A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

What Makes Student Writing Unacceptable?

Yasmeen Lukmani

When analysing errors, the sentence is a convenient framework in which to forget the realities of the undergraduate classroom. Sentential boundaries are narrow and well-defined, and many of the intricacies of linguistic form are included in it, so students’ errors can be pinpointed easily.

However, convenience in analytical purposes is not the only criterion to be employed in the choice of framework. Other considerations, such as the degree of disruption of meaning, are perhaps more important. So also, are notions such as the overall intelligibility of what the student is trying to say, including relevance and precision of statement, and rhetorical organization of the ideas presented. These considerations point towards looking at a framework larger than the sentence, to the not-yet-clearly-analysed territory of text or discourse.

At the undergraduate level, students need to write at least their examination answers, in English. Their command over English is thus crucial in the assessment of their performance. It is also likely that their performance would be judged not by concord or article felicities, but by the clarity and the logical development of their argument. 

In my study (1985), in which I analysed the nature of examination writing, I found that this was indeed the case.  Also, in assessment, sentential correctness was the main concern of English teachers. Subject teachers for the most part were concerned only with an adequate statement of content. However, features of English rhetoric such as relevance and clarity which are beyond the sentence level, may play a significant role in determining adequacy in the statement of content. Certainly, a larger framework than the sentence, and a different set of criteria is required for a suitable analysis of students’ errors. Two parameters are considered here, namely, 1) Linguistic and 2) Textual/ discourse-based.

1.  Linguistic Elements in Sentential Contexts: syntax (subordination, coordination and completeness of phrasal and clause units), lexis and cohesive elements (leading to coherence)

2. Text/Discourse:

A.  Coherence; Textual Development

a. The connection of related ideas (through appropriate placement and suitable orthographic devices, including paragraphing);

b.  The rhetorical development of argument, i.e. the differentiation of parts of the text and their organization. 

B. Communication of meaning through Text/Discourse features

a. The degree of prominence to be given to each type of rhetorical unit in order to achieve the required communicative purpose (e.g. subordination to achieve focus in topic-comment relations)

b. The use of the established conventions of the rhetorical act in question, particularly in academic writing. These may include appropriate register, including correct spelling and appropriate levels of formality; the degree of abstraction required in terms of the demands of readership and of purpose; and the overt statement of implied meaning or relationship.

We shall now analyse a mini-corpus of student writing in terms of these two categories to arrive at the nature of the unintelligible and unacceptable features of the language produced. The mini-corpus consists of six examination answers in Economics (Students A to F) in the First Year B.A. level from the University of Bombay, drawn from the larger corpus created for the 1985 study.  Due to lack of space, the full scripts of the original and doctored versions (doctored according to different parameters) of the mini-corpus are not attached.  In the doctored versions, the unsuitable linguistic and textual elements of the original script have been changed along specific parameters.  In this paper, only excerpts from the original scripts and the doctored version focusing on features of the text/discourse have been contrasted.  The version doctored for linguistic elements will only be referred to in terms of relative acceptability to teachers; it will not be presented.

Linguistic Elements in Sentential Contexts

a.  Lexical and syntactic shortcomings

Student C wrote of the “relationship between ends and scrace”. He should have written, “scarce means”. 

Student A wrote, “He states the nature of economic problems to scarcity resources”, when what he meant was, “He relates the nature of economic problems to the scarcity of resources”. 

Student C wrote, “As first only Robbins stated that economics is science it is not pure science as well as physics and chemistry”. What he actually meant was “but it is not pure science, like physics and chemistry”.

b. Errors of cohesion:  Signalling of transitions in argument

Student A was not able to signal the conclusion of an argument.  He wrote “Human wants are unlimited if one of it satisfied, the other wants immediately replace.  It is impossible for man to satisfies his all wants in a limited income”.  In order to make this statement acceptable, we need to insert the cohesive link “therefore”, so that it reads: “It is therefore impossible for man to satisfy all his wants in a limited income.”

Student A was also unable to handle the statement of a reason-effect relationship.  He wrote “Robbins definition is states the nature of human behaviour it at once become too wide and too narrow definition.”  In order to make the statement coherent, he should have written, “Since Robbins’ definition is states the nature of human behavior…”  (Grammar is not being corrected in these examples; only the feature under consideration is being looked at, in this case cohesion).

Student D could not clearly state the fact that some features were being added to those already mentioned.  For example, he wrote, “But in modern times after Malthus establish this theory, the Industrial Revolution take place in England, many new methods were introduced to produce more crops, fertilisers now can be increase the fertility of land.”  This could be more clearly stated as, “After Malthus established this theory, the Industrial Revolution took place in England, and in addition, many new methods….” 

Student D also displayed an inability to make a comparison.  He wrote in the line after the last quotation, “So Cannon’s optimum theory of population is correct theory”.  It would make more sense to say, “Cannon’s optimum theory of population is more correct in modern times than the Malthusian theory.”

Student C displayed an inability to handle the statement with opposing viewpoints.  He wrote, “As first only Robins stated that economics is science it is not pure science as well as physics and Chemistry.”  This may be better stated as, “He showed on the one hand, that economics is a science, but on the other, it is not a pure science like physics and Chemistry.”

Text/ Discourse

A. Coherence; textual development

(This section should be illustrated by the scripts of Students A, C and F.  Unfortunately, lack of space prevents me from presenting them.)

a. Contradiction

The three examples provided by Student F in his answer script, relating to consumer’s surplus, were seen to present contradictory views. 

b. Redundancy and circumlocution

The answer scripts of Students A and C are good examples of this.

c. Lack of rhetorical organization in statement of ideas.

Lack of connection between ideas, as well as the absence of rhetorical development was prominent in the scripts of Students A and C.

d. Inability to manifest rhetorical organization in statement of ideas

Student C used no paragraphing at all, which made his ideas remain undifferentiated.  The paragraphing introduced by Student A did not lead to organized production.

B. Communication of meaning through text/discourse features

a. Inability to handle topic-comment relations

In English, “new information” is normally given in the second part of the sentence (called the “comment”), “known information” (called the “topic”), being stated in the first part. A deviation from this pattern has to be clearly signalled, or else, the relationship between the sentences becomes unclear. Student A wrote, “The scarcity definition of economics is given by the economist Lional Robbins. He states the nature of economic problems to scarcity resources.” It would have been more appropriate for the subject of the second sentence to refer to the subject of the first, making the second sentence start with, “It states…” A rhetorically organized version of this script would state, “The economist Lional Robbins gives the scarcity definition of Economics.  According to him, Economics is the science which studies the human behavior….”  This change reversed the student’s topic-comment positions in the first sentence in order to focus attention on “the scarcity definition of economics”, which is more important than “the economist Lional Robbins”, in that context.

b. Inability to handle subordination to achieve focus.

Student B wrote, “Optimum theory of population improved over the Malthusian theory of population.  It was first formulated by Edwin Cannon.” This could have been more appropriately be stated as, “Optimum theory of population, first formulated by Edwin Cannon, improved over the Malthusian theory of population.”  This change combines the two sentences into one sentence by means of subordination, thereby making the information in the second sentence of the original seem subordinated or less important.  This is necessary, because if every piece of information provided is to be given equal value, no topic can develop, much less develop with clarity. The proposed change gives the name of the formulator of the Optimum theory the position of an aside, which is its due.

c. Lack of appropriate levels of abstraction.

Students faced problems in expressing generalizations of ideas, or in relating a generalization to its concrete manifestation. Generalization or abstraction can be expressed in a number of ways; two of the problems students have in handling it are as follows:

i) Incomplete statement of ideas.

Student F wrote, “When a consumer get a commodity which have ₹ 25 price in ₹ 20.  This increase of ₹ 5 is called consumer’s surplus.  When a commodity which have a great important to consumer so he will buy it in more price.” When editing this, in the interest of greater coherence, one could say, “When a commodity has great importance to consumer he will be willing to buy it at even more price than normal.”  This extra satisfaction….” Without these additions, the generalization lacked the crucial feature of abstraction, and remained at the level of an example.

The same point could be illustrated from the script of Student B: “The optimum size of population is neither bad nor good.  The optimum size of population is not fixed one.  The optimum theory of population is neither big nor small.” 

This could be more appropriately stated thus, “The optimum size is not rigidly fixed” or  “An optimum population is not fixed in size; nor is it big or small in any absolute sense.”

By making these changes, an idea implicitly contained within the statement(s) would be drawn out and the meaning clarified.  In addition, Economics teachers felt that the addition of the statement “Optimum is best” was required, which also brought out the unstated meaning. By means of these additions therefore, a suitable level of abstraction could be provided for the answer.

ii) Lack of an appropriate level of formality or appropriateness of register.

Student A wrote, “Human wants are unlimited, if one of it satisfied, the other wants immediately replace.  It is impossible for man to satisfied his all wants in a limited income.”  The phrase “means at his disposal” rather than the “income” would be more appropriate in terms of register.

Student E wrote, “Thus consumer’s surplus means that we have prepared to pay for a commodity….”  This would be more suitable if stated thus, “Consumer’s surplus means that the consumer is prepared to pay….”

Student D wrote, “…when output or product produced by that population in that period of time is highest”.  This statement would appear much more appropriate to academic writing in Economics if it was stated instead as, “When per capita output or product produced by that population in the given period of time is maximum.”

Subject teachers who assess student performance at an examination, are concerned with only some aspects of inadequacies in student writing, not with all (Lukmani, 1985).  It may be interesting to analyse the reasons why some features are considered important for success, and others ignored.  English teachers marking these scripts, including the scripts doctored for grammar and those doctored for “coherence”, have by and large restricted their attention to sentential grammar, showing little concern for meaningfulness.

Findings of This Study

It was found that subject teachers are not disturbed by the following features in student writing:

  1. Lack of rhetorical organization
  2. Inability to manifest rhetorical organization, e.g. through paragraphing
  3. Redundancy and circumlocution
  4. Inability to handle topic-comment relations
  5. Inability to handle subordination to achieve focus.

From this list, one can see that when marking examination answers, subject teachers are not concerned with ideas being logically connected with each other.  In fact, so long as the points that the question demands are present in the script, even though they may be randomly scattered, the teachers are accepting of them.  Again, teachers are undisturbed by the general lack of focus caused by inappropriate subordination and connection of sentences. They also do not care about redundancy and circumlocution. In fact, when presented with the same student scripts minus the redundancy and circumlocution, teachers awarded lower marks. So students are right in trying to “pad” their answers. They realize that lack of padding reveals only too clearly their paucity of ideas.

The inadequacies that subject teachers in Economics objected to are:

  1. Contradiction in ideas
  2. Lack of appropriate level of abstraction in terms of lexis or because of incomplete statement of ideas
  3. Lack of transitional signals in argument, e.g., the use of words like therefore, since, etc.
  4. Lexical and syntactic shortcomings.

Both Economics teachers and English teachers, one feels, have been forced by ever lower standards of student performance, to pass sub-standard scripts. However, in a way they have themselves contributed to perpetuating such a performance. It is time they concentrated on the essentials of getting meaning across, the value of precision, logical connection in ideas, clarity and relevance. Surely there is no question that logical connection and precision are much more important than dropping an article or failing to observe the niceties of grammar. Given the fact that students have to produce large chunks of writing, and given the limited classroom time to achieve grammatical proficiency at the undergraduate level, English teachers would do well to encourage coherence in writing. They could do this by deflecting time away from grammar, so that what students have to say is expressed clearly and unambiguously, even though their grammatical infelicities might make the sensitive ear wince. At present, they are able to achieve neither coherence nor grammar.  So, what do English teachers stand to lose by trying another approach?


Lukmani, Y. M. (1985).  A rationale for proficiency testing for English  (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). University of Bombay, Mumbai.


Yasmeen Lukmani, formerly Professor and Head, English Department, University of Mumbai, has developed path-breaking language teaching projects and written extensively on the subject.