From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is famous (infamous, some students would say) for its spelling and grammar test.

Since 1975, the journalism school has required students to pass the 100-question test with a grade of 70 or better. Few do so on the first attempt, but it’s offered numerous times each semester. Those who cannot pass may not graduate with a journalism degree.

According to the book “Making News” by Tom Bowers, the test made national news at the time of its introduction. It was mentioned in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, and NBC News came to campus to do a story about it.

The test is still a true rite of passage, even though nowadays it’s given online and not on paper. It’s also still a topic of conversation and a part of the school’s identity. Everyday people in North Carolina sometimes ask alumni and faculty of the school: Do they still have that test that you have to pass or else?

The answer is yes, but its format is changing. Spelling will no longer be part of the exam.

The content of the test came up last fall when several faculty members were talking about the introductory News Writing course, which is where many students first take the exam. In those conversations, I suggested that memorizing a spelling list wasn’t the best measure of competence in our craft. Why not use a set of questions about word choice instead? Other faculty members agreed to the idea.

Spelling, of course, still matters. Students who misspell words on assignments will still be penalized. As journalism students at UNC will tell you, misspelling the name of a source is a bad idea. That error means an automatic F on that assignment. But the spelling and grammar test will become the usage and grammar test.

So starting this fall, students will be tested on grammar, punctuation and word usage. The usage section will draw from this list (PDF) and include sentences like this:

Its/It’s too late to add a class this semester. (The correct answer is It’s.)

The goal of the revised exam is to better test the students’ knowledge of journalistic writing and editing. In addition, the new test will also better reflect what some employers use in making decisions on jobs and internships.

Congratulations to those students who passed the old test. And good luck to those who will take the new one. I hope you pass!

Thanks to the Park Library for help researching this post.

7 thoughts on “From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar”

  1. I teach ESL in Canada and would love to have a look at your test. Is it available to other universities? Or online to the general public? Please let me know!

  2. It’s not available publicly. It’s possible that we’ll post sample questions this fall, though.

    We’re still working out a few details, such as the time limit for students to take the test and the ratio of grammar questions to usage questions.

  3. With the prevalence of instant spell-check, it makes sense to de-emphasize spelling as a pass-or-fail skill. Do you consider homonyms to fall into the spelling or usage category? I’m constantly correcting complement/compliment, site/sight, etc.

  4. I looked through the list for the usage section of the new test. I stopped when I came to “shoe-in/shoo-in.” I knew “shoo-in” was the person considered almost certain to win something, but I couldn’t imagine what a “shoe-in” was, although I thought of a person who had put his foot in a race or had thrown his hat into a race, or who had a clear advantage in getting a certain job because of factors not related to the job, such as a personal friendship with the hiring person. I looked up the term in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary and in my 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Neither dictionary lists “shoe-in” as a word. If “shoe-in” is not a word, this would seem like a test of spelling, not usage.

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