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.