“I’m not against women. I’m a women myself.”

I wish this were the only example of students’ inability  to make a distinction between one woman and more than one woman. But the exception, anymore, is the student who does make the distinction, and makes it accurately.

Very few students have the same trouble with man/men. In fact I can’t remember a single error in number when it comes to the guys. I imagine we’re dealing with the baby words that begin reading and spelling experiences for us all: bat, bet; mat, met; pan, pen; man, men.

But doesn’t the same difference of pronunciation occur in the syllable they can’t keep straight—woman, women? Evidently that whimsical “o” in the first syllable, changing in response to the changed vowel in the second, is what throws them. How does “uh” become “ih”? So in all likelihood “women” is recalled, if recalled at all, as the word that isn’t spelled the way it sounds, and so students having to write it figure Anything Goes…or Why Bother.

Dare I also speculate that my sisters in feminism, trying to dump the patriarchy from the language, threw some random “y”s in there and thus permanently terrified anyone trying to remember how to spell the word? Back in the day I saw it “wymyn,” “womyn,” “wymmyn”… A word spelled that way has to be pronounced with a wrinkled nose and a pickledy contracted mouth, kind of the expression on Dudley Moore’s face when he pronounced “myrrh” in the great Good Evening skit on the Magi. Anyway, I think the wymyn, having faded from the scene awhile ago, probably are not an influence on my students’ spelling.

Possibly my student wasn’t sure if she herself was one or many, Greta Garbo or Walt Whitman. I’m a women; I contain multitudes.

No, really, this is the kind of error that simply makes me furious. I can produce compassion for most mistakes, but continually making mistakes with basic, common, easy-to-learn words is just lazy, or willfully ignorant. How many Facebook posters have to rant about the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re” before even ONE person writes “Oh, thanks! I really hate making that mistake!” instead of “f*k you, grammar Nazi!”?

Many, many things about the English language are hard. The huge word-stock is the result of vigorous and wide-ranging language acquisition, much of which accompanied land and resource acquisition. The variety of languages from which words were taken, plus the very interesting history of the English language itself as this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England was itself invaded and occupied, plus the interesting pronunciation variants that developed before most people could write and therefore needed to agree on a spelling…all of this gives us a language that is vastly flexible, enormously energetic, capable of great nuance, and bloody confusing.

But how to spell the singular and plural of the word meaning “adult female” is NOT one of those hard things. It is an EASY thing to learn, just as there/their/they’re is easy to learn. All you need is a modicum of self-respect. All you have to do is care to learn it.

Aye, there’s the rub.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

11 responses to ““I’m not against women. I’m a women myself.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    What we (former) English teachers are up against is this:
    we are not a reading culture any more. Reading is what sets up
    a person’s automatic familiarity with the many oddities of our great language. To be a constant reader is to live inside a language. Not all is gravy in this position, however. As my husband, Paterfamilias, points out to me when I’m bemoaning the state of my To Do list, “We’re readers. We will always be behind on things.” Miles (of books) to go before we sleep.

    • kokkieh

      I wanted to say the same thing. I went so far as to buy second-hand books (and even take a few from my own collection) and keep them in my class for students to borrow. In three years about eight books went out…to three students. Of course, my students were second- or third-language speakers, so some errors are excusable. But that people who grew up speaking the language, who underwent twelve years of schooling in that language, are unable to use these simple words correctly?

      I’m also a second-language speaker and make fewer errors than most first-language speakers and the only reason is that I’ve been a voracious reader of English since primary school. That and the fact that my dictionary is the book closest to me at my work space.

      • RAB

        Mary Jane and kokkieh–yes, I think so too. But I also wonder if it’s not at least in part a manifestation of the culture’s increasing mindlessness (as opposed to mindFULness) about everything, never giving full attention to anything. To read AT ALL and not notice the individuality of words, their characters and quirks, their “this”-ness (oy, starting to sound very new-agey here!)–I can’t understand it. Like saying “nice garden” without noticing the separate colors and the variety of plants!

  • Stuck

    Amen. Love your rants.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Well, the quality of your rants will testify to the truth of the folk tale about
    being able to spin straw into gold.

    That might be a post in itself: the nature and purpose of The Rant.
    Is it to relieve oneself? Then why does one sometimes feel worse, after
    getting it all out?
    Is it a cry, to call attention to a fire that the whole community must work to
    put out?
    Is it a habit?
    Could another habit fill the same purpose?
    Is it a testimony? People are better than this; they should aspire to better than what the pop culture tells them is cool.

    We live in an anti-intellectual society. Perhaps all societies are, of necessity, because the intellectuals are the ones who might think
    of ways to change things, and change makes people uncomfortable.

    But it’s also the intellectuals who are servicing much of the entertainment
    industry. They may not seem to be doing intellectual work (God, did anyone count the unnecessary explosions in “Man of Steel” or how
    many scenes wasted Henry Cavill’s acting abilities?). But putting together
    even light entertainment involves intellectual work.

    I myself feel that audiences can handle MUCH more than they’re
    estimated to be capable of. And that challenging stuff fills them with satisfaction.

    I think I just wrote a rant.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Guess she wasn’t going for an “A” with this one.
    You have to care and you have to care enough to pay close attention to hear the “a” or the “e”…..Obviously without one care?

  • jesuisword

    Reblogged this on jesuisword.

  • yearstricken

    The carelessness, the attitude that it’s not really all that important, all those spelling and grammar rules, that’s what I find both disheartening and frightening. Please continue ranting.

    • RAB

      We agree entirely. On all counts. What makes it worse is that not all teachers, and not all academic “supervisors” like directors and deans, agree with us. The “customer” or “client” or “consumer” model puts the clout with the indifferent. And then the rationalization follows: We have to move into the future, when these things will be less important. Can you spell “self-fulfilling prophecy”? Thanks for your comment, YS!

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