Category Archives: inaccurate hearing

“There are women who would shutter at the sight of the most harmless insect.”

This student’s error amazed me: I thought “shudder” was a word most people learned in childhood, whereas “shutter” was a later acquisition, once the architectural and decorative features of domiciles began to be interesting. First came “The Boy Who Learned to Shudder,” one of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm—and one that even today retains its original creepy features, which are real temptations for adult interpretation too. As a child I thought that story was both scary and hilarious, and I loved the word at first sight (or hearing). It’s very nearly onomatopoetic—or whatever the term might be that describes a word that feels like what it means. SHhhh-ud-d-d-d-rrrrr. Today kids don’t even have to read, or have read to them, the Grimms’ fairy tales; in 2004 a musical version of the story was written just for them, and they might get a chance to see that.

Even if the cottages in the fairy tales had shutters (and I really have no reason to think they didn’t), I don’t recall looking at a picture in a storybook, or even looking at a neighbor’s house, and wondering what those things on the sides of the windows were called. The first time I remember being told they were “shutters,” I was old enough to guess they were called that because they “shut” the windows, or shut out the light, or something. I’m not sure that I ever associated “shudder” with “shutter.” Why should I? My mother was a graduate of Newark Normal School and had the precise diction demanded of teachers back then. (She even had a small silver record made as part of one of her classes, reciting a passage from Alice in Wonderland in a crisp young voice…)

But my student evidently had never seen “shudder” written down, and had never heard a speaker precise enough to distinguish between “shuTTer” and “shuDDer.” I suppose this means he had spoken primarily with ordinary Americans, for whom in speech a central dd sounds mighty like a central tt.

He was writing against allowing women into combat units in the military. I stopped assigning this topic long before it ceased to be an issue, because I simply couldn’t bear to read some of the opinions expressed; rather than comment on the quality of their arguments, I simply wanted to strangle somebody when I read that women wouldn’t be good fighters because if they broke a nail they would cry or run away and look for a nail file, for instance. Or got upset by “horrible things.” And women can’t stand the sight of blood. (Oh no?)

This gem of a student escaped only narrowly with his life. Women, he argued, would not be effective in combat because they’re not merely afraid of guns, the enemy, noise, and of course blood: they’re afraid of BUGS, for heaven’s sake, and everybody knows that battlefields are full of bugs. These timorous entomophobes might be brave enough indoors, but let them out among the ants, butterflies, and beetles and they’ll fall apart. Or at least they’ll shudder. And it’s hard to aim a weapon and pull the trigger when you’re having a shuddering fit.

Pretty convincing argument, don’t you think?

In his sentence, though, the women don’t even want to leave the barracks. They see a “most harmless insect” and immediately SHUTTER! Close those window-covers, Girls, and keep the ladybugs out! (He doesn’t go on to specify how they would respond to a harmful insect; goes without saying, I imagine.)

Now, he doesn’t claim that all women have this reaction, but simply that “there are” women who do. Somewhere out there, there they are. And presumably we can’t tell ahead of time which ones are which kind. Best to keep them all out (just as they would do with insects).

Well, Summer has begun, both on and off the battlefield. Enjoy the great outdoors. But if you want to get any sleep at night, remember to shutter. Mosquitoes aren’t harmless, and even a cabbage moth can be pretty scary if it flies against your face in the dark. They might even make you shudder.


“He has a pension for fantasy.”

A simple hearing error.

How often anymore does the typical student encounter the word penchant? Still, somebody she heard had encountered it…or that person had heard it from someone who had encountered it…all the way down into the Quaker Oatmeal box, at some point in which sequence there was a person who actually knew the word was penchant. Whoever heard that person, though, didn’t know the word, and in came “pension.”

How strange it is that college undergraduates would be more likely to know the word “pension” than “penchant.” Are they thinking about retirement before they even enter the ranks of the employed? It’s possible to receive a pension without retiring, as Webster’s first and second variants on definition #1 show: “a fixed sum paid regularly to a person; a gratuity granted (as by a government) as a favor or reward.” But there’s our common understanding, in definition 1c: “a sum paid under given conditions to a person following his retirement from service or to his surviving dependents”—the latter should the employee die in harness, presumably.

[Just to be thorough: Webster’s definition #2 is “hotel or boardinghouse in Europe.” That one derives from the French pension, or boardinghouse, pronounced more like pon(g)-syON(g). But that word has nothing to do with what my student was trying to write.]

Back to definition #1. There’s something staid and settled about “pension.” PEN-shn. Even though a young person could receive a pension, the word would age him, I think.

“Penchant,” on the other hand, has that French je ne sais quoi about it. In real French it’s a form of the verb pencher, to lean, says Webster; in English it means “a strong leaning,” a liking. The definition isn’t terribly interesting, but the word itself…yes, there’s something. Even though the pronunciation isn’t anything special—PEN-chnt—the spelling is so nice. And in affected moments one can always give it a bigger French spin: “Yes, I do have a pon(g)-SHAN(G) for being pretentious!”

Can whoever committed the first mishearing of the word be blamed for confusing PEN-shn and PEN-chnt? Well, my high school French teacher would never have put up with sloppy hearing: his dictées were grueling, and corrected with precision. He would have expected my student (or whoever it was who got “penchant” wrong) to have listened more discerningly, no less in English than in French.

If we don’t blame the hearer, perhaps we should blame the speaker. His fault was plainly speaking good ol’ English. If he had but been a little more pretentious, he might have said the word so that my student heard something closer to the intended term—or, of course, accused the speaker of using “hard words.”

But all of this ignores the true delight of the error. The idea behind this blog has been not only to try to understand the intellectual activity behind the student’s mistake, but also to show the kinds of distracting notions that interpose themselves between the writer’s intention and the reader’s comprehension. In this economic climate, at least for a writing instructor laboring in the hardscrabble vineyards of part-timer-dom, my student’s sentence achieves a poignancy, a poetry, that transports one into a world of revealing truths.

Yes, I have a fantasy pension. Or, receiving a pension from my current employers when I dodder off into the sunset is a fantasy. Or, my only pension after all these years is my finely honed gift for fantasy. I have fantasy for a pension.

Should I punish this student for taking me down this distracting lane, or reward him for giving me a new way of summarizing my life?

“He went to Amsterdam, in the Neverlands.”

I post this in celebration of my dear friend David Chacko (also a fine writer, by the way! check him out on…), who last week took up residence in Amsterdam.

But unlike Peter Pan, David did not wind up in the Neverlands.

My student wasn’t thinking of Peter Pan either; she was writing about someone who had left the U.S. to avoid the Vietnam draft. He went, actually, to the Netherlands. But if your knowledge of European countries is scantier than your knowledge of children’s fiction, and if you’re unfamiliar with the adjective “nether,” meaning “below”—or “low,” as in the Lowlands, as the Netherlands is referred to in folk songs—you might hear “Netherlands” but think you hear “Neverlands.” Of course to think that a person could avoid the draft by hanging out with Peter Pan, who flew to Neverland on fairy dust rather than by airplane, takes a certain stretch of the imagination…

I hope David doesn’t meet up with any pirate captains, although he might enjoy making the acquaintance of an Indian princess or a mermaid.

Meanwhile, I invite you to check your maps. From Newport, RI, where he was living up until last week, David could get pretty close to Amsterdam by traveling “straight on till morning.” Well, more or less.

“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.



“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.

“One must go through the Despond of Slough.”

My student is writing about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the story that has provided me with a name for my domicile toward the end of any semester: the Slough of Despond. Bunyan places this swampy stretch just past Pilgrim’s house, and when he takes a notion to cast down his burden of sin and go to the Celestial City his first adventure is to fall into it.

The student’s error is mere word reversal, but oh how charming a reversal it is. Another student last semester wrote of a facility I want to recommend to some certain managing types I’ve known: the Center for Control Disease. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. The reason for such transposals is unclear, although I’d surmise that for someone who’s never heard of a Slough or of Despond, or someone who can’t quite picture “disease control,” the word order may not seem to make much difference.

“Slough” is a fascinating word. Prepping for my PhD orals I thought to look up its pronunciation just so that, if asked to comment on Bunyan, I wouldn’t make any truly basic errors. I learned from the venerable Webster that the word has three different pronunciations, and each is attached to a separate meaning. The “despond” one rhymes with “cow.”

That discovery drove me to drop everything (this has always been how I deal with important approaching deadlines) and write a poem about spelling, which you may read here if you’re curious.

Desperately proud of myself, I showed the ditty to the then department chair, Prof. George H. Ford. He chuckled, and then commented that it made him think of “that poem, ‘fall friendly bomb….'”

For the complete text of THAT poem, and a description of the British city bombed (like other British cities) during World War II and immortalized in Sir John Betjeman’s perky verses, click over to the inevitable Wikipedia. It begins

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

I guess I’m not the only person who deals with impending disaster by writing about Sloughs.  Betjeman’s description of the place actually makes me think there might be a spot there that the locals call the Despond of Slough. Big tourist attraction? And evidently the poem threw said locals into despond, for which he later expressed regret.

Well, go forth, pilgrim. Do not fall into the Slough of Despond, or enter the Despond of Slough either.

“Three animals hunted by the lord in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ were…”

No power at home since Monday evening, thanks to Sandy. I’m snatching a moment from office hours at my (inland) school to do a post that really needs no comment.

This is one student’s answer to a little 3-point gimmee on the Midterm Exam (well, I thought it was a gimmee…).

“Three animals hunted by the lord in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were a rooster, a fox, and a wild bore.”

Okay, a brief comment. The lord hunted, in order, a deer, a boar, and a fox. I think the rooster sneaked into this student’s memory by way of Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which featured a rooster and a fox. The boar should have gotten into the answer, and might have if the student had been a close reader instead of primarily an in-class listener.

As for the wild bore… well, I hope the lord got ‘im.

“Pizza Lune”

I’m briefly out of town and without my Little Book of Horrors, so I will use one of my own Horrors to follow up on several recent posts about mis-hearing.

It’s a Cousins’ Reunion I’m on. Last night my cousin Betsy announced that we would be having dinner at Pizza Lune. I imagined a fairly traditional pizza joint, maybe an upscale pizza joint, with a moon in its logo. A sort of upscale FRENCH pizza joint, I theorized. Or on second thought maybe very Italian, “Pizza Luna” but pronounced like a paisan–Pizza Lun’.

“That’s fine,” I said, “as long as they have a bar and I can get a Bloody Mary.” (I had had a long, traffic-jammy drive…)

The motel shuttle pulled up at Pete’s Saloon.

If I had texted a friend about our destination, I would have had no doubt that we were going to Pizza Lune. (Well, I might have admitted the possibility of Pizza Lun’.) It wouldn’t have been a spelling mistake; it would have been a conceptual mistake. Not considering a proprietary Peter, and not an habitual user of the term “saloon,” I processed what I heard into what fit my familiarity zone.

No wonder my cousin looked at me oddly when I tried to make sure I could get a drink… at a saloon.

“This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ladder part of his career.”

Of course I knew what she meant: she meant “the latter part of his career,” when in fact Chaucer did write The Canterbury Tales, or as much as he managed to finish before his death. Pretty clearly, she knows the meaning of “latter”; she just doesn’t know it’s a word.

This kind of problem is not limited to student writers. All of us mis-hear words and phrases: when the mis-hearing makes a new kind of sense we can call it a mondegreen, if we’re so inclined.

Sometimes we’re mis-hearing words we actually know, but confuse because of sound. I certainly know the words “bad,” “moon,” and “rise,” but when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang it, I (and evidently a lot of other people, if Google is to be believed) heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” For years I wondered why someone would put directions to a lavatory into a popular song….

Sometimes the confusion arises because we hear a word that is not familiar, but it sounds sufficiently like one we know that we assume it’s the one intended: “We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk,” for example. And we blithely go on to use the word we think we heard. As long as we’re just speaking, we might get away with it; but when we have to commit it to paper, we reveal our confusion to others, if not to ourselves.

And that’s all that happened here.

For me, of course, the sentence suggests Chaucer climbing to the heights of literary celebrity or achievement. But such a “ladder” part of his career would have predated The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Duchess was probably the first real rung, an elegy commissioned by John of Gaunt for his dead wife. And up he went, with Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde, among other works. The ladder part. Top rung: The Canterbury Tales. If he had lived longer, he would have needed a taller ladder.

Chaucer prepares to climb his career ladder.
Chaucer image: the Ellesmere manuscript.

“Next in the procession are four Paul bearers carrying a coffin.”

I do hope Paul was in the coffin.

What will my student do when someday he’s asked to be a pallbearer for someone NOT named Paul? Will he ask where Paul is?

He didn’t ask that question when he wrote this sentence. What picture was in his mind, if any? Did he imagine these bearers are carrying Paul AND a coffin? Or, since he specifies that these bearers are carrying a coffin, should we wonder if he even knows that “bear” already means “carry”?

Maybe he thinks that a Paul bearer is just someone in a procession, and sometimes this person also carries something, and sometimes that something is a coffin. This kind of assumption might proceed out of the expression “native bearers,” a phrase I used to see in old British tales of safaris and jungle adventures. I knew that no “natives” were being carried: these were not native-bearers, but natives (of Africa) who were doing the heavy lifting, bearing something (either the safari equipment or a dead beast or some lolling white safari-goer too lame or rich to walk). It would be possible, I guess, for someone to think that Paul bearers are not Paul-bearers, but people who are named Paul and who bear things, including the occasional coffin. But then, what happens to people who die but knew no one named Paul? Do funeral parlors hire people named Paul for just such occasions?

I just don’t know. One sure thing is that he has heard the expression but has not (knowingly) seen it written. The other sure thing is that he has written this down without wondering why, or how, someone named Paul is involved in this funeral parade at all.

And that failure to think while writing is how he got into my little book.