Category Archives: just plain wrong!

“If everyone works together, change may be able to come.”

I’ve written before about the world of students, where agency is either up for grabs or strangely bestowed. This statement is another example…and I have more, so brace yourself for things eventually to come.

In this hopeful sentence, my student envisions an entity called “change” waiting somewhere out there in the cold, longing to come to us, striving to come to us, but as yet alas unsuccessful in actually coming.

What is impeding or restraining it? Is Change chained in a dungeon or kennel, unable to roam at will? Is everyone standing atop a high and dangerous peak, looking down at Change as it stands impotently below, no ropes or pitons or ice axes available for its climb? Is change suffering from some debilitating disease or condition? Is it ready and willing,  but lacking that third essential state for its advent?

I try these various circumstances on a little cartoon fellow I’ve named “Change,” and I hope that someday he will be enabled. My student has given change the agency here, and “everyone”—picture a cluster of disparate line figures—has to do the heavy lifting to enable him to exercise it: cutting the lock on the chain or kennel; sending down a rope or a basket lift; curing the disease or structuring the rehabilitative exercises; in some other way making straight the highway, opening doors, providing transportation, drawing a map, hauling on a line. I try to picture us doing the needed thing. Calling all hands!

But so much is uncertain in the hopeful sentence that even hope is difficult. “If” everyone works together, yes, but how often does that actually happen, and how much preliminary work is necessary to bring it off? Furthermore, this conditional condition is necessary only to create the possibility that change will be able to fulfill his end of the bargain: change may be able to come. How easy is it to get everyone to work together just on the off-chance that their labors will bear fruit?

One thing my student seems sure of: everyone working together will not effect change; it will only create the conditions under which Change, under its own independent efforts, might decide to come and then manage to get here.

Oh, I knew what he meant: if we work together we might achieve the change we desire. But he didn’t write that. Change has the agency; we are merely enablers of the possibility that it will exert that agency.

This is a first-year student. Three more years, and then he will be expected to step out and take the world in his hands. I hope he learns before then that he has to do something; the world won’t meekly choose to put itself at his disposal.


“There is a point in people’s lives where they should not need someone’s hand to hold to do something…”

Wordy and awkward but true: at some point people should be able to function without others (Mommy, probably) holding their hands. Usually in the context of a process, such as maturing, we expect the “point” to be more “when” than “where,” but I suppose if we think of life as a journey…. Well, let it pass.

In case you’re wondering what “somethings” should be subject to independent accomplishment, read on:

“There is a point in people’s lives where they should not need someone’s hand to hold to do something, and eating shouldn’t be one of them.”

I imagine my student just forgot how she started her sentence. But to get the particular second negative she’s chosen into the second part of the sentence, she must have forgotten pretty much everything. People shouldn’t need someone’s hand to hold to do something, AND eating shouldn’t be one of those somethings they shouldn’t need someone’s hand to hold to do? So people should need someone’s hand to hold while eating for as long as they live?

Perhaps a vagrant n’t just snuck into clause #2. Certainly my student meant to say that at some point people have to be mature enough to eat by themselves.

Actually, “hand to hold” in this case is meant to be figurative. The essay concerned fast-food consumption and obesity; several of the essays my class read as background raised the question of who is to blame for becoming obese—Macdonald’s, or the person who decides to eat at Macdonald’s. In this sense, then, my student is talking about the ability, or responsibility, of choosing; the “hand to hold” is probably meant to suggest dependence, the need for guidance.

But here I am, picturing a 45-year-old man (for example): his mitt is wrapped around his fork, and his Mommy’s mitt is wrapped around his, helping him guide his speared French fries toward his gaping and eager mouth. Will she take his tie and wipe his chin later? This is the scenario my student has recommended.

Last semester I read some of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s engaging book Several Short Sentences About Writing to my first-year students. (I know they could read it themselves, but I think everybody deserves a little being-read-to.) His intended audience is writers farther along in the developmental process and more committed to the task than freshmen, but oh, how much more control my students would discover if they would begin by trying to express their ideas and observations briefly. Klinkenborg and I expect them of course to combine some of those sentences as they revise, but the first task is to say what they mean clearly. Most of the catastrophes my students create occur as a consequence of trying to say a lot in a complex way before they have actually clarified their thoughts.

I hope they all reach the point in their lives where (when?) they don’t need my hand, or anyone else’s hand, guiding theirs when they write. More first-year students than we dare to count have not reached that point, and for some it may not even be on the horizon.


“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!”—?


“In middle and high school for most classes it is detrimental…”

Here’s the whole statement:

“In middle and high school for most classes it is detrimental to understand every lesson because they overall build on each other.”

Evidently he took his own advice and avoided understanding the lesson on the difference between “detrimental” and “essential.”

Of course, maybe he was one of the cool guys in middle and high school. They weren’t, you know, really into studying, or getting good grades, or understanding the lessons, or whatever.

Actually I’ve heard of such criteria for adolescent studliness (not studiousness), but I never went to school with any boys like that. Not that they were all fixated on getting great grades, but they all seemed pretty much willing to understand the lessons (and how the lessons overall built on each other). And some of them were downright brilliant, and serious, and proud of it. Lest you think I hung around exclusively with nerds, our Valedictorian was also a co-captain of the football team. The boy who unwittingly held my heart in his hand was in the top twenty (of our class of 1100) and played both football and track. Another boy in the top twenty was president of the Student Council.

No, not every boy (or every girl, for that matter) made studying a top priority; but nobody that I knew—and I knew a surprising number of those 1100—thought it “detrimental” to understand lessons. Willful ignorance was not a component of being cool, at least not then, not Back In The Day.

I hope my student wasn’t trying to claim that it was in his day, either. Did he pounce on the “mental” part of “detrimental” and assume it had something to do with being smart? Does “temperamental” have to do with being smart? “Elemental”? “Fundamental”? “Excremental”?

I hope also he wasn’t trying to advocate the benefits of surprise: precisely because the lessons build on each other, understanding them all makes learning too predictable? No, he can’t have meant that.

And which would be the few classes wherein it is not detrimental to understand every lesson? The ones where the lessons don’t build on each other? where the syllabus is determined by the spin of a wheel, or a slip drawn daily from a grab-bag?

Oh, now, here’s a possibility: that when he was in fact reaching for “fundamental,” “detrimental” jumped out of his mental grab-bag instead…

Ah well. Maybe it can be a little detrimental to understand every lesson. One very nice guy back in high school wrote in my yearbook, “Here’s to a great girl. If you hadn’t been so smart, I would have asked you out.”


“This view is held to be true by many, namely Radley Balko.”

Last semester’s textbook They Say/I Say includes a section of articles on American obesity, fast food, and related social issues. I asked students to develop a thesis for an argument that would use materials from two or three of those articles for support.

Radley Balko, author of one of the articles, maintained that people should be held responsible for the consequences of their choices and therefore insurance companies and the government should not be forced to pay for their healthcare, and fast-food restaurants should not be found liable in health-related lawsuits. My student was referring to his article, and to him, in her essay.

What my student fails to realize (that’s Student Speak–writers who choose not to say something always are assumed to “fail to realize” that thing) is that the term “namely” does not mean “for example.”

Hence this marvelous assertion that equates one man with many. Perhaps Mr. Balko would be pleased that his voice carries so much, and such wide, authority.

I can say no more! But I welcome your comments, as ever.


“It took 1 year for Gawain to live before he had to die.”

This is our dear Sir Gawain again. His story isn’t all that complicated, but students get into all sorts of contorted sentence postures trying to summarize it.

Not hard. At the Yule feast, King Arthur wishes for a game or diverting story. In rides a knight and horse, both entirely green, to challenge Arthur to a beheading game: Arthur may strike off the knight’s head, but in a year must seek him out and submit to a similar stroke. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, seeks to spare his king the hazard and at the same time earn some fame for himself; he beheads the green knight and so is committed to the exchange. A year passes, and he sets out to find the Green Chapel; he chances on a castle where he may hear Christmas mass and gather his strength for the coming ordeal. The lord of the castle is going hunting and offers to exchange prizes each day: he, a bit of the animal killed; Gawain, whatever benefit he has found in the castle. But the lady of the castle is up to her own game, and tries each day to seduce Gawain. Day One: a deer steak, a kiss; Day Two: a boar steak, a kiss; Day Three: the fox tail, a kiss. But Gawain has held back the green sash the lady has given him to protect him from harm. Then he sets out to find the Green Knight on the appointed day. The Green Knight needs three attempts at Gawain’s head: on the first try Gawain flinches; on the second, the knight feints; on the third, the knight nicks Gawain, and the game is revealed—Morgan le Fay, attempting to discredit the Round Table, has created Knight, Castle, lady, sash, and all. The Knight therefore knows of Gawain’s dishonesty with the sash. But he acknowledges Gawain’s essential purity, which means Morgan le Fay has failed. Gawain swears to wear the sash forevermore, as an admission of his shame; but when he returns to Camelot everyone else dons a green sash too, in honor of Gawain. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

More or less.

In today’s Horror, my student has essayed to summarize the story. This sentence bridges the space between the beheading of the Green Knight and the due date for Gawain’s pledge.

WHAT “took one year”? “It,” of course–the same “it” that comes in so handy to tell us “it’s hard to leave you,” “it’s a sin to tell a lie,” and “it takes a village to raise a child.” In this way, it took a year–sorry, 1 year. Now generally in this structure we understand the “it” by moving deeper into the sentence, to an infinitive. To leave you is hard. To tell a lie is a sin. To raise a child takes a village. Thus, to live took 1 year. You see the problem.

It took him a year to live before he had to die. It takes most people seventy or more years before they have to do this, but Gawain is in a magic story and perhaps we have to try to look past the idea of a one-year-old Knight of the Round Table. We will allow my student to be claiming that it took him one MORE year to live.

We can also allow “he had to die” to mean “he was appointed to meet death,” rather than the more generalized fact of mortality—because, like it or not, we all have to die, and that becomes true at birth, not at some later date.

By the time we’ve allowed all this, we’ve run out of sentence. The only solution for the hapless grader is to note “awkward” or “unidiomatic” in the margin, take a deep breath, and plunge into the next narrative thicket, just as Gawain made his way through the wintry landscape in quest of the Green Chapel.

Gawain wasn’t laughing, though, and I have to confess that I was.


“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language…”

Let’s not pay overmuch attention to the use of “kids” in a college paper, particularly a paper that is going to lament the imperfection of their learning.

I do like the “are to”: it embraces both “will” and “are supposed to,” and thus both hope and realism.

What follows is a recommendation to make the hope the reality:

“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language. This tactic needs to be taken more seriously and at a more vicious approach.”

I don’t understand “tactic.” To what is my student referring? Surely learning itself isn’t a tactic, although plenty of tactics have been devised for learning. Is beginning with the basics a tactic? Perhaps. Teaching the basics in elementary and middle school rather than waiting until high school or college: could that be a tactic? Again, perhaps. Whatever it is, it has a clear need: “it needs to be taken more seriously.” Although English does tolerate the use of “needs to” with inanimate objects (probably a capitulation to vernacular usage rather than logic), I continue to be astounded by the servant role students assign to humans, including themselves: the inanimate object needs, and we oblige by fulfilling the need. Why not “We need to take this tactic (still doesn’t make sense, does it?) more seriously”? Surely the actual need is ours. Or even “This tactic is important”?

Once in a while I will bow to the vernacular, but student writers seem to choose this structure and use it again and again. Are they reluctant to bring themselves into the sentence? Or do they begin the sentence with the thing they’re intent on—this tactic, peace, potatoes—and then, wanting to give it urgency but not wanting to try starting the sentence over, make it needy?

Well, on we go, to my favorite part of this sentence. The phrasing “at…[an] approach,” while odd, doesn’t take us very far. Sometimes prepositions seem to drop into sentences simply to fulfill the need for a preposition, regardless of idiom or meaning. Leave it alone for today.

But I am surprised and intrigued by the recommendation of “a more vicious approach.” We’ve taken the switch, the ruler, the dunce cap, the corner, and the cloakroom out of the overwhelmed teacher’s arsenal over the course of the last century, and for what most of us would consider excellent reasons. We’ve tried to give students a stronger feeling of support and understanding in that complex and frustrating endeavor we call “learning.” But this student doesn’t seem to approve of a kinder, gentler classroom: she wants viciousness.

What could she have actually meant? I can’t really believe she envisions the ideal teacher as someone who snarls, smirks, and smites; I’m sure she wouldn’t want us to festoon those cheerful rooms with whips and chains, or grade papers with daggers instead of pens.

One of my students (not this one) told me a few weeks ago that as he’s writing a paper on his computer he routinely left-clicks (or is it right-clicks? I use a Mac and just click) on every tenth word or so to call up Word’s thesaurus for fancier language. If the writer of today’s sentence tried this same tactic (aha!), what could her original word have possibly been? If I start with “vicious” and try the Thesaurus, I get cruel, brutal, nasty, fierce, ferocious, inhuman, violent, sadistic, mean. “Intense” gives me deep, passionate, strong, severe, powerful, concentrated, extreme. From that list I can snatch “severe” and find strict, relentless, powerful, forceful, rigorous, ruthless, brutal, cruel. From that list I can take “cruel” again, and it will offer me, among many choices, “vicious.” But I’m sure she didn’t go on this kind of quest—starting with, perhaps, “strong” and working her way via “strong” or “strict” to “cruel” and then “vicious.” Surely she would have shied away from some of those intermediate choices before making her way to “vicious.”

If I set this bizarre notion aside and search my mental lexicon for sound-alikes instead of mean-alikes, I can dredge up maybe “officious,” a term I don’t think many college freshmen routinely use, and not much else. Help, O literate reader!

Meanwhile I will contemplate a picture of myself as the slave-driver in Ben-Hur’s galley—snarling, pitilessly pounding out the rhythm as my students, chained to their desks, ply their pens and try to learn the basics. Who is the patrician looking on—the Dean? Are those grad assistants in the aisles? “Ramming speed!”

Follow this YouTube link to take a look!


“Nature possesses the ability to be seen in a multitude of perspectives.”

My students live in a panpsychist world.

How else explain the neediness of abstract or nonanimate things? Punishment needs to be dealt out. Merit needs to be rewarded. Attention needs to be paid.

With (reportedly first-remarker) Pythagoras, Spinoza, William James, and others, my students believe “everything is sentient.”

Here we have Nature, possessing the ability to be seen. She is visible! She is visible, in fact, “in” a variety of perspectives. This phrase evokes Andrew Marvell’s charming poem “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers.” It ends:

But O young beauty of the Woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flow’rs,
Gather the Flow’rs, but spare the Buds;
Lest Flora angry at thy crime,
To kill her Infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ Example Yours;
And, ere we see,
Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee.

Little T.C. is “in” a prospect of flowers because she is “in” the picture, and the picture shows a prospect. I guess Nature could be seen “in” perspectives in the same sense.

But I believe my student meant that Nature can be seen from a multitude (why not “variety,” which is more to the point perhaps?) of perspectives: hence poetry.

Now, “can” might also imply sentience, or capability, on the part of Nature; acceptable usage lets that one slide. “Possesses the ability to” cannot be grandfathered in, though.

Well, on Thanksgiving Day, with a pie in the oven, one should not carp.

One should look up from one’s plate and gaze upon the variety (and, if you’re lucky, multitude) of faces looking back. One should consider the seemingly infinite variety of Nature, of which those dear faces are examples. One should be grateful not only that such variety—and such loveliness—exist, but also that they are visible. Whether everything is sentient or not, WE are sentient. Celebrate it.

Today, give thanks for everything. Tomorrow, the red pen. Tomorrow, gather the blossoms. Root out the weeds, by the way! But try even then to spare the buds. Mantra for a writing teacher?


“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs…”

“Both” is a troublesome word for student writers. They join all sorts of people in collaborations never intended by the people themselves. Carping about it in this example may seem extreme—after all, “both” doesn’t necessarily mean “together” or “simultaneously.” But trouble arises before the sentence is over:

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly.”

See? The word comes into sentences that are merely talking about two people, not necessarily about two people who are doing similar things. In fact here, they are doing something together that differs. Now, if my student were going on to add a third party—”Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly from Cotton Mather’s,” for example—she might be working on an imaginable idea. But she has no such plans.

Actually Anne Bradstreet’s beliefs and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s differ greatly. So do their manners of presentation—Bradstreet’s in poetry and letters and private meditations, Emerson’s in poetry and essays and sermons. In this survey course students read some of each, so it’s hard to be sure what “manner” is in this student’s mind.

The paper itself was looking at religion in Bradstreet and Emerson and pointing out that they had different ideas about it—not surprisingly, considering their separation in time, denominations, and societal roles. But in this sentence, they’re presenting their beliefs, both of them, in a single manner (we deduce from its singular form), and that single manner differs. From what, we do not know.

One of the words I sometimes want to outlaw for student writers is “both.” In “both-and” sentences the parallelism is almost never achieved; in other sentences we get these unintended partnerships. In other words, its use is both ungrammatical and imprecise. Is this another lost cause in the great battle over English as she is spoke?


“They proceed to walk down the hill to a grassy null or open space.”

The “they” here is the procession with the Paul bearers. The procession is “proceed[ing] to walk,” not merely walking. We get an echo of police patois in this phrase. But the interest lies beyond.

I think that for this sentence my student actually did consult a dictionary. Perhaps he imagines the coffin (or Paul?) will be buried in a grassy clearing.

Probably he doesn’t imagine a knoll as a burial place, at all. Certainly that procession isn’t going to walk down to a knoll.

But he has heard the expression “grassy knoll.” He’s too young to associate the phrase with anything in particular. If he had Googled it, he would have been taken directly to the accounts of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and maybe even to this note about the person who first referred to the grassy knoll.

To pick up that trail, though, my student would have had to know that the word “knoll” begins with “k.” Searching for “noll” might have helped: Google lists “knoll” as a “search related to ‘noll,'” albeit only as someone’s name (Daniel Knoll). In fact, just about all the listings under “noll” are people’s names, too. So not a very big help.

Did my student begin by searching for “noll,” or even “nole,” or did he already know the word “null” (from math class, perhaps)? One way or another he got there. And we know what “null” means: without value; nonexistent; empty.

From here to the grassy “open space” is the shortest of steps. Not even an uphill climb.

I lament and bemoan my students’ reluctance to look things up, think about odd phrases, generally be aware of their word usage. And now here I am, bemoaning this student’s thought processes and, perhaps, research, which led him so logically to such a wrong choice.

I must seem to them a lot like the serpent (actually Alice’s very long neck, courtesy of the mushroom) that beset the pigeon’s nest in Alice in Wonderland: “I’ve tried every way, and nothing seems to suit them!…those serpents! There’s no pleasing them!” says the pigeon.