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Eric Dayton, Philosophy Faculty

Being Literate

How does a student improve his or her writing skills?

I have very fundamentalist views about this. You can't become literate without reading a large number of books, period. So, you should plan on reading hundreds of books while you're in university, and by books I mean primarily novels. ...books that explore the human condition well and interestingly and with a good vocabulary, because it's only when you see words functioning in the text that you understand what their use is. Students who write an essay with a dictionary and then who look up words and then use words that sort of mean what they want, but don't mean that idiomatically: that looks awkward and strange. So, you need to acquire a good vocabulary. You need to read. You need to be able to think clearly, and thinking clearly is not just a skill of being smart or something like that; it's a skill of being careful in your thinking. Don't make claims that can't be tested. Don't make generalizations Don't gossip about other people with your friends because gossip, typically, is untrue, or if it's true, it's only accidentally true and so by being a gossip you develop the habit of making claims that are probably false. Since the value of claim-making is to say true things, like: you want to know what time it is, and you look at your watch, and if your watch said any old thing, then it wouldn't be helpful. If you ask your neighbour and your neighbour tells you what time it is, and they're a liar, that's not helpful either. So I see literacy as a kind of precondition for being an adult human being in a culture that [requires] people to understand the world. The best beginnings of literacy are respecting language and developing a vocabulary deliberately. I look up words all the time. I sort of know what they mean, but I want to know not only exactly what they mean but also do they come from the Greek or do they come from the Roman, from Latin, or is it a German word... I find that interesting because you learn so much about the meanings of words from their origins and from their histories and lots of people aren't interested in that but it's very difficult to be a fully literate member of a culture without participating in the literature and literary life of that culture.