A hazy grasp of grammar tripped up many pupils in English and modern languages at Standard grade and Higher last year, and will fuel concern over basic skills.
The Scottish Examination Board's final report notes weaknesses in punctuation, sentence construction, paragraphing and spelling in Standard grade English.
Candidates in Higher English were said to have shown a noticeable improvement in handling the review of personal reading, but "some work was poorly presented, apparently unredrafted and barely legible".
The examiners found that faulty English hampered some Higher candidates across the five modern languages. "This poor command of expression and lack of the required precision caused many candidates to perform poorly in the unsupported translation question," the report states.
While excellent essays were produced, particularly in Higher German and Russian, "a significant number of essays betrayed a basic lack of knowledge of simple grammar rules".
Even in the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, the SEB report found that the increased emphasis placed in paper 1 on translations into English "proved challenging for some candidates whose translation technique and command of English language were weak".
In the CSYS listening and essay papers, "lack of basic grammatical accuracy was once again the greatest problem for many candidates". But, the report states, CSYS standards were being maintained.
Writing, which is optional in modern languages at Standard grade, continues to be the major challenge for pupils attempting the exam. Performance was "very mixed" at both General and Credit levels. Some candidates were able to express opinions, state facts and ask questions confidently and accurately. But "others clearly struggled, particularly with past tenses, formation of questions and effective use of a dictionary".
The only piece of unqualified good news for grammarians is to be found in the Latin CSYS exam. Having noted problems with grammar in the translation paper the previous year, examiners report that last year's candidates showed "evidence of a welcome improvement in grammatical awareness".
The quantitative as well as qualitative position of modern languages is also a matter of concern. Standard grade presentations rose by 2.5 per cent but only by 1 per cent at Higher level. The figure for CSYS, however, rose by just under 9.5 per cent.
The virtually static position of modern languages at Higher grade is worse than it appears because it follows on from a 6 per cent fall in the 1995 presentations.
The examiners, who noted in 1995 "further alarming deterioration" in numbers taking Russian at all levels, expressed "grave concern" at last year's uptake: 31 presentations at Standard grade, 17 at Higher and three at CSYS.
What the examiners found
* "A small but encouraging improvement" in Higher biology.
* A welcome increase in the top CSYS awards in computing.
* The practical elements of Standard grade drama were of a high standard.
* Pupils taking Higher economics showed greater knowledge and understanding of the Scottish economy than previously.
* Some CSYS dissertations in English were "a joy to read".
* One in five CSYS candidates chose a Scottish text in the literature paper.
* "Appeasement and the Road to War to 1939" continues to be the most popular topic in Higher history.
* Algebra remains the weak spot for Standard grade pupils sitting maths.
* Candidates in the Higher PE notched high scores on performance but came across badly in the written parts of the exam.
* Project work in CSYS physics was "superficial".
* Papers in Higher secretarial studies revealed a "widespread lack of knowledge of the correct layout of business documents".