Category Archives: great typo

“Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.”

Most of my students bring to Washington Irving’s story an assumption that Rip Van Winkle slept for a hundred years. Irving was writing a folk tale (for The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), but today’s students have been raised on cartoon versions of fairy tales, and most people who fall asleep in fairy tales sleep for a century, I believe. Furthermore, today’s students are more likely to have seen an animated version of this story than to have read it in a book. And images of the famous sleep-off-the-gin-binge gentleman depict him as very old indeed, from the earliest images we have. Take a look, for example, at John Quidor’s painting. John should have known: he himself was born in Tappan, New York, just across the Hudson River from Washington Irving’s Irvington farm, “Sunnyside,” and not far from the site of Rip’s al fresco nap in the Catskills. How close to the thing itself can you get?

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Now, observe him. Look how ancient he seems.

And I imagine that’s what was operating in the delightful mind of this student writer.

I happen to love the name “Rip Van Winkle.” It really does strike the American ear as very Dutch, appropriately enough for a resident of the banks of the lower Hudson River. I also think of winkles—first of all, the oyster-killing marine snails, themselves edible; then the verb for getting the little buggers out of their shells for a human snack. The periwinkle is one kind of winkle. The periwinkle is also a ground-cover plant with blue flowers, and I must thank the Crayola company for introducing me to “Periwinkle Blue” before I ever saw the flower (or the snail). Can you imagine Rip Van Winkle perhaps gradually disappearing beneath a carpet of periwinkles? What of all this free-associating did Irving want me to indulge in when he named his protagonist? Who can say? But the sound of the word and the creatures who share it as a name are small, unimportant (except perhaps to an oyster). Irving says Rip was fun-loving but “hen-pecked” (his term, not mine!) and consequently meek. And of course there’s “wink” sitting right there in the name: the flirtatious eye-twitch and also a name associated with naps: forty winks. The -le suffix makes it diminutive. Rip from-the-little-nap. Only twenty winks.

But my student had seen some cartoon version. Or perhaps he had gone to the National Gallery. Or maybe he had read the Classic Comic. In these depictions, Rip looks like a very very old man when he wakes. This despite the story, wherein Rip is father to two children when he wanders off into the Catskills and hoists a few with Henrik Hudson’s ghostly bowlers, and discovers on his return that the children have become adults. So he’s far from a sexagenarian when he begins his adventure, and hence far from a snowy-bearded old fogey when he returns. Irving also says that during his absence his beard has grown “a foot long,” indicating that he started off clean-shaven, and describes that beard as gray. But Quidor (and the other depictors) gives him a lot more than twelve inches of Van Winkle whiskers, all Santa-white.

So: when he wakes up, he has become, or taken on the appearance of, an old, old man, according to the pictures.

The village, the society, the culture have all changed a great deal during his absence. But that’s because the American Revolution has happened, not because things have been slowly evolving.

Anyway, you KNOW what’s coming. If any auto-correct was going on when my student was writing his paper, it was in his mind’s eye, not in the word-processing program.

There in Rip’s name, as on his face, wrinkles. Rip Van Wrinkle.

Well, of course.

Now, I dare you: Say my student’s version of the name three times, and then try to remember what Irving wrote.

“A teacher evaluation program can get rid of the teachers who are allowed to stay because of sonority.”

Well, teacher evaluation is here revealed for its real purpose: getting rid of teachers.

My student knows which ones should go: those who are allowed to stay because they are “1. producing sound (as when struck); 2. full or loud in sound; 3. imposing or impressive in effect or style.” (Thank you, Mr. Webster, for your New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973.)

I’m not sure whether these teachers have been allowed to stay because they’re sonorous, or are being gotten rid of because they’re sonorous: the sentence isn’t fully clear on that point. And it’s an important distinction—I want to know if the next time something or someone gives me a clout on the head, I dare cry out.

Presumably she means that these teachers have previously been kept on the faculty because of their sonority. But why wouldn’t that be a good argument for keeping them into the future? After all, we need teachers who produce sound (especially if the ideas they give voice to are also sound, forgive the pun…); and if that sound is full, loud, and impressive in style, wouldn’t that make the lessons all the more memorable?

Students must not like teachers who disrupt their naps and phone calls with loud and imposing noise, because my writer is confident such teachers would get the bad end of the evaluation stick. (Perhaps they’d be struck by it, and yell “OUCH!” or “Oh NO-O-O-o-o-o-…” as they hurtled through the air and off the campus.)

Speech that’s “impressive in style” is part of a now-outmoded image of professors, gone with the showpiece lecture that even students not enrolled in the class would crowd in to hear (at my college in my day, Professor Schiffman on Moby-Dick was one such attraction), gone with the notion that the professor’s “opinion” is somehow more credible than the sophomore’s, gone with the “gentleman’s C”—well, gone with a lot of things of value and some things best gone.

So in with Evaluation, out with sonority!

Yes, I knew she meant “seniority.” Maybe Autocorrect was to blame. Or maybe she doesn’t know the difference between seniority and sonority.

I happen to think that seniority is also often a pretty damned good reason for retaining a teacher. When senior faculty go, institutional memory also goes. Most students are on campus for four or five years; nowadays, the same is true of many an administrator. Why things are as they are, how they got that way, what mistakes have already been made and don’t need repeating, what good ideas might be tried again, how the “mission” has changed: these kinds of information generally don’t wind up published for all to read, but remain instead in the consciousness of those who have had the experiences; and these kinds of information—the past—can be very important as an institution considers its present and plans its future. The value of a seasoned member of the community isn’t limited to academe; the same can be said for most enterprises.

My student probably meant “ONLY because of sonority,” only because they had been on the faculty a long time (or only because they were loud).

Perhaps she imagined that seniority can bring senility with it, and a school certainly doesn’t want a senile faculty. But I see no “only” in her sentence. Does she want teachers booted out as soon as they turn fifty? Or forty? Or when they become “senior citizens”? Hard to say. I’m not sure she knows. She certainly doesn’t say.

In fact, she doesn’t say “seniority,” either. So: teachers, keep your voices down! Try not to be too impressive! And if someone or something comes along and strikes you, don’t you make a sound. Limit your sonority and you may achieve seniority some day.


“Last month a man turned himself into a fire station…”

This seems like a practical kind of man to have around town, although he didn’t start out all that well:

“Last month a man turned himself into a fire station after allegedly committing two murders.”

But he made himself useful at last, kind of “giving back” to the community.

I’m breaking from my commitment here to look at student writing: this quotation comes from an article in the Huffington Post.

Am I showing that, as the classicists used to say, “Homer nods”?

What interests me here, aside from the magic trick, is the fact that what the print says is not what the person would say. The expression for surrendering to authorities after committing some kind of infraction is “to turn oneself in.” If HuffPost had ended the sentence before reporting the authorities to whom the man surrendered, the sentence would have read “Last month a man turned himself in.” It would not have read “Last month a man turned himself into.” The prepositional phrase that identifies the authorities, the recipients of this turning-in, begins, alas, with “to,” and here either the writer or the AutoCorrect muttered “‘in’ + ‘to’ = ‘into'”—and error elbowed its way into the sentence (and possibly into the fire station, who knows?).

A speaker of English would have said, clearly, that the man “turned himself in to a fire station.” Speakers usually know what words they have in mind, and certainly most people would be able to differentiate between walking into a building somewhere and saying “take me,” and standing still and suddenly becoming a building. But computers can’t yet make that distinction (yes, I am determined that the people who write for HuffPost do know the difference, and that the error was the result of a presumptuous software program rather than a human).

Why anyone would turn himself in to the fire department for committing homicide I cannot guess—maybe it was murder by arson, or maybe the fire station was a shorter walk than the police station—and the part of the article I read didn’t say. I confess that I didn’t read the whole article. One of my students had done her Journal on crime in a particular city, and this article was one of her sources; I was reading it to check the accuracy of her summary, not to glean information.

The picture of the man transforming himself into a fire station, and then the imagined reactions of passers-by, was really all I needed. I dissolved into laughter.

If I write an illustrated book for children and call it The Man Who Became a Building, I shall have to credit HuffPost. I really never would have thought of it myself.

My grandfather built this firetruck. During its career it often turned in to a firehouse; I don't think it ever turned into a firehouse. Thanks to my cousin-in-law Rick for saving these photos.

My grandfather built this firetruck. During its career it often turned in to a firehouse; I don’t think it ever turned into a firehouse. Thanks to my cousin-in-law Rick for saving these photos.



“Most kids want to immolate their role model.”

Would mentioning Lance Armstrong in this context be a cheap shot?

I don’t think it’s a typo we’re dealing with here. It may be viewed as a kind of portmanteau word, in that it’s a combination of two other words; but since it results not in a new meaning but in a meaning the opposite of the one intended, it doesn’t really qualify for suitcasery.

Lewis Carroll described (invented) the portmanteau word; I think he’s left it up to me, though, to describe (invent?) the crash-collision word, wherein two perfectly good words collide and produce a disaster.

My student was thinking, I believe, of kids who want to imitate their role models…AND kids who want to emulate their role models. Before she could stop them, the two terms simultaneously rushed for the gap in the sentence and collided, in the fiery crash of immolate.

That at least would be a reasonable explanation of what happened, and a reassuring alternative to the possibility that torching one’s role model is the next step in Freudian development, right after bedding one’s mother and murdering one’s father. Or maybe this immolation is a combination of mother-rape and father-murder, two role models for the price of one.

Either way, it’s one more argument for keeping matches away from children.

Remember the chilling moment in The Two Towers when one of Sauron’s warriors proclaims, “The Age of Man is at an end; the Age of the Orc is at hand”? —or words to that effect, anyway.

Well, can the English teachers of the world be blamed for hearing, echoing late at night in their fevered minds, this equally chilling phrase—”The Age of the Jabberwock is come!”—?

“I use too many contraptions in my writing.”

Be not too quick to say “typo” to this one! A typo it may be, but the typist would have had to use the ring finger of the right hand instead of the middle finger of the left hand, on the top row of keys instead of bottom, to achieve it.

Try this on instead: hearing the word “contraction” instead of seeing it in several classes, and not knowing the word “contraction”…but knowing quite well the word “contraption.” Certainly I heard the latter word far more often than the former when I was growing up: my father called some of his rigged-up problem-solvers “contraptions,” and he also used it pejoratively about other people’s rigged-up problem-solvers (“He’s using some kind of contraption to do it, but I wouldn’t trust it…”). When my sister and I and the boy next door cobbled together a little shed to use as our Clubhouse: “Well, now, that is quite a contraption!”

Contraction, a drawing-together usually by making smaller, might not leap to mind to describe the word “isn’t” or “should’ve”. Such words look just as much like rigged-up problem-solvers as they resemble something drawn together by making smaller.

I would assume that my student did mean that she uses too many contractions in her writing, because teachers routinely warn against such behavior. Even I discourage contractions in academic writing (as opposed to dialogue, where any character who doesn’t use contractions sounds like an extraterrestrial).

But I like to think about someone writing with too many contraptions. One year my sister and I got a printing contraption for Christmas: a geared dial that allowed us to choose single letters, one at a time, and press like a little hand-press to make rudimentary newspapers. VERY rudimentary. A fascinating contraption, but played with perhaps only once or twice before total frustration set in. I was proud to get a child’s typewriter but used it, too, only briefly before my father or uncle showed up with a REAL typewriter from somebody’s office. It was big, heavy, substantial, IMPORTANT. On that baby I typed many a high school English essay; the very mysterious detective novel (novella) written by me and my friend Nancy Zeiber about the Zeigartner Twins, young sleuths in the tradition of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Trixie Belden; some very evocative poems showing the strong influence of e.e. cummings (whose style also evolved with the typewriter!); and a weekly column that appeared on a page of the newspaper of a nearby city dedicated to “At My School” columns by high school reporters. I didn’t think of that typewriter as a contraption: it was the Big Time, the Real Thing. Upon going away to college I was presented with a soft-green portable Hermes typewriter, pica type, quiet, beautiful, my typewriter throughout college and grad school. With my first job came my first electric typewriter, with a “golf ball” that spun instead of arms that levered up. Now, THAT was a contraption! Its greatest grace was that one could change fonts by changing golf balls…and I changed from underlining titles to putting them in italics, a sophistication from which I have never looked back.

Follow the typewriters with some kind of clunky computer (black screen, green dashed letters, you may remember), and then my adorable first Mac (250K memory!). Floppy discs of every description.

Line up all these writing implements and only the most recent version does NOT look like some kind of contraption. The shelf in my theatre’s props room that’s dedicated to typewriters holds some that are more antique than any I ever owned, and they are contraptions indeed. Sleek, beautiful, carefully engineered little contraptions.

And this is not to mention various kinds of pens—dip, fountain, cartridge, ballpoint, felt-tip, gel—designed to put images onto paper while minimizing manual agony.

I did own some blotting paper, which I did use when I used my dip fountain pen; the wonderful brass contraption that let the user rock the blotting paper over the text was my father’s.

Then there were the various contraptions for removing images from paper: erasers of many sorts, special white-coated paper, white goo with a little brush.

My second-grade teacher had a contraption that drew four parallel chalk lines, appropriately spaced, on the blackboard for the illustration of Palmer cursive. I loved that thing. It was quite a bit like my music teacher’s five-line contraption for drawing musical staves (to receive notes, rests, clefs, sharps, flats) on the board.

I also have a contraption for drawing circles on the board: it’s a huge compass with a chalk-holder on one leg. I use it as a demonstration piece when I teach John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

And I have owned a series of lap desks too: not lap-tops, but actual desks, with compartments for paper, pens, rulers, and all the other necessary contraptions for writing.

If you sense a mounting nostalgia here, you are right. I love contraptions, and especially contraptions associated with writing or sewing. If I had a big desk in a big room, I would display some of the writing contraptions, and occasionally use them.

But of course I can see how using too many contraptions at one time would make the act of writing a pretty hopeless endeavor. Easier to become a juggler in those circumstances than a wordsmith. This is the quandary I like to imagine my student finds herself in. Please don’t disillusion me!

Please enjoy a moment of bliss as you visit Rube Goldberg, the ultimate contraption-maker, as dear to my heart as to my father’s.

“He went to help Hrothgar, the King of the Dames.”

What a difference a letter makes—not even a letter, but just a little hump.

I’m not willing to dismiss this as a “mere” typo, though. First, my policy is “mistake in a rough draft = typo; mistake turned in  = mistake.”

More to the point here, students seem to have the sketchiest of ideas of other countries, old or current. I have read repeatedly, for example, that Dylan Thomas was a great poet of Whales. It would not surprise me one bit if the student here thinks that living over there with the Swedes and Norwegians are the Dames. The possibility of intention rather than error increases in matters of place-names and people-names in Beowulf. The monster Grendel has shown up in papers for me as Grendal, Grendle, Grendole, Grandal, and Grend. Hrothgar loses his H as often as not. Beowulf himself is sometimes referred to, chummily, as Beo (his grandpa’s name, but grandpa is rarely meant). Students who have no idea who the Geats are assume everyone in the poem is a Dane (or, as here, a Dame). Various translations of the poem transcribe/translate various names variously, to be sure; but only this student has brought Dames into the picture.

Now, in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene (1590, which means at least 600 years after Beowulf), the Squire of Dames makes a brief appearance in Book III. Run ragged seeking ladies to serve, and then seeking ladies who refuse to be served, he is a comic-pathetic presence in a section of the poem that considers light and dark aspects of sexuality.

I find in a cruise through the Internet’s choppy seas that “The Squire of Dames” has been used as a title for a number of subsequent stories and plays, and is even an “obsolete literary euphemism for pimp.”

But Hrothgar is not a pimp, or an occasion for a discussion of sexuality.

Perhaps the King of Dames has, over the centuries, lost not only rank but also integrity. Has he slid further since 1590, to be simply one of the singing sailors in South Pacific?

The word “dame” had a similar decline (except in Burke’s Peerage), from noblewoman to elderly woman…and, of course, to the thing there’s nothing like a.

If we try to picture the King of Dames in all his splendor, back there in the Beowulf days, I guess we have to drape him in buxom blonde-or-redheaded (noble?) beauties, a little cheap but with hearts of gold, their gowns rather TOO open at the neckline, perhaps too much jewelry, perhaps too heavy a hand with the berry-juice lip-stain. “This is the King,” says the guardsman to Beowulf; “and these are his dames.”


“My grandfather fought in Word War II.

Ah, my lad, I hope he did better than you….

Of course it’s just a typo. But I fancy one S. Freud made the “L” key stick, just for me, just this once.

Anyway, I believe Word War III has broken out, and I seem to be enlisted for the long haul here.

Happy New Year, everyone! Back to the trenches!

“Some feel that college is not nectary.”

Well, simply, we must insist that students TURN OFF “autocorrect” in Word. They moan and groan about the autocorrect feature on their phones but don’t seem to realize the same zaniness can creep into a Word document on their computers.

My student was writing on the question of whether college is “for” everyone, a question governing a group of readings in their comp textbook. And all he had meant to type here, in what was, I confess, a rough draft, was “Some feel that college is not necessary.” (I try not to write about rough-draft bloopers; I don’t feel the mistake actually qualifies as an “error” until it has passed the student’s final proofreading. But my student had printed out his draft for us to discuss, and we both laughed at this, once he’d noticed it. We both felt it should go into the blog.)

Then together we tried to imagine a nectary college. Would it be sweet? Drippy? Sticky?

One possibility we didn’t think of: attractive to BEES? But sure enough, when I got to my next class, there looping around students’ legs and bookbags, soaring into the overhead lights, swooping past our heads, was a bee.

Well, actually it was a yellowjacket. October is the month when they start buzzing around looking for a fight.

I try to live and let live, but I’m allergic, and half the class was making little panic noises, and everyone was watching that son-of-a-bee (wasp…yellowjacket). Not the greatest way to talk about Everyman, with everyone in the throes of attention deficit.

One of my guys picked up his Norton Anthology (all five hundred pounds of it), declared, “I’m Beowulf,” and went after the bug. Got it, too. General applause.

As we settled back into our seats and the lesson, he commented, “Well, glad to know I haven’t been lugging that thing around for nothing.”

There were no traces of nectar on the book.


“Mulligan will walk away unsheathed and free.”

I’ve shared astonishing statements about this case before: a teenager chose a man at random to accuse of rape, so that if she had become pregnant by her boyfriend (as she feared) her parents wouldn’t blame her. Even after her fears proved unfounded, she testified against the man, and he wound up serving seven years in prison before she decided to try to free him.

Many of my students were irate not only that Jane Mulligan (pseudonym that the professors who wrote the assignment chose) persisted in her lie for so long but also that her hapless victim languished in prison while she went on with her life.

Since the police, the judge, and the jury believed her, we see that she suffered no legal penalties. Since her efforts to free the “rapist” came after the statute of limitations on perjury had expired, she would not be punished for lying. Since she had not been raped, she suffered no physical or emotional damage from her sexual activity (with boyfriend) except a couple of months’ anxiety. And since she never told her parents she had been voluntarily sexually active, she suffered no punishment at home.

Unscathed. That’s what she was. She walked away from her actions and their consequences, unscathed.

My student just chose the wrong word. Don’t you love it, though?

If Jane can be considered a weapon (knife, sword—okay, they’re phallic and she’s female, but come along with me!), then she came out of her sheath and walked around that way, inflicting damage at random. That can work.

Much more fun is to think about Jane kicking off her heels and shimmying out of her sheath (silk shantung, maybe? black, maybe, or red? certainly form-fitting, as good sheaths are), batting her eyelashes at her boyfriend…then off with the clinging slip, etc., and into his arms. There she is, unsheathed and free. In this state, in this mood, she followed her passion. And as far as my student’s sentence is concerned, in this state she remains to this day! She walks away from guilt, from responsibility, from the constraints of a teenager’s humdrum life and parental supervision, and presumably into the sunset.

Unsheathed and unscathed. That’s freedom for you, all right!

“Your son spends his life blazing away on his couch only to go out to smoke with his friends.”

I think she meant lazing away. This was another sentence from a killer-father essay, based on a case wherein, according to said father, a young man drove his father to despair and murder because he spent much of his time lying around smoking marijuana and drinking cheap wine, instead of getting a job at (maybe) a Burger King and making something of himself.

My student has taken him out of the house to smoke “with his friends,” obviously other layabouts and ne’er-do-wells.

The picture she paints is almost true to her source…if she had written “lazing away.” Actually that’s not really an established phrase—lazing around is more like it—but the idea would pass.

But I do remember so many stories of house fires started by people smoking in bed, or on couches; and this young man “blazing away” seems to the unwary reader to be another of those. And once a fire is extinguished, or goes out, it may continue to smoke for awhile.

So my student’s sentence—typo, mistaken word choice, whatever—evokes, for me, a person on fire on a couch. He goes out (i.e., the flame dies), but he continues to smoke. His friends smoke too. Have they ventured too near the fire?

What makes the sentence so amazing is that it contains both “blazing” and “smoke.” The first word sets up the misinterpretion of the second. After “blazing,” “to smoke” doesn’t immediately translate into the act of puffing on a joint (or a cigarette, if it were a different young man); if he’s blazing, he’s smoking like a campfire, not like a chimney or a…well, a smoker.

Of course I knew what she meant. She isn’t trying to create any graphic pictures here, images that will enliven the story and stay in the reader’s mind: she’s just saying he lay around on the couch and then went out to get high with his friends. But the choice of words makes the picture something quite different.

Maybe “blazing away” actually is meant to mean “ranting and raving.” I’d like it to mean that—it would be a nice figure of speech; and I do wish the poor kid had had more glory in his short life. But he doesn’t rant and rave: he just lolls and lazes, blissed out on one substance or another, until Dad blows him away.

Very sad.