I done rite good - U no?

At the risk of being sued by Fairfax, here is an excellent opinion piece from today's Sydney Morning Herald. A great argument against those who insist that it doesn't matter if people can write English competently, so long as they can be understood....(that they're not retarded).

Understanding written English is a life skill for all, not a privilege, writes Lynne Truss.

THE collision of fabulous, girdle-round-the-earth technology and abysmal writing skills is doing one thing rather well: it is unfairly (but usefully) exposing the dreadful state of many people's written English. And it is no good to argue (as many try to do) that it doesn't really matter that people don't have old-fashioned writing skills if they can get get across what they mean.

Maybe I was exposed to too much Lewis Carroll at an impressionable age, but that's the sort of paradoxical statement that, quite frankly, makes me want to scream. The point is: what does a person "mean" if he or she doesn't say it?

There's a great line in Christopher Hampton's play The Philanthropist. One character says, "You never understand what I'm trying to say". And her boyfriend says, thoughtfully, "That's probably true. On the other hand, I think I do understand what you do say."

No one just picks up the mechanics of writing, just as we don't just pick up how to play the piano by listening to it. Theory is no substitute for practice, or for learning through making mistakes.

For decades, there has been an ideological reluctance to point out mistakes in written work. Pointing out "errors" was seen as discouraging to children, as well as unacceptably judgemental. But, when you look at it, what a patronising attitude that is.

Don't children have the right to know if they are getting something wrong? Then they can either have the pleasure of getting it right next time, or they can make an informed decision that, actually, they absolutely don't care. It is patronising not to correct someone who is supposed to be learning; in fact, it's quite a good idea occasionally to force people to confront the scale of their own ignorance.

It's not just people's self-esteem that's at stake. It's the future of written English.

Is this an elitist point of view? No, it's quite the opposite. To me, it's very simple: being good at English means you've been taught well. The idea that "correct" or standard English belongs only to the rich and privileged is preposterous from every angle.

The English language doesn't belong to anybody: it certainly doesn't trickle down from the top. Mark Twain said it brilliantly 100 years ago: "There is no such thing as the Queen's English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares."

The more widely the techniques of written language are taught, the more democratic they plainly are. Nor does the "elitist" argument stand up to any empirical test. Posh people have been noted throughout history for their limited word power. The true objection, when you think about it, is to people appearing "educated". Which, in the context of the aims of education, is absurd.

My critics are people who speak well and write well, who started off with privileges that they think it is their moral duty to deny to others. "Relax, you don't need to know how to write", is the message. "Remember, only snobbish people care about such things."

An English teacher told me recently that, 20 years ago, she had a class that wanted to do some sentence-parsing, and she had to say: "All right. But if anyone comes in, we're doing comics." What some people really resented about Eats, Shoots & Leaves was that, by laying out some simple rules of English in an inexpensive and accessible book, I somehow revealed a trade secret to the masses.

English language as a subject should be elevated to a far higher status within the education system. Writing, in relation to other curriculum subjects, is like breathing in relation to other bodily functions: you may have a fabulous set of kidneys, but if you're not breathing, forget it.

It's high time we insisted that the issue of literacy has nothing to do with class, and that it just cannot be bad for a person to be able to express himself in his own language. People need to know how their language works; they have a right to know how their language works; and they evidently bought my book because they were actually quite frustrated not knowing how their language worked.

Students at university level find writing difficult and unpleasant. Which is a great irony, when you consider that one of the official reasons for dropping grammar from the curriculum was that anxiety about rules stifled the enjoyment and exuberance people were thought to bring naturally to writing.

Literacy is historically the engine of social mobility: to downgrade literacy is to deprive many people a chance in life. Decades of well-intentioned relativism have done nothing to bring about a more equal society. The result is that, more than ever before, it's only children from the most privileged homes - who go to the most expensive schools - who are equipped, by their language skills, to get all the best jobs and run the country.

Since the English language self-evidently belongs to everyone who speaks it, if people can't express themselves in writing, they have been deprived not just of a life skill but of their birthright. And in an age of fabulous, unprecedentedly fast and convenient means of written communications, it is actually criminal - not funny, not sad, but criminal - that so many people can't string a sentence together.

Lynne Truss is the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation and Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!