“I have diffidently put effort in.”

Awhile ago I devoted a post to ruminating on an example of this word, “diffident.” That writer was writing about fast food as an eating “path,” and I was comparing this concept to the two paths in Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” especially since my student said the fast-food road was “diffidently not the only one.…”

Today I’m looking at two more examples of that word, edging its way (modestly) into a sentence where it does not belong.

In the example headlining this post, my student assures me (the reader) that he has tried all semester. And in fact, he did work quite hard, coming to my office to work through rough drafts, revising and developing his thoughts. He “diffidently put effort in,” he assures me.

In another example, another student also praised the writing course:

“It was tough but diffidently worth it.”

Now, wouldn’t you think this was the same writer in all three examples? But it was diffidently not.

None of the writers actually meant “1) distrustfully; 2) with hesitation in acting or speaking through lack of self-confidence; 3) reservedly, unassertively, shyly” (as Webster’s New Collegiate would have it).

The Fast-food Road Not Taken was not an unassertive road, shyly admitting to being one of several; the student who tried did not try hesitantly or distrustfully; the course did not lack self-confidence or deny its value.

I knew what all three of them meant, and so do you: they meant “definitely,” not “diffidently.” They meant the opposite of what they wrote.

Can this be blamed on AutoCorrect? Or are my students not hearing words correctly? Does the cacophony of modern life drown out significant differences in sound that would communicate significant differences in meaning?

I can’t say, but the possibility scares me, especially since so many of my students admit to doing so little serious reading, and seem to pay such light attention to what they do read. If we are going to leave literacy and again become an aural culture, then shouldn’t we be paying closer attention to pronouncing words carefully? And, ironically, isn’t careful pronunciation partially dependent on attentive reading?

Well, be on the lookout and see what you encounter. And meanwhile, please do encourage young people to “own” their experiments and efforts. Trying diffidently will only obscure errors and blur intentions. We want no timorous students, but instead learners who are bold enough, and wise enough, to present their ideas and work unafraid, confident that any corrections or questions they receive will only help them grow.

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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

6 responses to ““I have diffidently put effort in.”

  • Christina's Musings

    Reblogged this on Christina's Musings and commented:
    I’m an English teacher as well and I have to say that this “diffidently” got me laughing.

  • Susan P

    I was thinking it might be the auto correct. It is evil in more ways than one. I find that if I write on the PC for too long and then try to write something in long hand, I have to think about spelling words that I have used for many years. Usually, I close my eyes and picture the word and then write it. Weird? Yes. But it works.

    • RAB

      I won a spelling bee once, and I’m sure it was because we WROTE the words. If I had to just spell out loud I’d be awful. I check a lot of words by writing them, sometimes two or three ways, and then deciding what looks “right.” I suppose the less students read, the less reliable such a test would be. Then what? Certainly not Spellcheck!

  • yearstricken

    This one made me laugh out loud. I am amazed by the outrageous confidence these writers have in their word usage. They don’t seem to feel the need to check spelling, meaning, or usage. But as they say — diffident strokes for diffident people.

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