Category Archives: faulty reasoning

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!


“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

“…the governments would revert to equality…”

My prolonged lack of new posts is the result of several newsletters, a stage production, and a mountain of student papers and exams coming into extravagant collision.

Today’s post is, thank goodness, NOT so much typical as cumulative. That is, this student managed, in his meanderings and maunderings, to sum up so much of what drives us paper-readers to despair. I leave it to you to decide if he actually thinks he’s saying something or merely trying to  free-associate his way to filling up the required number of pages. (The topic, by the way, was of his own choosing!)

I take comfort in my hopeful belief that he is not majoring in economics, political science, history, sociology, or logic. Or, of course, writing.


“Greed prevents governments that are harmful to society like that of communism and socialism. Greed makes it so that there is a division between social classes, this division helps to separate the classes and stop the spread of communism. If greed did not exist the world would indeed be a better place but the governments would revert to equality among the classes and the sharing of wealth, which in the long run would deplete the economies.”

“Xanadu is the fantasyland in Kubla Khan.…”

This student begins by making Xanadu part of a Disney theme park and then locates the park in a country, evidently, called Kubla Khan. Surely if she had meant the poem “Kubla Khan” she would have used quotation marks around the title (or, more likely, italicized the title, which students prefer to do with all titles).

She is correct that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” describes a place he reportedly saw in a dream, Xanadu, and the “stately pleasure dome” erected there on the orders of the Khan. But the ruler (real) Kublai Khan did build a summer palace in Inner Mongolia, in a place called, according to the inevitable Wikipedia, Shangdu, or Xanadu. Coleridge dreamed the dome, but Xanadu was real.

Not according to my student, though; she has proof incontrovertible that it’s all a fantasy:

“Xanadu is the fantasyland in Kubla Khan. Since it starts with the letter ‘X’ it becomes obvious that the place is fictional.”

So Coleridge was entirely dreaming, and evidently so was Marco Polo, who described the actual summer palace, which he had visited.

But by the Rule of X, Xanadu isn’t the only place that’s a fantasy land. A quick Google search will turn up at least 40 cities (most but not all in China) whose names begin with “X,” from Xai Xai in Mozambique to Xenia, Ohio and Xenia, Illinois. At least half of the “X” cities have airports, so if they’re fictional I imagine a lot of planes inexplicably vanish.

Plenty of people also have names that begin with “X.” “Mr. X” and Xena, Warrior Princess may be fictional; but surely at least some of the Xaviers running around are real. At least two ancient rulers were named Xerxes. Xerxes II of Persia enjoyed only 45 days on the  throne before his brother assassinated him (only to be himself assassinated shortly thereafter. Bloody days, that 5th century BCE!). Xerxes of Armenia and Commagene had a longer and more successful reign in the 3rd century BCE; unfortunately he was defeated in battle at last, and the winner’s sister’s hand in marriage was hardly a consolation prize, since she had him assassinated within the year. Having a name that began with X did not make these men fictional, and we can’t say that the “X” marked them to be rubbed out, either, since everyone seems to have been assassinating everyone else back then.

Socrates may have wished his wife had been fictional, but Xantippe, or Xanthippe, was very real, although reports vary as to her age, her personality, and her appearance. Some writers painted her as such a shrew that her name has become synonymous with nagging, shrewish, or otherwise impossible wives ever since (kind of the Greek equivalent to what was done by the Catholic Church to the reputation of Noah’s poor wife). Xanthippe’s reputation has persisted to the extent that the town of Xantippe, Australia, was named after her, reportedly because the ground is so hard there.

Hard! Real! Begins with “X”!

So much for navigating time and space by means of rules of thumb.

Kublai Khan. Looks pretty solid. Unlikely to build Fantasyland. Thanks to





“The Printing Press was much more active at this time….”

I don’t have much time for a comment this morning, so I thought I’d offer a Horror that is so rich, it’s almost beyond comment-ability.

This, again, from a BritLit exam. The student was discussing Paradise Lost:

“The Printing Press was much more active at this time, so Milton chose to write about something religious that would interest his readers. Therefore, since he didn’t have to rhyme, he simply chose not to. The people did not have to memorize what they heard anymore. The idea of spreading a story verbally wasn’t the case anymore. People read for themselves, and they read for pleasure.”

Printing presses can be active, stories don’t have to be verbal, best-sellers are about religion, rhyming is linked with memorization, poets rhyme only when they have to, choosing to write on religion absolves the poet of the rhyme requirement…

Dive in. Enjoy!

“Women also contributed to the success of these products that fatten themselves.”

You have to first think that this sentence is announcing some sort of scientific breakthrough: products that fatten themselves. What products need fattening I’m not sure, but now they don’t need us to fatten them. If this is in fact the message of the sentence, then the women must be among the scientists who developed the products, or discovered a chemical that triggers self-fattening in inanimate objects. Well, hurray for our side!

Of course this is not what the writer meant. And of course I knew what he (probably) meant.

My student was writing an essay using a group of articles on fast food, some of which linked fast food directly to the obesity problem in America. The specific mention of women here leads me to surmise that he was addressing an argument in one of them that, at least for some women, obesity may be a conscious choice in defiance of society’s celebration of thin women, or as a way of coping with unwanted pressure to become sexually active. This was an interesting argument that most of my students couldn’t follow; some of them nevertheless wanted to use the article, and proceeded to write rather bizarre discussions. This student seems to have been one of that group.

What he meant to say, I imagine, was that women were buying fattening food products and therefore shouldn’t accuse fast-food manufacturers of “making” them fat. Certainly this was a point a number of students made in response to other articles in the section: that people should blame themselves for eating fattening food, not fast-food restaurants for selling it to them.

He may have chosen “themselves” rather than “them” for fear that “them” might be mistakenly assumed to refer to “products.” Or he may have chosen “themselves” because student writers do seem to like to add “self” to pronouns—and that tendency isn’t limited to student writers: I’ve received many an e-mail and many a marketing letter that ends “please feel free to call the secretary or myself.” The “-self” has ceased to do its reflexive or its emphasizing work if it itself attaches itself to every pronoun in sight. Has “me” come to seem naked or incomplete, that it turns so often into “myself”? Or are writers afraid to choose between “I” and “me” (because they can’t tell the difference between a subject and an object, a doer and a done-to)? For whatever reason, a trend is definitely trending, and so I can’t assume that my student was concerned with clarifying pronoun reference.

If he was trying to keep the reference clear, he made exactly the wrong choice. Had the sentence ended “fatten them,” the reader would not have entertained the possibility of self-fattening products, partly because products generally don’t become fat by any means and partly because “them” would clearly modify the principal and only human noun, “women.” It was the addition of “-selves” to the direct object that reflected the action onto the subject of the verb in its clause; and as the subject of this verb is a pronoun (“that”), the reader goes to the noun modified by the adjective clause and finds “products.” The women disappear as possible referents, and we get the amazing self-fattening products. What those products may be is irrelevant; a self-fattening hamburger is no more imaginable than a self-fattening hairbrush, DVD, snow shovel, or Game-Boy. If we can set aside a few singular products such as the self-“plumping” hot dog, we have an impossible sentence.

It’s pretty impossible in reality, anyway. But in my imagination, and in many a cartoon, I’ve seen things get bigger and bigger and bigger until they burst, and they haven’t all been balloons, dependent on someone to blow them up. From proverbial frogs to people’s heads, they swell dramatically in imaginary landscapes. The only thing I’ve ever seen that has fattened itself, though, is something capable of eating: a puppy, a person—sometimes even a woman.

I suppose I should consider the possibility that slender people might ingest a “product” that fattens itself after being consumed. Wow, what a story: “No, honey, I haven’t been binging on beer and birthday cake; I must have accidentally gotten one of those self-fattening carrots in my salad!”

This is too horrible to contemplate. I’m going to content myself with imagining a store whose owner has to add shelves every day as the products that sit on them get fatter and fatter, all by themselves.

“Finally, if women are in the armed forces, they would obviously have sex with the men…”

Good grief, I’ve been teaching a long time! This gem graced an essay on whether women should serve in combat…

…and the way my author finishes this response will surprise you.

The reasoning is incisive:

“Finally, if women are in the armed forces, they would obviously have sex with the men. Strategically this is another advantage over enemy forces. While men’s weak point is sex, then the enemy would not be able to make a drastic move such as women operatives to set time bombs while posing as hookers.”

I like the notion that sexual activity is so inevitable as to be an “obvious” consequence of mixing the genders. “Men’s weak point,” after all, is sex. They just can’t help themselves if the opportunity, ahem, arises. But follow this: since men can’t resist sex, having women around who are on our side will keep them busy and happy, and so the enemy can’t take the drastic step of sending “women operatives” into camp toting bombs.

How would they “pose” as hookers, do you think? Generally “hooker” garb doesn’t leave a lot of room for concealed shivs, let alone time bombs. But maybe they’d carry big purses. Or maybe the hookers aren’t really coming into camp: maybe they’re just lolling there on the side of the road, flirting with potential Pvt. John Does while surreptitiously tucking bombs under the weeds and paving stones. But if men are so unable to resist the allure of sex, those fake hookers wouldn’t have much opportunity to be setting time bombs, by the roadside OR in the camps.

No matter: this hooker ploy will no longer work. The women in the armed forces will “obviously” be having sex with the men in the armed forces—or, even better, they will be having sex obviously, deterring those operatives from even trying to worm their way onto the base. You’ve got to have a pretty good brain to be a useful operative (I’ve read my Perry Mason), and as soon as the fake hookers saw that obvious sex going on they’d realize there was no longer a market for them.

Iffy syntax aside, this defense of women in military combat divisions is the most original I’ve ever seen. I’m surprised no one thought to resurrect it during the DADT debate. Playing one set of stereotypes against another, my student was certainly thinking outside the box—although I wouldn’t want to try to specify just how far outside.

“The new stores will increase traffic in the neighborhood, thereby increasing population.”

Years ago, in a mixed blue-collar/no-collar neighborhood in New Haven, a group got together and won permission from the State to use part of a strip that had been leveled for a highway that never got built, to start a co-op farm. After several years of hard work, they had a thriving organic garden that was not only a food source for co-op members and an educational resource for nearby schools but also a salad bowl of racial, generational, and cultural harmony. But thirteen years later the State deeded the land to the City, and the city’s development office decided to seek entrepreneurs and developers to turn the strip into a productive mixed-use area, bringing in shopping, clean manufacturing, and residential facilities. They argued that although the farm would have to go, the benefits of the development to the neighborhood (and to the city, by way of increased facilities and an increased tax base) would far outweigh the loss to the co-op group. My students had to support the farm, support the development, or propose a compromise.

Today’s sentence comes from a future Developer. But, much like South Park‘s “underpants gnomes,” he omits the crucial middle, or transactional, step in the process that begins with building stores and increasing traffic and ends with increased population.

Actually, I hope he doesn’t mean that the population per se increases, or that traffic jams proliferate (or that the city is still back in 1962, when the more cars with back seats you had, the more pregnant girls you had…). The neighborhood is already fairly densely populated, except for that strip. What classroom discussion of the case would suggest he has in mind is that the increased productive activity (stores, jobs=shopping, working=business profits, personal income) and auto and foot traffic will make the neighborhood look more productive and seem safer; and that change in atmosphere, coupled with increased work and housing opportunities, will draw more people who want to live there as well as work there and thus stabilize the neighborhood at a higher level of prosperity and productivity. But his argument omits the means by which Step One leads to Step Three, and therefore is no argument at all but rather an expression of faith: build the mall and they will come.

This is the part of argument students have the hardest time with: the middle. We live in a culture of assertions; associating only with those who generally agree with us means we rarely have to justify those assertions, and so we learn to equate stating a point with making a point, asserting a conclusion with justifying a conclusion. My father gave his daughters no allowance (oh, Daddy, but everybody gets an allowance!!!), but he gave us something much more valuable in the long run: if we could make a good case for needing the money, he’d give it to us—all the way up to the money for me to buy my first new car, an Audi Fox (when as an employee of a steel company he had always driven American cars, and when the Audi Fox cost over $2500 and I could have had a nice American car for $2000, and when the Audi Fox was a standard shift and I had driven only automatics up till then). My fourteen years of faithful and joyous service from that wonderful vehicle pleased him as well as it did me. My father taught me to argue.

I discovered this morning, by Googling “underpants gnomes” to find a link for this post, that other professors also invoke the underpants gnomes to demonstrate the missing middle. (I’m finding it especially, not surprisingly, on the blogs of professors of economics and business.) I believe everyone who tries to teach critical thinking and argument needs to know the underpants gnomes. I can’t share my Daddy with my students, but I can point them to this South Park episode and hope they at least begin to get the point.

“The large, beautiful physique of the Titanic turned thousands of heads.”

For the dictionary, this is a wrong word choice. For me, it’s two of them.

Webster’s Collegiate says physique means “the form or structure of a person’s body” (italics mine).

Well, but. I don’t sail, but I read about and sing about and listen avidly to songs about sailing (Moby Dick, “Drunken Sailor,” Gordon Bok, Stan Rogers), and I know that to sailors their ships are living things. What’s wrong, then, with applying a term that refers to a human body to a ship on the sea?

Maybe it’s because many of my formative years preceded the Women’s Liberation Movement, or because my youthful body-ogling was directed exclusively at males, but to me “physique” is a word more readily associated with the male body than the female. But sailors refer to their ships, those living things, as “she”—even the ones named Essex, Pequod, Morgan, or John B. So for me, the first error my student’s sentence makes is gender confusion.

The erroneous application of a human descriptor to a nautical transportation vehicle is, then, the second error.

And then, of course, to my mind’s eye come Adonis, Michelangelo’s David, and a few hunks I went to school with who will remain nameless here but who are still vivid in my fond memory. The Titanic, amazing and impressive though it may have been, can’t hold a candle to them—doesn’t even have any points of comparison. “Physique” is a laughable word choice, I’m sorry.

Would a word I more readily associate with females do any better? Could my student have chosen “statuesque,” for instance? Think Juno, the Amazons, maybe Marilyn Monroe….In the dictionary it doesn’t seem so far-fetched: “resembling a statue especially in massive dignity or shapeliness.” If something wedge-shaped can be called “shapely” (and why not? it’s a shape), then maybe a writer could have slid by with that, although I don’t recall a whole lot of statues that a steamship might resemble.

I think the student would have done better to turn the descriptor into a noun: the grandeur of the Titanic, or its elegance, or massive grace, something like that. Leave the actual body out of the whole thing, or inevitably (for me) you get a ship standing there, with or without a tiny bathing suit, hand on hip, tossing its head. And on shore, thousands of  heads turn in one big admiring gaze.

Certainly to its architects, builders, and doomed passengers the Titanic was overwhelming in size and promise. We can understand why people then and now might find it hard to describe. Another student of mine puts his finger on the reason why everyone had so much confidence in it, too:

“People thought that the Titanic was going to be indestructible because it was the greatest ship they had made so far.”

Cause-effect confusion is such a fascinating source of student writing errors that I’ll save it for another morning, although meanwhile you are free to savor this example!

Titanic, starboard view. What a physique.

“Throughout history death has always been the solution to many of life’s problems…”

I always hold my breath when I see a phrase like “throughout history” in a student paper. So often what follows is a trip back to Yore (as Phoebe named it in one Friends episode), when paper dolls lurched through a landscape of generalizations and stereotypes in conformity with some modern notion.

This little paragraph made me hold my breath for more reasons than that, though. Death as an end to a problem is a common notion, but as a solution to life’s problems is somewhat bizarre—unless the death removes something that was preventing someone else from solving a problem, as is so often the case in murder mysteries.

Well, let’s take a deep breath and finish the paragraph:

“Throughout history death has always been the solution to many of life’s problems. Simply because it is ingrained in human nature, death has solved issues such as hunger, insanity, and even betrayal.”

Say what?

Death is “ingrained in human nature”? Inherent in the human condition, perhaps, or inevitable for all living creatures; but “ingrained in human nature” would seem more applicable to something like the survival instinct, or, for the more highly-evolved, greed, lust, jealousy (optimistic people please insert more-positive drives here).

Moving along, we see death as the solution for hunger. I suppose a starving person could end his hunger by dying. From another perspective, I suppose where the food supply is low the death of a few potential diners would mean more for the survivors. And for those poor people snowed in in the Donner Pass, or afloat in a lifeboat from the whaler Essex, the death of a companion directly equates to a solution for the hunger of everybody else.

A solution for insanity? How, except insofar as a deceased madman is also no longer insane (as far as we earthbound spirits know)?

Betrayal? I guess the death of the betrayer at the hands of the betrayed, also known as “revenge,” might qualify; but that doesn’t so much solve the betrayal as give its victim some payback.

I really don’t know (or maybe just don’t want to know) what this student meant. He doesn’t mention crime as one of the things death is “a solution” for; but since another quotation on the next page of my Book of Horrors says “The state of Texas is known for its recurring death sentences” (recurring to the same person, I wonder?), maybe that is what he was writing about. The case that was the context for the latter statement had to do with a father who killed his son to “save” him from drugs; maybe the former statement also contemplated the father as someone trying to “solve” the problem of drug use by giving his son a dose of death….

Moreover, my student isn’t saying death is a solution for instances of hunger, insanity, betrayal, or perhaps crime; he says it will solve the issues themselves. Okay, then: the death of all life on earth will end the issue of hunger. It will end all terrestrial issues, for that matter. As the end of life, death isn’t just a solution to “many of life’s problems”: it solves them all, in one fell swoop. But there won’t be anyone around, except possibly God, to enjoy this problem-free, issue-free state, so what good is death in that sense?

Anyway, if the student is thinking about instances of these problems rather than the problems themselves (as I like to think he is), I’d be inclined to search diligently for a solution more humane, and more constructive, than death.