Category Archives: unintentionally true

“From the very beginning the right to bear arms has always had some way of being involved with everything.”

Regardless of your interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you’ve got to love this sentence.

Certainly in today’s political landscape my student seems to be absolutely correct: we don’t seem to be able to address the issue of gun violence, or domestic terrorism, or even street fashion anymore without getting embroiled in the old “right to bear arms” debate (I use the word “debate,” but the reality is more and more like a brawl).

But what she has written here may be even more true than she intended.

In this blog I’ve commented on a number of student sentences where the writer seemed to be passive in a world of lively inanimate objects, and here’s another example.

Notice that the “right to bear arms” has some way of being involved. That crafty right, always finding a way of inserting itself into all sorts of situations where it wasn’t necessarily wanted. Maybe as a young person you knew a kid who always pushed his way into conversations, parties, conflicts, outings, clubs where he hadn’t been invited. He may have been lonely, or egotistical, or greedy, or needy, or just plain insensitive to social cues—whatever the reason, there he was, and he wouldn’t go away. He ruined a lot of good times: he overheard secrets, danced with girls who didn’t like him, ate too much cake, kissed up to the parental figure, sat in the best chair…. You did know a kid like that, didn’t you? And you didn’t like him, did you?

My student makes the “right to bear arms” exactly that kind of kid. Always involved with everything. You can’t get away from him. And he’s always been that way, that right,  from the very beginning. From birth! Not even enough courtesy to sit back and observe, to “lurk,” and get the feel of the group before horning in. The rest of us are evidently powerless to make him behave, or make him leave. That piece of paper—or idea, or law—is in charge; we must sit passively by and let him have his way.

Well, some people do like the Second Amendment the way it’s written (absolute phrase and all, governing the independent clause in good English), and others like the way the majority on the Supreme Court has newly read it (who cares about those words hanging off the front of it?). Of course the way it’s written is in words, and some of those words are open to interpretation (what is meant by “arms”? is “bear” the same as “always carry,” or does it mean “carry and use in battle,” for instance? how about “well regulated militia”?); some people like one definition while others prefer another. And some people wish it weren’t there at all.

But I think most people would prefer that the right just sit there until called upon, or invited. My student sees it differently: we sit there, and the right pushes his way in. As I said at the beginning, she might be wiser than she knows.

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.  (source of this image:

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.
(source of this image:

“They would die in a heartbeat to protect this great country.”

While we’re on the subject of stock phrases involving death…

My student was unaware that he had written a truly arresting statement, one that might be expressing a deep truth: We all die in a heartbeat, so to speak, or at least we all die with the cessation of heartbeats.

He didn’t notice that because it wasn’t what he meant. He was trying to emphasize the nobility of our military, that they would not hesitate to give their lives for the country. That’s what “in a heartbeat” means: instantly, without hesitation.

You’ve used the phrase, I’m sure. “I’d marry him in a heartbeat!” “I don’t know why you can’t make up your mind—I’d take a job like that in a heartbeat!” Note the enthusiasm as well as the promptitude conveyed by the image.

And I’m sure my student also intended to convey the enthusiasm, or at least ready willingness, of the soldiers.

In fact, in terms of its intention there’s nothing wrong with his sentence. But in terms of its expression, what he means as fervent praise becomes comical because the phrasing seems both self-defining and self-contradictory. The hapless reader—or at least the reader for whom words evoke pictures—is bounced out of the essay to contemplate the bizarre vision of soldiers dropping suddenly dead all over the place to protect their country in some unknown way.

That’s the problem with formulaic phrases and clichés: they jump onto the page whenever they see the chance, not bothering to pause in the writer’s mind to see if they are truly the best words for the job. And sometimes, as here, they are absolutely not.

If only my student had taken the time to see what he meant to say: to picture soldiers unhesitatingly obeying the order to advance into battle, conscious that they might be killed but fully willing to make that sacrifice. That phrasing evokes tears of admiration and pity. For pacifists it might evoke anger against the waste of war. But it would not, for anyone, evoke puzzlement or laughter.

“Romeo and Juliet loved each other to death.”

This is a pretty good summary of the play, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, my student didn’t realize that: that their love led inevitably to their deaths (given their circumstances and personalities and impulsive youth).

Did she mean they loved each other a lot, as so many of us use this phrase: “Oh, I love you to DEATH, John!” (“To death” is used in this same way, to indicate a great amount or intensity, in such phrases as “he talked that subject to death!” and “she bores me to death.” Thus we can see that “to death” doesn’t necessarily carry a positive connotation–is, more often, negative…like death itself, I suppose…)

Judging from the rest of the essay she wrote, I have to think this was not her intention. No, it was an error much more likely: she had in mind the marriage vow to love the other “till death do us part.” Evidently what she had heard, or understood, when she attended weddings was “to death do us part.” So she was telling her reader that Romeo and Juliet kept that vow they probably murmured in Friar Lawrence’s monkish cell. They loved each other every minute until they died. They loved each other all the way to the moment of death. Her essay wasn’t even ultimately about the play; it was about love in general. Many people fall in love and get married and then they get divorced, unlike R&J, who were faithful to the end.

I will prefer to think that the sentence itself was a flash of insight, a conflation of Shakespeare’s entire play, and the fault was in the essay that didn’t live up to the moment of brilliance. A woefully brief visitation from Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.

And next time I go to see the play in question, as soon as the Chorus mentions the star-crossed lovers, I will think to myself, “Yes, they loved each other—they loved each other to death.” End of story!


She has already loved him to death; she’ll take his dagger and thus he will have also loved her to death. Death by loving. This engraving, an illustration, from an old book (note “Tales from Shakespeare” in the margin), is all over the Internet. No wonder.



This solitary word appears in a margin of one page of my current (5-year span) gradebook. When I wrote it down, or what the context was, or even what course the writer was taking I cannot say. Most likely this is from a first-year student, since their writing topics tend toward social issues rather than literary criticism. But lacking a context of any kind, I can say nothing much about the writer’s intent.

Oh, certainly I knew she meant “hypocrisy,” and I sympathize with anyone who has trouble spelling that, since it seems so strange on the page. I used to look it up almost every time I had to write it, until I taught myself simply to make sure what I wrote “looked wrong”: that more or less guaranteed that I had made the correct spelling choices.

In fact, using various “ends-in” sites just now I have been able to find no other word that ends in -crisy, unless I count “acrisy,” offered by one site but not recognized by my friend Mr. Webster. No wonder “hypocrisy” looks so wrong.

On the other hand, asking for words ending in -crACy yields FIFTEEN words: to wit, “aristocracy autocracy bureaucracy democracy gerontocracy hierocracy meritocracy mobocracy monocracy ochlocracy pantisocracy plutocracy stratocracy technocracy theocracy.” And thus my joy in my student’s word…

…because we ALL know that the suffix “cracy” means “form or philosophy of government” or “rule by a particular group,” the group being defined by the root word. An aristocracy is a government by aristocrats. A bureaucracy is a government by bureaucrats. A democracy is government by the demos, or people, or by democrats, those who favor rule by the people. A theocracy is a government by gods or their representatives.

So a hypocracy must be a government by hypos…or by hypocrites, no? Although I guess we’d have to call them “hypocrats” in order to conform to the pattern of the other -cracies.

“Hypo”by itself means “under,” but I doubt that a hypocracy would be a government by underlings; it might be a government by people who are somehow undercover, though—concealing their true selves under some charade or façade. There’s a word for that:  “hypocrite,” which, as Webster says, is “one who affects virtues or qualities he does not have,” someone practicing hypocrisy— “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not, especially the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.”

Watching the antics during the maiden week of the 114th Congress of the United States, I can think of no better word for the philosophy of government they seem to be espousing than hypocracy.

See if this term comes in handy for you in your social and political discussions this year. I believe I will be using it a lot. Alas.

“‘Waiting for Lefty’ stirs up more and more anger at the big corruptions that are destroying the average American’s life.”

Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets’ first play to be produced (by the Group Theater in 1935), is a political and social statement supporting the workers’ struggle against “fat cat” corporate power and class and ethnic prejudice. In the right hands, it’s still a powerful piece.

Students in my Introduction to the Theater were required to attend a live play of their choice and write a review that described and assessed both the play and the production.

What we have here is a sentence from an otherwise-fine student review. Whether we should chalk up “big corruptions” to Autocorrect or Freud I cannot say. Perhaps my student just can’t tell the difference between corporations and corruption.


“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?

“This solution addresses each problem that is keeping obesity at large.”

It’s a great language, isn’t it?

My students were writing in response to a group of articles on fast food and the American obesity epidemic. This essay focused on First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative; clearly the author felt Obama had a good idea.

“At large” means, as we (including the writer) know, “without restraint or confinement, as an escaped convict.” It can also mean “at length,” “in a general way,” and “as a whole”; but clearly my student is using the phrase in its first sense.

The verb “to keep” isn’t generally used with this phrase, though: “to keep” or “to hold” seems more comfortable with “at bay,” or “unable to retreat, thus forced to face danger.” But he doesn’t mean “at bay.”

He means “at large,” sort of—at least, he means “unrestrained.” But to be at large, obesity must be some kind of person: the phrase brings to the mind’s eye an image of a corpulent fellow in striped pajamas and a burglar’s mask, roaming through the back streets, trotting along the highway, lurking in the park. And on the police radios, the APB: “Escaped Obesity at large. Approach with caution. May be armed.”

And of course the real tickle of this sentence is the appropriateness of “at large” to “obesity.” The problems (sedentary lifestyle, high-calorie and high-fat foods, stress) are causing obesity in the general population (at large!), perhaps causing rampant obesity (unrestrained, wild, fast-moving and wide-ranging—although the image of the corpulent fellow rearing up on his hind legs or galloping along is going to infect that phrase too). In causing obesity, the problems are making us large. In other words, the problems are evidently keeping largeness at large.

So I wonder if this sentence is an example of a phrase that crept in by association. “Keeping obesity…um, uh…keeping obesity…AHA! at large! Just the phrase!” says the hapless student, and the words jump onto the screen and are printed on the page without a moment of reflection, without a laughing fit, without a reread to encourage the student to ask whether he should make his solemn sentence into a punny joke.

I have to be grateful. It had been a long evening of paper-grading, and I needed the laugh.

“The fans are die-hearted for their team.”

So again we encounter confusion between “heart” and “hard.” What do these students do with the expression “hard-hearted,” I wonder?

I suppose when a team does really, really badly, or when a sure win suddenly turns to a last-second loss, the fans’ hearts die a bit. As they leave the stadium, do they feel die-hearted? Or maybe once their hearts die they are dead-hearted? It’s true that I have left my share of football, basketball, and soccer games amid a crowd that felt like a funeral procession….

Of course I knew what he meant. He was referring—and doing so admiringly, I might add, which is why I’m sure—to die-hard fans, those whose faith in the team dies hard (doesn’t want to die), those who cheer and sing lustily to encourage the guy who gets the ball at his feet deep in his own territory with a good fifty yards to travel through a rapidly advancing defensive line and three seconds on the clock; or yell and and wave their pennants for the last man at bat facing a 3-2 count and a score of 12-0 in the bottom of the ninth. And then go home yelling “We’ll get ’em next time!” A die-hard fan doesn’t give up. Webster’s identifies the word more with political or social determination, a refusal to yield to change; but of course sports fans can be just as stubborn, and just as ferocious.

Those die-hearted fans, though, would be just the opposite, I guess. Their faith quails as soon as the tide turns against the team; they can feel the old pump begin to stutter and flutter when a goal is scored against them in the first quarter. They do not wave their pennants, they do not cheer: they sink onto the bench and put their heads in their hands, or else they begin the long sad trek to the parking lot.

I like this new term. I don’t know whether I’d prefer the company of a die-hard or a die-heart—both seem disinclined to consider reality—I guess it would depend on what they’re die-hard or die-hearted about. I just like imagining saying to some pessimist, “Oh, don’t be such a die-heart!” If I pronounce my words carefully enough (as the speakers my students have heard evidently did not), I might make a point!

“He should be a great philosopher like Confusion.”

This is one of those sentences that look on the surface like fairly silly mistakes but on further thought seem poignant, a cri de coeur.

One of my current students is writing about Confucian thought, and having no trouble with the ideas or the spelling.

But the author of today’s Horror clearly has the name wrong and possibly doesn’t have a much better grasp of the philosophy. (I’m not going to think about SpellCheck here, because the sentence comes from my 1978 Book of Horrors, and nobody was writing with computers back then.)

When I was in college, students had a choice in what we used to call “The Distribution Requirements” (now, for most people, “The Core”—think apples? Pilates? Yeats?) between a course in Comparative Religion and Philosophy 101. I was a good, fast typist in those days (although I had to look at the keyboard, which meant my method was to quick-memorize a sentence, type it, then memorize the next, usw.), and I typed papers for fellow students: my rate was 25¢ a page, unless I found the topic interesting, in which case I didn’t charge at all. I learned a lot from my colleagues that way. But one unexpected lesson was that the language of philosophy was heavily laden with abstractions, and both the student writers and the philosophers they quoted were difficult to follow. This inspired me to choose, when the time came for me to attend to that particular Distribution choice, Comparative Religion. At least I could envision the gods and their stories.

Thus I am sympathetic with any student who refers to a philosopher as “Confusion.” Perhaps in his youth there was no comic meme that began “Confucius says,” which would have taught him at least that the name ends in “s,” not “n.”

I think when he typed “Confusion,” it was more than a spelling error, though. I think his unconscious mind was taking that opportunity to cry aloud his frustration with ideas and philosophies and concepts that he had to struggle to understand, even when the struggle failed to win the victory.

I have no idea what “he” is referred to in my student’s sentence. Perhaps the student himself doesn’t feel confused but is making a jest about somebody who is. But somehow this doesn’t seem like a conscious jest; it seems like a sincere statement that says more than it knows.

The semester is drawing to a close, and soon I will be computing final grades. Although I will do my best to let the grade represent the quality of the work, I will also try to keep my compassion alive. And my sense of humor.

Let there be no confusion! Thanks to for the image!

“Everything was gun ho for America.”

According to my notes, this Horror dates back to 1978, but it seems to get more and more interesting every year.

What the context is I don’t know. It could be referring to almost any moment in U.S. history when national spirit was high.

I knew perfectly well that what my student meant was that everyone was gung-ho. This phrase, for enthusiastic and active team spirit, comes from World War II Marine slang, an adaptation of a Chinese-language phrase. To read its interesting history you can go to a number of sites; most prominent is, of course, Wikipedia.

I don’t know when I first saw “gung-ho” written, but I heard it plenty of times, in plenty of contexts, while growing up, and I never thought it was anything but “gung-ho.”

My student, though, heard it differently. Again we have a case of alien sounds interpreted through the listener’s resident lexicon: “‘Gung’? How can that be a word? Must be ‘gun.’ Of course! Now, that makes sense!”

Alas, as a society we seem to be more and more gun ho. Snipers; drive-by shooters; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Texas Tower, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc., mass attacks; domestic murders; police overreactions (Amadou Diallo); Gabrielle Giffords; Trayvon Martin. To this we answer: concealed handguns, assault weapons, gun-show purchases, armed vigilantes. Bills advocating weapons on campuses, in state houses, in bars, at public meetings.

Everything is gun ho for America. (About the word “ho” I will not comment, since I don’t want to offend the NRA….)

Funny mistake my student made, no?

This post is, among other things, in memoriam all those who have died as a consequence of being too close to someone who was gun ho.