by | December 26, 2014 | General | 10 comments

by Jean Roberta

My day job is never boring because it is constantly changing. As I plan to start teaching three new English classes in the local university in January, a project I worked on during my last holiday break (December 2013) is coming to fruition.

Last year, I worked with someone who teaches English as an Additional Language to devise a test in English fluency/comprehension to be administered to first-year students to start generating some data about their ability to function in university classes. Unfortunately, the original test took three-to-four hours to write, and therefore it wasn’t practical to use in regular classes. Over the past year, a committee in the English Department has tinkered with the test and reduced the time it takes to approximately fifty minutes, the time-span of a regular class that meets three times per week. The current department head has asked me to administer this to my first-semester class on the first day.

I am curious to find out if the hard data confirms what I have observed over a quarter-century of teaching mandatory first-year classes to a very diverse student body. The administration has been recruiting students from other countries, many of whom have had to learn English as adults, and these students often beg me on the first day of class to give them a passing grade because they need it to complete their programs. They hope I can overlook their grammatical flaws. The more desperate they are, the more they are tempted to hand in plagiarized essays, and when the students are caught, they claim they had no idea this isn’t allowed. (In all fairness, they might not have understood my warning lecture.)

Locally-grown students aren’t necessarily better-prepared or better-behaved. Even students who speak English fluently, with a local (Canadian) accent, often tell me they didn’t want to take an English class because they have never understood grammar, and they hope I will overlook any silly little mistakes they might make. When/if I question the home-grown students about their backgrounds, some of them tell me the first language they ever heard was spoken by their immigrant parents, and it was not English. In all their years of public-school education, apparently no one ever explained to them the differences between English grammar and that of their mother tongue. Some local students grew up in households where reading was treated as a waste of time. In most cases, they decided that precision in written communication just wasn’t important.

I devoutly hope that if the new placement test (as it is called) shows that more than half of all first-year students really aren’t ready to study literature in English and write essays about it, the administration (and above that, the various levels of government that fund the education system) will find some spare change for more basic language-and-composition classes. I wouldn’t even mind teaching at a pre-first-year level, especially if this would mean that I would see more progress and hear less begging.

What does all this have to do with writing? A lot. I honestly don’t know whether the mix of students in my classes is a microcosm of the public at large, but the possibility scares me. Grammatical mistakes in their writing are only part of the problem. (Here are some examples: plural subjects with singular verbs, as in “the students studies real hard,” object pronouns used as subjects, as in “Me and Joe went to the bar,” and dangling participles, as in: “Flapping in the breeze, Dee looked up at the flag.”) These glitches are bad enough, but as some students claim, grammatical mistakes are not a huge deal if the reader can guess what is really meant.

In most cases, grammatical mistakes are accompanied by a lack of logic: contradictory statements, needless repetition, the startling interjection of commands to the reader (e.g. “This novel is about racism. Stop using stereotypes!”) An example of a tautology, or circular reasoning, is this sentence from an actual student essay on literature that I graded in December: “The end of domestic violence would stop men from beating their wives.” Duh. But what unnamed force is (or was) supposed to stop domestic violence, according to the work under discussion?

I jump between piles of (largely) unclear or inaccurate writing, and writing projects of my own. I often wonder for whom I am writing. Who, in general, reads erotic fiction? Is this audience more literate than the average person, assuming the word “average” makes any sense in this context?

The word “sex,” apparently so simple and so clear, really doesn’t mean the same thing to every person who hears or uses it. Over thirty years ago, I was told by my husband at the time that he knew some women who “masturbated” each other, but “they didn’t have sex.” The apparent lack of sex meant that these women weren’t really lesbians, according to him. And like most of the men I knew at that time, my husband was convinced that unwanted sex (especially if unwanted by the female partner) was very different from “real rape.” And sex, by definition, was both consensual and natural, so after sex had occurred, none of the participants had a right to complain that it should not have happened.

So when we write about sex, we can’t afford to assume we know how our words will be understood. (I always hope that a lot of sensory description will be clearer than abstract terms.) This problem is amplified when the more advanced (beyond the basic grammar of cock-in-cunt) varieties of sex are introduced. As the public release of the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey approaches like a speeding racecar, widespread concern about its content is, if possible, more urgent than before. Will hordes of readers and viewers assume that the movie accurately represents BDSM (itself a very general term that needs to be clarified in specific cases)?

I could mention a specifically Canadian example of the misuse of the term “rough sex” to describe the nonconsensual treatment of at least nine female complainants by the minor male celebrity who dated them, but I am running out of space. Suffice it to say that by all accounts, the women accepted invitations to the man’s house because they were willing to have “sex” with him, according to their understanding of what that meant, but what the host dished out was something else entirely. This case seems to involve more than a tragic misunderstanding, but it does show the need for negotiation in good faith whenever two or more people get naked together.

Meanwhile, I keep advocating accurate expression and large vocabularies as sexy things that can lead to wonderfully satisfying encounters between (say) a reader and an author. Am I indulging in intellectual masturbation? It’s hard to know.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Rachel Green

    Fascinating insight. Thank you.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Sigh. I see these sorts of errors in published – and supposedly edited – books, by self-styled "professional" authors. It's epidemic.

    What worries me most is that most people don't seem to be worried. ;^) There appears to be a popular consensus that grammar and spelling are unimportant, indeed, that written language is old-fashioned and can easily be replaced by a set of YouTube videos.

  3. Jean Roberta

    Too true. Yet people who think the nuts-and-bolts of composition are unimportant sometimes have extreme reactions to what they think they read. It is worrisome.

  4. Sam Kruit

    My colleagues used to (rather sarcastically) refer to me as the Apostropher General. I was very anal, according to a few people.

    I stand by my insistence on clarity, accuracy and well-managed tone, though. A lot of damage can be done with a stroppy, badly-written letter. Especially one printed on government headed paper!

    Most writers take crit well, I find, if positives are picked up alongside the errors. But there will always those who resent being told that there is still more work to do…

  5. Remittance Girl

    I think it is important to look back to the 19th Century and acknowledge that 80% of the population was only barely literate. The working class, for the most part, was not concerned with the rules of grammar – just feeding itself. The stark separation of classes was easily discerned by listening to a person speak or reading letters.

    During the 20th Century, an incredible democratization of learning took place. In Western Europe and on the North American Continent, literacy rates soared. Mandatory, publicly funded education, state subsidization of tertiary education and even quaint institutions such as secretarial schools played important roles in raising the bar on what 'educated' meant.

    The era of universal education (offering everyone the opportunity to gain as much education as they want or can achieve for very little cost) was a short one, and it is definitely over. For all the nasty things we have to say about modernism, that *was* a modernist project. One that was, at least publicly, embraced by anyone in a position of power who wanted respect. There is lip service to it now, but the ethics that underpinned that great project are dead. We don't need educated consumers – just consumers. The more able people are to produce a cogent argument or think critically, the less acquiescent they become as consumers. The rate at which a small elite are accumulating wealth has reached levels not seen since the turn of the last Century. This oligarchy isn't interested in a widely- and well-educated population. It doesn't serve their interests or agendas and, it follows logically, that they don't fund politicians or parties who still support it.

    I think we are people at the twilight of a truly wonderful period in human history, in which we believed passionately in equality and saw education as one of the main vehicles for attaining that equality. It's over ladies. We're going to be grammatically correct dinosaurs.

    Just bring me my gin so I can forget about the plight of the peasants, won't you? Because this is the first generation that chose to enslave itself.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hmm. This is all too convincing.

      Care to share the gin?

  6. Jean Roberta

    As usual, RG, you've nailed the problem. As a product of that great democratization of learning, I would really like to pass on its benefits, and I keep preaching that improved skill at using language will change my students' lives (it changed the lives of my parents, who climbed into the middle class by getting graduate degrees). I think most of my students are more in tune with the times than I am. They don't see any evidence that literacy leads to interesting jobs or decent incomes. Some come from cultures in which democracy has never gained much traction, and they assume that knowing the right people is the key to starting a career. Even still, I sometimes wonder if they are aware that we are all here until we die, regardless of culture or social system, and enslaving oneself doesn't lead to a great future.

    • Remittance Girl

      You need idealism to imagine a great future.

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