know.

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  12. To be fair, I don't know much about the English teaching system, but in America, the most common way of punishing children in free public schools seems to be removing them from the class and depriving them of a learning experience, while in private schools, they just get more work. This means that a child who is deemed as troublesome is constantly being put in time out, and each day, they learn a little less, and each day, become more frustrated, and each day, act out on that frustration. And realistically speaking, if one's family has money, they will not let their kid hang out in a bad public school. So the options are that the parent finds a good one, or takes the kid to private school.

    In addition, we seem to make it an ableist argument, where "if you can, you should, and anything but is wholly unacceptable." We might, however, be underestimating the effect our parents' behavior towards education has on us. There are many people in the world who once had dreams of becoming something other than what they are, something better. And a common reason is that a parent quashed all hope. By forcing them into the family business, by neglecting them, by not making an initial effort to even help them. As people with drive and ambition and high regard for these values, it's easy for us to judge others based on their lack thereof. But all of a person is both nature and nurture, and people in general are not supposed to be hardwired to expend more energy than is necessary on any one task. Those who naturally do tend to have chemical imbalances in the brain, and are sometimes able to be clinically diagnosed as Type-A or suffering from OCD. Hard work and an indomitable spirit are things we pick up from our surroundings, and not everyone is lucky enough to have suitable surroundings.

    Just a thought!
    Khadijat of Youth Savage

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    1. What's interesting about this is that it plays into another stereotype- That children from working class backgrounds are more likely to misbehave.

      Of course, not everyone has surroundings that support education but it doesn't always follow that working class= disinterest in education.

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  13. I totally agree with you that it is bullshit that people from poorer backgrounds are not as intelligent or as good at spelling and grammar as those from upper-class families. I am from a working-class family and was a straight A student (except for PE) all through school, and am in my university's academic excellence society now - an honour which I have received through hard work and an enthusiasm for knowledge which was always fostered by my parents. I do tend to see, as someone who lives in an area with a majority of very low socio-economic families, that sometimes kids from these backgrounds, especially the indigenous ones, don't show any interest in learning, have a "what's the point?" attitude, or have home-lives which interrupt their education, force them to quit school and work, or have parents who don't foster a sense of learning in their homes, but they are the exception to the rule, if there is any rule, and I also see "rich" kids do the same. I'm probably going to get backlash for mentioning indigenous kids here, but it's statistically proven that there is an education gap there, and I'm by no means racist - in fact, at my school I was heavily involved in programs to encourage them to make the most of their education.

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    1. Absolutely! I was the same with PE, by the way! Like you say, these circumstances and attitudes are also evident in "rich" families.

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  14. Bringing class into it makes no sense at all! Sometimes the 'class' argument feels like an automatic defence, especially when we live in a country where we all have equal access to primary and secondary education. A person's spelling and grammar has everything to do with a his commitment to learn, remember and apply basic principles of grammar - how on earth does that have anything to do with class? Oh, silly people on Twitter.

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    1. I totally agree with you! Unless you have a genuine barrier to learning, your ability to learn English principles is down to your willingness to learn. That's nothing to do with class.

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  15. This made me want to stand up and slow clap. You are brilliant and this was wonderfully put. xx

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    1. I really hope you actually did stand up and slow clap!

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  16. I swear people are offended by anything and everything these days. It's absolutely ridiculous that anyone would be offended by someone disliking poor grammar.

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    1. Haha I know! What's wrong with wanting people to achieve?

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  17. The system and structure of a native language--morphology, inflections, syntax, semantics--is acquired by every small child. Some studies indicate that this actually begins for us in utero--our acquisition of an accent certainly does. By the age of two, every child is an expert in the elements of their native grammar. They may not yet articulate it fully, but they understand all its elements. It already seems like second nature to them.
    Your discussion here is focused on standard English grammar--the grammar that is considered correct by the elite population. For many children--even for children whose parents speak English--this is a second language. And it isn't introduced to many children until they begin school--in the US, at 5. By this point, most children have already lost about 75% of their innate ability for second language acquisition.
    It is a physical phenomenon--a matter of the brain's plasticity. It is scientifically measurable. Certainly, many children who were never exposed to standard English grammar at home will still acquire a high degree of fluency. This is possible for those who expend a tremendous effort--an effort never required of their upper-class peers. Considering all this, I do think that your judgment of those who exhibit what you term "incorrect" grammar is a form of classism.
    I am a former college composition instructor. I never used the words "correct" or "incorrect" to classify my students' grammar. For effective and non-judgmental pedagogy, the distinction should be "standard" vs "non-standard", and the first is in no way superior to the second. Certainly, if my students were to succeed academically and professionally, it was necessary for them to acquire fluency in standard English. However, it is a performative act, and should never be extolled as a standard by which we judge a person's inherent worth or intelligence. It is simply a language.
    So what, precisely, is the nature of your judgment? How do you justify your apparent contempt for those who speak non-standard English?

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    1. I don't think you understood the point of my post. It wasn't anything to do with my contempt for people with poor grammar, but with the assumption that poor, or working class, people are not able to use it.

      As you say, those who put in the effort are able to learn standard grammar, and this has nothing to do with class. You also assume that people from working class backgrounds are not exposed to high standards of grammar.

      I'm not entirely sure what your argument is- Do you disagree with my belief that everyone should be treated equally in their ability to learn?

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    2. Becky, I wrote in response to several of your arguments.
      I think we can agree, can't we, that not everyone uses standard grammar? Certainly, that is your original contention--that you judge those who do not? My question was this: on what basis do you judge them? What explanation do you offer for the indisputable fact--one that you've already acknowledged-- that every English-speaking person does not use the same language code?
      You claim that, since education is free, every child has an equal opportunity to learn. My contention is that, whatever his or her class or native ability, each child is much more influenced by the usage of his or her family of origin than by any formal instruction offered in school. If, as teachers, we expect each of our students to attain proficiency in English grammar, we must also acknowledge that many of them come to us with a lack of prior exposure to that code. And no, I don't agree that those children should receive the same instruction as their better-prepared peers. I think they deserve additional support. And, if they do not receive such support, and never attain complete fluency, I think they still deserve our respect.
      As I mentioned, I've spent a lifetime teaching English composition. I love the language, in all its variations. Standard English is not inherently superior to any of its dialects, and its contemporary grammar is no more "correct" than the grammar that is still commonly used by many of us. It is simply standard, that's all. It is the language of a minority that is currently being artificially imposed upon the majority. In the process of standardization, much of its idiosyncrasy is in danger of being lost. And those who do not adhere to its strictures are, in my opinion, unfairly judged.
      So, to return to my original question: what is it that you believe about people who either cannot or will not use it? If you believe that every child has an equal opportunity to learn, and that class presents no barriers to achievement, then why do you think that working class children, as a group, perform less ably on standardized tests?

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    3. There are a number of factors within this and they have nothing to do with class. Lack of attendance, illness, home life etc. These may be found more frequently within the working classes, but this does not mean that the working classes are inherently less able to learn. Class is not the issue. It's the child's circumstances that present the barrier to learning.

      I refuse to be told that any child is less likely to achieve based purely on their social standing. This defeatist attitude is not one I will succumb to, and it's the reason why the children in my class consistently surpass their targets (every single child last year made good or outstanding progress), regardless of their class. In my class, foster a belief that every child can achieve.

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    4. Since "the child's circumstances" is a definition of class, there is a peculiar contradiction in your statement that class is not an issue, but that the child's circumstances are.
      Of course a child from the working class isn't inherently less able to learn. But the statistically verified circumstances that you mention, which you admit are more prevalent in the working class, are significant factors which impede learning, whatever the child's native ability. But they are less of an impediment to the learning of standard grammar than the fact that the optimum learning period for acquisition of language has already passed by the time a child is enrolled in school.
      To acknowledge that many of our students come to us with deficits is not a defeatist attitude. It is a realistic acknowledgment of fact, and if we refuse to entertain it, we are less likely to identify and accommodate our students' needs--to experiment and create a pedagogical environment that is responsive to them as individuals, rather than employing the identical techniques with all of them, as though they are members of an undifferentiated herd. This is a basic, universally held tenet of educational theory--certainly you must have been exposed to it during your training. I agree that it is crucial for every teacher to have a positive attitude, to believe in each child's ability. That goes without saying.
      I don't believe you have a classist attitude. But, because you are a teacher, I believe it's important for you to realize that your original statement--that you judge people on the basis of their spelling, grammar, and sentence structure--is indeed a classist remark, whether you intended it as such or not. I'm not surprised that it elicited a negative response. Whatever your protests, working class people are more likely than others to use non-standard grammar, and I'm positive you realize this.

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  18. Compared to most European languages (Spanish, for instance), English--especially what is considered "proper" English--is extraordinarily fluid, and increasingly so. What is considered standard today will be archaic by the time you are twenty years older.
    By way of example: I am sixty-one. The grammar and sentence structure you exhibit in your blog post would have been judged as egregiously sub-standard when I was young.

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    1. It may be archaic by that point, but there is currently a standard that should be adhered to in certain circumstances.

      Again though, I'm not enirely sure how this relates to the point of my post.

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  19. Well said Becky. There are no rules for stuff like this and it makes me really sad when people say generalised (and utterly incorrect) 'facts' like this.
    Kaz at Sunshine Days x

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    1. It's the generalisation that angers me. The application of the stereotype: If I'm talking about poor grammar, I must be talking about the working class, when actually class never entered my mind!

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  20. This is a lovely post.

    While i agree with most of it, i live in a third world country were education is not exactly what one might call 'free'. Also your last statement...i don't know about because i actually do think a child's financial situation can have quite an impact on their ability to learn. Sure, education may be 'free' but what of the concept of equal access to education?

    I am not saying that ones financial situation should ever be used as an excuse for poor grammar of course I'm just saying i think it is also important that we acknowledge that equal access to education is not yet a reality and as such gives fuel to the argument of class and educational attainment

    I do agree though that it has nothing to do with race, poverty is not racist.

    Again, great post, what a discussion starter! :)

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    1. This is really interesting! Of course, in the UK, we are very lucky with our access to education. I guess I was really thinking about the UK system as every child has equal, and free, access to education.

      I can imagine things will be very different in other countries. Of course, it's not the money that is the problem itself, but the difficult accessing education, which is as a consequence of money. Does that make any sense?

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    2. oh yes! in fact i agree I agree, it is not so much the money but I, the lack of equal access to education.

      thanks again for a great post :)

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  21. This is so true and beautiful. I adore this man.
    http://www.tastefullyoffensive.com/2013/07/stephen-fry-jonathan-ross-discuss.html

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    1. I'll have a look at that when I can and let you know my thoughts.

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  22. See, I think this is a difficult one. My family is working class - Although I think our house, where we live, income and generally the life we lead, is more middle class. It's possible to climb the class ladder, hence why I think our standing is more middle class in general. Education has always been an important part of my life, with positive encouragement from my father to do as best as I could, to never stop learning and to chase my dreams. It is this encouragement which has pushed me to go back to College at 20, do my A Levels, apply for Universities and go to University - to which I am now in my fourth and final year. My reasoning for continuing my education is the simple fact that the job I want to do (forensic psychologist) HAS to have a psychology BPS accredited degree, otherwise? You can forget those dreams of being a forensic psychologist. I enjoy learning, no, I LOVE learning. But my siblings, not so much. (I have four brothers, only one of which took education seriously) But taking advantage of the both free and paid for education I have, doesn't mean I am the brightest spark. My writing is often full of errors, but unless it's for work or Uni purposes, I don't mind my English being a bit off. If it's readable, it's OK.

    Education is free (in the UK) and for that, I think we are incredibly lucky. I think many take our free education for granted and don't realise how valuable it is, nor take it for everything it's got. My mother for example, who grew up on a farm in Northern Cyprus (pre-Turkish invasion) only attended school until she was 11. After that she was required to work and education was shunned, money for food on the table was more important. Understandable, but this now puts her in a difficult position in everyday life, as she can barely write proper English, has only over the past couple of years even learnt to read English books, and her maths/general knowledge is severely lacking.

    Education is provided to everyone and anyone in the UK, but, I think how we see education is the most important aspect, our attitudes to education, usually dictated by our parents. Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't a point about parenting and the good VS the bad. But most of my friends who don't give a damn about education, even from GCSE level and a lot of them didn't even complete their GCSE's, have been brought up not to see the importance in education. I was pushed to learn, I still am. Many of my friends weren't, and so now think education is pointless. If I hadn't been encouraged by my father, perhaps I would feel the same? I don't think your education is affected by the class you are from, but I DO believe your attitude to education depends hugely on your upbringing. The higher classes have access to better, private education and that's why the higher class rarely changes and the rest of us are stuck in working/middle class- I couldn't afford a private school for my future children, therefore, they will not receive the same opportunities as those who do. School, sixth form/College all, for the most part, free - How will future generations cope in the long term with the rise in University fees?

    Money does play a factor in education, circumstances play a part, but personally, from my own experience, if you want to take advantage of a free education we are lucky to receive, a lot of it is down to your parents. If they don't care, they will pass on that nonchalance to their children, so on and so forth.

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  23. Second part of comment as it was too long to post in one go!

    I suppose on the flip side, as seen with three of my brothers, encouragement and a positive attitude to education doesn't always work. I think schools should offer more practical educational topics, more trades should be learnt in schools etc, so that all children, of all abilities, can gain from our free education. Not everyone is a book worm, not everyone is good at Maths/likes reading/can decipher poetry/etc etc etc. Some have talents which lie in practical roles, who could benefit so much from more practical/trade specific learning in schools.

    I completely agree with 'There is no rule'. Fantastic read!

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  24. I think... I THINK I love you a little bit for this post haha! The biggest thing that gets to me though is how someone like my mum, who's English isn't perfect but is still pretty darn good, will get so much hassle from people if she makes a mistake but as soon as you use the same standards to judge someone from this country (I.e based on their grammar etc) it's seen as classist when English is the native language here. That really annoys me. I agree with Sophia's comment above that attitude to education is very important but using correct grammar or using the right words in a sentence is a pretty basic skill to have that doesn't really have anything to do with how much money you have. Great post!!

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  25. I completely agree with you. Money does not determine intelligence or ability to learn how to use the English language correctly.

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  26. I think a lot of it is down to laziness rather than lack of learning. So often I hear, "it doesn't matter, it's only Twitter!" or "you knew what I meant!" Maybe, but, if you know how to do it right then do it right! I know one blogger whose personal posts are often a hideous combination of typos, I'm talking apostrophes for plurals, their/they're/there/you're/your, you know the type of thing! But, her *sponsored* posts are word perfect. So she knows what it should be but unless she's getting paid to write it she can't be bothered to get it right! Great post :)

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  27. Scrolling back through your archives and I just keep reading! This type of post is just so interesting, and I love how you really show your personality. I'm similar to you I think - never really had an issue with spelling and grammar - but I'm still at school and I know many people that are! In my English class I sit next to a very intelligent lad who is full of ideas and has quite a flair for writing, but I must say his spelling is atrocious! Drives me insane. Spelling and grammar doesn't even seem to be proportional to intelligence in a lot of cases. The claim that it's difficult for working class people is a bit ridiculous seeing as everyone has the exact same access to education, but it really does annoy me when I know people from certain areas that seem to put on a false front of not caring about their education when they really do have potential. I guess they just need good teachers like you to help!
    lily x
    www.jolihouse.com

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  28. I LOVE this post. (Also, I feel like I have to mention this: I know quite a few non-native English speakers and in many cases their grammar is far better than that of a lot of native speakers I know, especially in their written English! I expect this is largely due to the differences in the way we learn our mother tongue and the way we are taught second/third/foreign languages.)

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