Category Archives: RAB waxes…

“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?

“They tried to force the ‘savages’ to convert to Christianity by…”

My student is writing about the missionaries that tried to take what they considered the Word of God to Native American tribes. He’s using the term “savages” because that’s the term frequently used in the Christian literature, especially the Puritan literature, that discusses the indigenous peoples of New England. In American Literature I, we have read a lot of this literature, and also some of the eloquent testimony and commentary of Indian leaders. My favorite is the reply of Red Jacket, an orator and negotiator of the Seneca people, to the Massachusetts missionary Joseph Cram in 1805: “BROTHER: We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” If only people in the 21st century could think like that!

It is perhaps unfair to take a sentence from a midterm exam for discussion here, but what interests me is not the relatively minor writing error, which should probably be excused on a test; it is the shining evidence of a tin ear (or a blind mind’s-eye), the kind that afflicts people writing under pressure.

Here’s the full sentence, the completion of what I’ve teased you with above:

“They tried to force the ‘savages’ to convert to Christianity by throwing the Christian bible in their face.”

We’re not talking friendly persuasion!

The actual error is the number disagreement between “savages”/”their” and “face.” Attending to the plural might have made my writer pause and rethink his cliché. But he did not notice the mistake, and so he gave me a moment of hilarity in the midst of my midterm tears.

“Don’t throw that in my face,” we say, when someone we’re arguing with refers to a past gaffe or stupidity and thereby scores a point. I think that’s the principal usage for this phrase, isn’t it? If so, it’s not the cliché my student should have chosen (as long as he was determined to choose a cliché at all). Still, any reader knows he wasn’t speaking literally: we have no record of someone actually throwing Bibles at Indians, nor would my student have tried to claim anyone actually did. He just meant, I’m sure, that missionaries and others pushed the Christian message again and again, unremittingly, brooking no protest and engaging in no debate—for the “savages'” own good, assuredly, the missionaries must have believed.

Still, I did laugh at the ridiculous image, the cartoon that flitted across my mind’s eye, Chingachgook throwing up his hands to protect himself from the barrage of airborne Bibles being flung by the hot-eyed, high-collared holy.

Well, we would all have been better off if the only ammunition had been Bibles. Still a spiritual assault, true, but causing much less bodily harm, and less permanent harm, than the bullets from the muskets of settlers and the rifles of soldiers.

“There are many laws that are trying to be passed…”

Another post on agency.

In the world of the student writer, people have curiously little power. Frequently, in fact, they seem to be standing in the way of abstractions that are struggling to achieve something.

Considering the current Congress, I’m tempted to agree with this student: there are laws the passage of which is being actively impeded by people who have decided to block them. Many of these hopeful laws have the support of a substantial majority of the American people, so in this sense they are trying to be passed. But grammatically and logically, no, laws can make no effort of their own.

My student has more than this in mind, too:

There are many laws that are trying to be passed that go on behind the scenes that people are not aware of.”

Do the laws go on behind the scenes, busily looking, perhaps, for a chink in the Congressional defensive line through which they can be passed? The first “that” seems to be referring to the laws.

The second “that” evidently refers to “scenes”: people are not aware of these scenes. Scenes where? The scenes of the defensive line? People are not aware of these scenes, but the struggling laws going on are?

I think my student meant that in committees and in congressional offices, unnoticed by CNN’s eye on the congressional floor and by other reporters, legislators are drafting laws; and that is true.

It’s not nearly as entertaining, though, as the picture of those laws—a whole multitude of them—busily but fruitlessly looking for a chink in the stonewall (sorry for the new metaphor!) between themselves and victorious passage out there in the light of day.

I hope they keep trying. Well, at least I hope the ones that have broad public support keep trying. If at first you don’t succeed….

“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.


“By killing his son he did not give him the right to live.”

My student was not trying to examine the legitimacy of charging a killer with violating his victim’s civil rights; she was merely trying to explain what was so bad about killing someone. Even without reading the rest of the essay, we can gather this from the fact that the sentence does not claim the father was depriving his son of the right to live, or denying his son’s right to live; it says that he did not give him the right to live, which would imply that such a right was the father’s to give or deny in the first place…an idea certainly contradicted in the Declaration of Independence, where the right to life is proclaimed to be inalienable.

She just wanted to convey the seriousness of the act of killing someone. Negating the verb, though (“did not give him” as opposed to “refused him”), almost always produces a sentence that is weaker, not stronger, than another phrasing of the idea. My theory is that she began her sentence with energy and intention: “By killing his son he…” And then she didn’t know what to put next.

I thought at one time that a good way to explain to my visually-oriented students how to find concrete language was to suggest that they ask themselves what they would show in a movie if they had to tell their story that way instead of in words on a page. If I had to show this scene (it’s Football Father again), I would probably decorate the wall behind the son’s bed with photos of the kid catching a long pass, father and son laughing, maybe a college pennant, maybe a nice nature shot; this would form the backdrop as the father put the gun to his sleeping son’s temple and shot him dead. If I really wanted to sock it to my viewer, I’d let the kid take a deep breath and smile slightly in his dream just before Dad pulled the trigger. If I could see that in my mind’s eye I would then know the words to put it in writing, because I would know the point and the feelings I wanted to convey.

But I guess not being able to turn a verbal description into a mental picture is part of the same problem that impedes envisioning a movie scene. A few students have actually benefited from my explanation, and told me so; most, though, either don’t try to follow the advice or don’t know how to follow the advice. And such a student was THIS student.

Her sentence could have invited her reader into an experience, a point of view, ultimately a judgment; instead, it’s a circular sentence that actually undercuts its point by making it abstract and pedestrian.


“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because…”

This is the hapless son of yesterday and earlier posts. Actually the case write-up I gave the class(es) didn’t say the kid couldn’t stop using drugs, and the father, who killed him to save him from a junkie’s death, actually admitted that his son was NOT yet addicted. But the student who wrote this sentence was sympathetic to the boy, and preferred to assume, I’m sure, that he couldn’t stop—not that he just wouldn’t.

From the rest of the sentence we can see why stopping was so hard:

“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he would start using them again.”

I don’t know what I can add here. Obviously the surest way to fail at quitting is to not quit, or to keep restarting.

I’m not sure how many student writers have trouble with the word “because,” but I can say with some certainty that many of my student writers do. If I asked this student what she meant, I’m pretty sure she would say she meant that the kid quit smoking dope more than once but kept going back to it. I do not think she would say that what was keeping him from quitting was not-quitting, even though that’s pretty much what her sentence says: the reason he couldn’t stop was that he kept on. She’s describing a cycle of behavior but inserting a false causality.

And that’s because she doesn’t seem to know what the word “because” actually means: it’s just a word to put between two actions. Proof of this assumption is that the facts in the case left a lot of room for speculation, a lot of clues. For instance, plenty of adolescents discover that their parents’ priorities are no longer their own priorities, and in this case the boy quit his high school varsity football team and lost interest in tossing the ball around with his (ex-pro-football-player) father; he began hanging around with kids from school instead of coming home to spend time with Dad; in defiance of school rules and probably Dad’s preferences he grew his hair long. Suspended for this dress-code infraction, instead of mending his ways he accepted expulsion and began to skulk in his room. Marijuana and cheap wine seem to be part of this effort to find his own way, or at least evade the path he suddenly didn’t want to tread any longer.

If he was rebelling against his father’s expectations of him, smoking dope may have been THE thing he knew would make his father crazy. In that case, Dad’s efforts to “help” him would have confirmed him in his refusal to cooperate.

Or, of course, at 17 he may have suddenly felt lost in a world he wasn’t sure he could deal with, and wanted to be left alone for awhile to sort things out.

ANY of these might have been a “because”: “Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he wasn’t ready to deal with his confusion.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because giving in to his father and the school would have been too embarrassing.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he liked the feeling of not having to care about anything.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because for the first time in his life he felt really cool.”

By sticking a “because” where  it made no sense, my student prevented herself from actually thinking about what might have been going on in that boy’s mind. Instead, she gives us a sentence that dooms itself to circularity and the whole essay to superficiality.

That’s why these errors, or “horrors,” or what-you-may-call-ems, matter: because rather than inviting thought they short-circuit it; because rather than opening new vistas of intellectual possibility, they pull the blinds and leave the writer in a situation like the boy’s in this case…safe and numb in the dark, getting through the day (or the assignment) but going nowhere.

“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate…”

You know he doesn’t mean “congratulate,” right?

Here’s the whole statement:

“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate the improvements of public schools.”

Well, somebody ought to congratulate the public schools when they improve.

I’m a product of public schools. I believe in public schools. I believe that they are not only essential preparation for democracy in a diverse society, but also the actual experience of democracy in a diverse society. My public schools gave me an excellent education, but they also provided me with the opportunity to learn from fellow students whose strengths and backgrounds didn’t match mine. I learned to respect other kinds of intelligence; I learned to be curious about and to respect other cultures; I learned to appreciate the whole person, not just the part I was competing with. A prep school might have given me more constant academic rigor; but why should a kid have to endure constant academic rigor—where’s the creative space in that? A private school might have given me deep-immersion experiences with my social peers—but I was a middle-class kid, and my social peers are mostly whom I spent my time with in public school anyway. Home-schooling might have offered me the diverse and challenging world of my parents, both professionals and both very interesting people—but hey, I got that at home. I treasure my public-school education, and I believe in the idea of universal public education. I lament that politicians and deluded parents and socioeconomic inequality are wrenching it away from what it could and should be.


My student was looking at a city that wanted to experiment with an appointed Board of Education. I agree with him that letting the mayor more or less dictate the nature of public education was probably a big mistake. To me it smacks of Consultants, and I have had my fill of consultants hired to “fix” something they didn’t understand but had a product to peddle to.

So I applaud my student’s intended idea. But clearly he didn’t write what he meant. He meant, as we all can surmise, facilitate. Was it AutoCorrect or Spellcheck that insisted on a congratulatory role for Boards of Education, or was it a student who knew what he meant but didn’t know how to spell it, or didn’t actually know what the word was? If a Board of Education can’t facilitate learning, can’t facilitate growth and progress, can’t facilitate improvement, what the hell is it for? And my student is accidentally right, too: a good Board of Education, made up of caring and knowledgeable people from the community, would also be confident enough to give credit where credit was due, which means that yes, they would from time to time felicitate the educators and students for a job well done.

“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.

Literary advent calendar

Some GOOD writing for a change! Enjoy.



“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?