Category Archives: just plain wrong!

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!


“The ad may even make people think twice before allowing themselves to be ignorant.”

To celebrate my 4000th follower (!), I offer this wonderful sentence.

My student was commenting on a public-service ad about nutrition, if I recall correctly.

Can’t you picture the people who see it? “Hmm!” they say; “maybe a diet of nothing but candy and Big Gulps isn’t the greatest idea! Maybe I should….” And then: “Naaaaah. This thing is probably not true. I’d rather not think about it anyway. Where did I put that bag of gummy bears?”

Nothing against gummy bears per se, but I’d say that’s a pretty INeffective ad, and I’d say some advertising agency ought to be firing somebody or maybe looking for an account to replace the one that just fired THEM.

If she had written “rather than” instead of “before,” she might be holding out some hope for us all. But maybe she didn’t proofread. Maybe she doesn’t understand what “think twice” actually means. Maybe she didn’t even think twice.

Maybe she just allowed herself to be ignorant…

“This piece shows the lusty side of the 1600th century.”

You know what he meant: the 17th century. Or possibly the 16th century. I’ve written before about the trouble students have keeping the ordinals straight when referring to (notice how I resisted writing “referencing”?) centuries, and perhaps this student was trying to avoid making a mistake by making the actual date ordinal.

But I like to think rather that he’s imagining how much fun the future will be. It may be driven by technology, and robots (like corporations?) may by then be “people, my friend,” and because of climate change (if of course it’s real) the landscape may be unrecognizable—but fear not, it WILL have a lusty side.

We haven’t read any literature that predicts the future, but I’ll imagine my student had that in mind anyway. Always best to err on the hopeful side.

Today’s forecast for Connecticut is daunting: blizzard, white-out, closed roads, snow piling and drifting deep, probable widespread loss of power, cold temperatures… I looked for Horrors that had to do with any of that, just so my blog post could be topical, but I found none. Hence this post about “this piece.” At least the lusty 1600th century takes us into hyperbolic territory.

And in case you’re shut in by weather but still have power, I invite you to enjoy “Snowbound,” by John Greenleaf Whittier. My fifth-grade class had to memorize chunks of it, and any snowfall continues to evoke its images, its rhythms, its world, its human warmth. It was published in 1866 and is a reminiscence from the author’s youth: it is a 19th-century poem. A lovely, lovely one.

More snow for you:

Emily Dickinson… “It sifts from leaden sieves—”

Edna St. Vincent Millay… “The Snow Storm”

Ralph Waldo Emerson… “The Snow Storm” (this one has one of my absolute favorite last lines!)

Wallace Stevens… “The Snow Man”

Billy Collins… “Snow Day”

If you enjoy these, please leave a comment and your own favorite snow poem!

snow deck for blog

After a snowstorm a few years ago: view from my deck. NOTHING compared to what is forecast this time!







“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

It’s phrases-in-the-blender day, folks. “Off the bat” becomes “from the bat” for some reason. An image from cricket or baseball, “right off the bat” means “immediately, without delay,” and comes as a metaphor from such observations as “right off the bat the ball was headed out of the park.” My student was writing about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, Shakespeare referred to just about every feature of life, large and small, grand and ordinary, formal and casual, clean and unclean, in his plays, and he wasn’t averse to experimentation with imagery in his sonnets (or to mocking other poets’ dependence on formulaic image traditions such as coral lips and sun-like eyes). I don’t recall any bat-and-ball metaphors, though; and when I think about Shakespeare as a writer I generally don’t do so in sports imagery. My student evidently does, although she doesn’t get the phrasing exactly right. Well, be that as it may: right off the bat, Shakespeare is getting busy with that poem. He doesn’t waste any time.

But the formulaic phrase that follows Shakespeare-as-Babe Ruth is from another sphere of life entirely: “Shakespeare is using his words.” I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard this phrase except in connection with admonitions to temperamental children: “Henry, stop hitting Kaitlin with that bat; use your words!” So now I recast Shakespeare the Slugger as Shakespeare the Well-behaved Child.

Why is Shakespeare using his words? To share, of course. Here’s the whole statement:

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words to share how much love he has for the person he is talking about.”

The “share” keeps us in that mommy (or support-group?) vernacular. Probably after “using his words” the “share” just insisted on following. He’s going to share how much love he has. Now, this does NOT mean that he’s going to share his actual love here, no, not with the reader; “share” doesn’t mean “give part of , divide and distribute, experience or enjoy with others”; in this usage it means, as all us modern speakers know, “tell, express, confide.” For some reason we don’t say “tell,” “express,” or “confide” anymore, I guess: “share” is so much warmer and less precise.

We know Shakespeare isn’t going to share any love with us because the writer is clear that the love is for the person he is talking about, not for the reader. My relief at seeing the word “talking” is huge because it’s a word I pretty much know, used in a way it’s traditionally used. Or not, of course: Shakespeare is writing, not talking. But in this instance, close enough.

He’s not going to actually express his love, evidently; he’s going to “share how much love he has.” An overabundance of synapses that may have come with age takes me all over the literary landscape with this one, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) to that pop song Petula Clark sang:

My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine
Softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean
Wider than the sky….

Neither of these associations takes me deeper into Shakespeare, though; and his sonnet is like neither of them.

My apologies if the rest of your day is going to be played out against the background of that perky Petula number… Do take comfort in the fact that mine will be too.

I am relieved at the realization that Shakespeare is going to talk about his love for the person he’s talking about, at least. A sonnet is too brief a poem to clutter up with expressing love for someone other than the person he’s talking about, although I suppose he could “share” that he doesn’t love the person he’s talking about as much as he loves someone else. He wrote a sonnet sequence, after all, so the someone else could be talked about further in the other sonnets. In fact three characters do inhabit the sequence Shakespeare wrote: the young man, the “dark lady,” and the speaker. Sorting them out has kept graduate students and other scholars busy for about four hundred years. But my student isn’t concerned with this at all; she’s just commenting on a single sonnet she read.

A sonnet is also too brief to waste time at the beginning; it really does have to start right off (okay, from) the bat. A Journal entry is also a brief form, as I have assigned it. My student does not start right off the bat, though: she noodles around with bats and shares and other vagueness and wordiness rather than coming out and saying something.

The thing that makes me feel like an ogre is that she really, really likes this sonnet, as the rest of her Journal comment made clear. She likes Shakespeare. And I am beyond delighted that she does—I do, too. Because I don’t want to dampen or trivialize her appreciation, my comment on her Journal entry (which isn’t, after all, a “writing” assignment) won’t even mention her diction level, although I will underline the formulaic phrases and hope she stops in during office hours to find out why. (She didn’t.) But how someone could read Shakespeare’s specific, witty, allusive, cadenced writing and then respond with this sentence is beyond me. I imagine it’s that people who aren’t habitual or observant (or, perhaps, trained) readers don’t make these linguistic distinctions, don’t look for precision of meaning in trendy or commercial speech, don’t hear the competing voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I suppose.

Perhaps I should just give in. A living language is a language that changes. Perhaps there were people in Shakespeare’s audience who shook their lordly heads at his use of street slang and his coinages: “What is the Queen’s English coming to?”

Just the same. English is a huge and vigorous language (thanks partly to Himself). I wouldn’t send a boxer into the ring with both hands tied behind his back, or a violinist into the orchestra pit without a bow, and I hate to send students into the world with only the sketchiest notion of how to wield the mighty instrument that is available to them.


“I’m not against women. I’m a women myself.”

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.

“Of all the Blake poems we read, the one that caught my attention was ‘The Little Black Guy.'”

Dear lord, where to begin?

We “read” perhaps eight of the more accessible Blake poems in the British Literature survey. I’m glad ONE of them caught this student’s attention. First of all, is this another example of the agency of inanimate objects? We do use the expression, and the idea, that something catches our attention; but now I come to look at it, I wonder what our attention is doing until it is caught, and what the “something” has to do to catch it.…

At any rate, Blake’s poem is “The Little Black Boy.” The first time I read this poem, I was perhaps twelve years old. I remember that even at that age I felt a heavily painful confusion of pity, religious joy, and horror. Here it is:

The Little Black Boy

By William Blake

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say,
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice,
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
                           (source of this text:
Blake published this poem in 1789, when slavery was still legal in England and America. We see here a world where white is the “default” color, the color most related to God (the English child is “white as an angel”); and even though the force of God, like the force of the sun, is a heat that must be borne, only the blacks must learn to bear it. The boy’s mother comforts him in his beclouded labor that in heaven the cloud of color will vanish and his soul will skip like any lamb around the golden tents of God: that is, in heaven, color makes no difference. But then see how the boy translates his mother’s message: BOTH colors are clouds, and death frees both individuals. Still in heaven, though, the black boy serves the white, sheltering him from the heat of God until he, too, can bear God’s love. And when they stand side by side, the black boy says, he will stroke the “silver” hair of the white boy and “be like him.”

Most chilling is the last line: the white boy will love the black boy once the black boy is like him. White is still the default. And this happy reconciliation, this happy quasi-equality, is only what the little boy imagines; it was not in his mother’s promise, and it is perhaps not in God’s promise either. The “little English boy” is the one with the agency when it comes to loving.

We know Blake, though. We know the songs of children, in his hands, are often laden with irony, with condemnation of society, with the injustices inflicted by social, economic, and religious institutions on human lives and souls. Read the “chimney sweep” poems if you have any doubt. Blake himself is not offering this “comfort” to the little black boy; he is writing of the boy’s heart, hopes, and helplessness, and the mother’s comforting words and images are all she can offer to alleviate the injustices of his life. Blake does not approve of the world as it is.

Dare I hope these complex ideas in the poem, uttered in such deceptively simple lines, are what “caught” my student’s attention?

Alas, all goes out the window with the change of “boy” to “guy.” Talk about trivializing language, talk about dismissive language, talk about the off-handedness that seems to dismiss the poem, or the character, in the very act of singling it out for praise.

I can theorize that my student didn’t want to use the word “boy” in conjunction with “black,” perhaps having learned how demeaningly that word was applied to adult males, how offensive its use is still because of that. I have spoken with a few students over the years who said they didn’t know how to refer to a black male under the age of ten, since they knew they should never say “boy.” Were the same reluctance and confusion operating here? Yes, I tell myself, not really knowing.

There’s always the chance that the student couldn’t actually recall the poem’s title, or that he just prefers the word “guy.”

I like my theory better. Language is such a potent thing. We are right to be observant in its use.

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake's own hand and with his own illustration. (source:

Here is the ending of the poem, in Blake’s own hand and with his own illustration. (source:

“Organization is key to achievement…”

Yet another inanimate-object-as-agent example, and I promise I will try to move on to something else (at least for the time being).


“Organization is key to achievement and it pertains to almost everything trying to be accomplished.”

Presumably, the notion that organization is key to achievement is what pertains to almost everything.

So we will turn our attention to the participle “trying.” What does it modify? “Everything”—or rather, “everything trying to be accomplished.” Where, oh where in this sentence is there any suggestion that accomplishment takes some kind of worker, some person exerting effort, some individual or group with an idea or dream? The things themselves, the ideas and dreams, are responsible for getting themselves accomplished here. And if those things want to have a chance of succeeding in their efforts, they must have organization, the key to achievement. Lacking hands, how will they ply this key? That’s anybody’s guess.

Is it that students really, really want to move ever forward in their sentences, never going back to try alternatives for the sake of clarity, accuracy, or style? Or, in the case of this particular sentence, do we have an example of a student who should have stopped earlier but felt the need for a grander ending? Put a period after “everything” and you have a perfectly viable sentence. WHY GO ON? I don’t know, but I do know this isn’t the only student who has erred in this way.

Whatever her reason, she left me with a vision of a roomful of things, looking for the organization key, strenuously aspiring to achieve…something, somehow.

“The mayor doesn’t want to see the bondage between the townspeople stop…”

The full quotation isn’t any closer to what my student actually meant than the opening is:

“The mayor doesn’t want to see the bondage between the townspeople stop. That’s why he is giving them a place outside the city so that people can keep their bondage.”

At first glance, the passage seems to be referring to a slave-holding society, bondage galore. The second sentence may refer to a new city policy outlawing such bondage, and a mayoral inspiration to establish an area outside the city boundaries for those who wish to continue the slave/master relationship. Such people can keep their bondage.

What in the world? Where in the world?

If you know the case the student is writing about, all becomes clear. Some years ago a neighborhood group petitioned the state to permit them to develop a co-op farm on a strip of land acquired through eminent domain for a not-yet-built highway. Permission was renewed annually for thirteen years, and then the state agency faced the fact that the road was never going to be built, and turned the land over to the city. With one eye on its tax base and the other on jobs and housing, the city decided to use the strip for commercial and residential development; the farm would have to be discontinued. My students were asked to argue in favor of one of four options: keep the farm (which occupied only a small, but central, part of the land) and forgo development; keep the farm and build a smaller version of the development around it; go ahead with the development and acquire land elsewhere for the farm; go ahead with the development and get rid of the farm. All of these options had been raised in the actual town hearings.

My student was trying to describe option #3.

The members of the farm co-op had argued that their enterprise had yielded more than vegetables: it had become a field-trip destination for inner-city kids, a weapon against juvenile delinquency, an exercise opportunity for the elderly, and a vehicle for community spirit and understanding. The co-op members had developed close personal—wait for it!—bonds.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining bonds within a community (even though in the actual case the city went with option #4), and my student was trying to say this. But I guess “bond” didn’t look like a word that could express a state of being. Hence: bondage.

This was not a second-language student inexpertly navigating a dictionary; it was a native speaker who didn’t really know her language, couldn’t discriminate between “bond” (or even “bonding”) and “bondage.”

Do you suppose she would think Of Human Bondage is a novel about healthy community relations? Would she feel that bondage was good for slaves?

No, no. What she meant was simply that the mayor, trying not to destroy the spirit of community, considered relocating the medium of their bond. But what she said inevitably evokes visions of slave-holding enclaves beyond the reach of a circumscribed government.

What a difference a suffix makes.

“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught…”

Alert! We are again in the wonderful world of freshman comp, where inanimate objects are agents. But before I reveal the agent of today’s Horror, I must pause to pick two nits:

Writing instructors at the middle- and high-school levels deploy several nonce-rules that students clutch permanently to their bosoms: for example, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But'”; “NEVER start a sentence with ‘Because'”; “Never say ‘I'”…. Persuading students that these were temporary rules meant to break habits rather than three of the Ten Commandments of Writing is nearly impossible.

On the other hand, MY nonce-rules, announced as such, don’t stick at all. One of them is “When writing for my class, do NOT begin a sentence with ‘There is’ or ‘There are.'” I have a brief demo where I first lay out the non-content quality of “there” and the static nature of “is,” writing two sentences on the board that say basically the same thing: for example, There is a murderer behind the curtain and A murderer is hiding behind the curtain. Students tend to agree that the second version gets the important information out in front. Then I talk briefly about the most common structure in English: Subject, verb, object. John hit the ball. And I point out that the first two words carry the main action and the main energy of the sentence in this structure. Then I go to the door of the classroom, exit, and come back in backward, saying “There was a ball that was hit by John.” And then I ask them if they really want their sentences to back into the room, blowing all the energy on a pronoun and a verb of being. And then I say again, “PLEASE do not begin any sentences with ‘There is’ or ‘There are’ while writing for my class!”

But then the next set of papers comes in, and quite often the very first sentence of half the papers begins with “There is…” Ah well.

I also have a problem with “every day person.” For that word cluster to function as an adjective, it should be either fused or hyphenated. But in this case it still wouldn’t serve—”everyday” and “ordinary” may be in the same realm of meaning, but they aren’t straight synonyms that can be plugged with equal ease into any old sentence.

And now let’s move on, with those two nits lying dead on the sink edge, little feet in the air.

Well, the sentence for today began an essay on fast-food restaurants and obesity in America. My student’s point was that NOT going into a fast-food restaurant is very hard.

So here’s the whole sentence:

“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught by the eye of an every day person.”

A sudden vision of an eye being used as a fishing lure suddenly crosses my mind. Enough to kill my appetite! I don’t know who the “every day person” who uses such a disgusting method of catching things might be, but I certainly don’t want to meet him or her.

But do you see what I mean about agency? Here, the eye is the active agent, busily out there catching millions of restaurants. And here the muckamucks of the fast-food managements thought the garish paint jobs on their buildings and signs would catch people’s eyes, and those people would follow their eyes directly into the eatery. But my student seems to think that the paint jobs, signage, play spaces, unfunny clowns, plastic toys, and easy parking all just sit there…until that eye is cast their way and catches them, continually, perhaps to bring them home to the every day person.

It’s not the eaters being hooked by those Whoppers; the Whopper-providers are being hooked by the eaters, wily anglers with very strange bait on their hooks.