Category Archives: unintentionally true

“Newspapers should show both sides of a point of view.”

He wrote this long ago. I transcribed it into my Book of Horrors as an obvious absurdity.

How was I to know my student was not verbally inept, but prescient?

There is only one situation in which this student’s pronouncement can be aptly applied.

At the risk of seeming political (which, heaven knows, only those who know me might accuse me of!), I would have to say that since last night, that situation seems to have arrived.

How else to cover Mitt Romney’s campaign?

“Problems often arise between siblings when there are two or more children in the same family.”

I have to wonder whether this sentence isn’t the result of a good impulse: verifying the definition of a term one is accustomed to using but suddenly not positive of. Doesn’t “two or more children in the same family” feel like part of a dictionary definition of “sibling”?

If that’s the case, then here’s an example of a good action with a bad result—or at least an unintentionally funny result.

“When there are two or more children in the same family” is a nice adverb clause; as such, it modifies the verb in the main clause, “arise.”

My student would have done fine with the sentence “Problems often arise when there are two or more children in the same family.” Or with “Problems often arise between siblings,” which I would speculate was the sentence he wrote in the first place, before his vocabulary qualms or his fear that the sentence sounded too simple for college writing.

That last, by the way, is the source of probably 60% of what’s bad in college students’ writing—the desire to sound grown-up and intellectual. I understand, have felt, and appreciate this desire. We urge our writing students to “find your voice!” and so they look for it…in the persons they imagine they will become, rather than in the persons they are. But just as I once imagined I could pass my driver’s test with next to no preparation if I just imagined myself driving and then followed my imagination (a notion I fortunately disabused myself of before actually going to DMV and wreaking havoc), the imagination has better uses than helping fools rush in. To me, late at night propping my head up with my left hand and and plying a red pen with my right, a parade of self-defining sentences, misapplied vocabulary, inflated diction, and mangled syntax—yet another student reaching for an imagined “intellectual” tone—is every bit as awful as a three-car pileup, albeit at the same time a lot funnier.

Because there’s been a lot of scholarship on the damage inflicted on students by correcting in red, let me hasten here (as I do in class) to say that I ply a red pen on papers at the school whose colors are red and white, and a blue pen at the school whose colors are blue and white. Long ago I taught at a school whose colors were purple and white, and I used purple ink. I don’t know what I’d do at a blue-and-gold or black-and-red school; I haven’t come to that crossroads yet and prefer not to imagine myself into it!

So, back to the siblings. If we substitute the noun in question for the quasi-definition, the sentence reads “Problems often arise between siblings when there are siblings.” A self-defining, or at least circular, sentence. Shall we “fix” the sentence by striking out the adverb clause and move on, or shall we admit that perhaps unbeknownst to the student the sentence seems to be uttering a Truth?

One of my earliest posts in this blog included a statement that had the same ring of deep truth: “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble.” Here is a real philosopher speaking. And in the Sibling sentence, I imagine I see the same kind of resigned recognition of the human condition: The minute Kid #2 arrives, right away there is trouble. I don’t really think this is what my student meant to say, but I like to imagine that’s what he meant.

Thinking of my own two dearly beloved siblings, I can reassure my writer that a lot of those problems disappear when the children cease to be children and realize that one and all they are people. At least that’s the case in a lot of families: sibling rivalry is a lot of little piggies crying “Me Me Me.” Eventually when, no longer little piggies, we cry “We We We,” it’s a gladsome cry.

We We We! (image by gustavorezende, on

“The ethnicity of the governor’s pardon is questioned.”

This may be the last post on the “girl who cried rape” essay topic.

As an earlier post tells the story, a teenager blamed her imagined pregnancy on a randomly-chosen “rapist” to protect her boyfriend, and pursued her charge (perhaps unwillingly, especially after she realized she wasn’t pregnant) through the trial and conviction of that hapless man. After he had served eight years in prison, and she had been “born again,” she tried to undo her lie, but the judge told her a conviction that had been based solely on her testimony could not be reversed solely on her changed testimony. She turned to the press and then to the governor, and finally the governor pardoned the man. My students were to write about whether or not justice has now been done.

The student who wrote today’s Horror wanted to argue that justice had not been done, and began by challenging the pardon itself (on the grounds that the governor has no way of knowing if he’s pardoning an actual rapist). You can just feel the fire in his veins in that passive-voice sentence, can’t you? He won’t even own his own argument.

Obviously he has also confused ethics and ethnicity. I know this for sure because nothing was mentioned about race or ethnicity in the fact-sheet they were working from, and nothing in his essay suggested that he was making assumptions about that either.

So for him, it’s just a Wrong Word Choice. The words do look a lot alike: ethic and ethnic. But when they start to acquire suffixes, they part ways: ethicality, ethnicity. Was he inventing the word ethicity and “helped” by an officious Spell Check that inserted an n? Or did he confuse the words from the beginning?

He wanted to ask whether the pardon was ethical. I knew what he meant, and I just provided the correct term for him and moved on.

But, had he known it, he did have a point. There has long been a demonstrable ethnic bias in American jurisprudence and law enforcement; that this was not an element in the case he was writing about makes that fact no less factual, and no less regrettable. Ethnicity comes into play less often in pardons than in convictions, though.

The long-ago executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were linked with ethnic bias. The recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia is another, most recent, case in point. The pardon denied these people (and others) had better not be waiting for any judges or governors up there at the Pearly Gates.

And now in Florida we have the killing of Trayvon Martin, a case where ethnicity seems to have played a role in the killing itself and in the police handling of the shooter and the victim. With the entrance of the Department of Justice into the case (after nearly a month) we have to hope that any questions of ethnicity, except where it might be motivation for crime or negligence, are set aside and justice is actually pursued.

There’s a reason the iconographical statue of Justice wears a blindfold, and it isn’t because she’s trying to ignore truth; it’s because in the rendering of justice she doesn’t care about looks, wealth, family name, or ethnicity or race; she just cares about justice. If there is “ethnicity” in some governor’s thinking, it had damned well better be questioned.

Justice. Scales for the evidence; blindfold for the lack of bias. You can't see her sword in this picture; she wields it only after weighing the evidence!

I write this in memory of all those whose racial or ethnic “identity” came between them and justice at one or many points in the process (act, arrest, trial, or execution), and especially:

In memoriam Sacco and Vanzetti.

In memoriam Troy Davis.

In memoriam Emmet Till.

In memoriam Trayvon Martin—may his killer be brought to justice.

“…a deeper, more perplexed theory…”

Ah, how I wish I had saved the context for this one!

I think I knew what my student meant. I think she meant to refer to a deeper, more COMPLEX theory.

“Perplexed” must have gotten in there by means of the back door invented by Herr S. Freud: my student’s own state of mind attached itself to the theory she meant to characterize. This is a good possibility; if she had been characterizing the theory itself, surely she would have said “more perplexing,” not “more perplexed.” That the theory could have been perplexed is highly unlikely, at least in the universe as we know it—or as we have constructed it by means of language.

I wouldn’t blame my student for being perplexed. As students arrive at college with smaller and smaller working vocabularies (as opposed to SAT-crammed ones) and weaker and weaker analytical skills, the critical and other scholarly articles we expect them to deploy in research papers are written in increasingly obscure and esoteric language. I’m a pretty good and fairly savvy reader, and I find articles in my own discipline rough going (too long since grad school, I guess; too far from instruction in the prevailing lingo). The Sokal hoax—the fact that the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was taken seriously by academic editors and then by quite a few academic readers even after its perpetrator announced he had tailored the scholarly equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes and the scales fell from all eyes—should be still vivid enough in every scholar’s consciousness to keep us honest and humble, even if it makes no dent in the way many continue to insist on writing.

No wonder so many students plagiarize parts of their research papers, or write assemblages rather than arguments. The sources were Published, for heaven’s sake, which means they are Important and True; but the hapless student writer can’t make heads or tails of what the sources say, while still being pretty sure the sources should be in there. The only way not to get the ideas wrong is to copy the source straight out…or, I guess, to hire another writer who does understand them, or who claims to understand them. I don’t excuse this behavior, but I do sympathize with the desperation in the student who engages in it.

I’d like to start a “Back to English” movement in scholarly writing. I have no objection to complicated sentences, as long as they’re well punctuated and grammatically coherent—no surprise there, eh? But I do feel that there’s a point at which, or an audience for whom, words concocted to carry exquisitely precise but also vastly abstract meanings aren’t worth using, and words that mean one thing shouldn’t be preempted to mean something quite other (“rubric,” anyone? please! I know a matrix when I see one!). And I also feel that no matter how complex an idea is, there must be some point at which it can be uttered in a straightforward way: clear syntax, accessible vocabulary. Anchor the reader with a general, concrete, or simplified utterance and then go ahead and refine the hell out of it until you get to what you really mean (or really think you mean). In fact, I’d hazard the opinion that a writer who can’t do this—can’t lay a discernible foundation for the intellectual structure that follows—isn’t a writer….

…or, alternatively, that the writer’s theory is itself perplexed, despite its depth. I guess there could be such a thing as a theory so deep that it’s out of its depth.

“Our forefathers struggled veraciously to protect against tyranny.”

This one gets filed under “wiser than he knew.”

It’s true: the truth will set you free, from tyranny or any other destructive delusion. And as far as I can tell, most of our forefathers were struggling honestly, dealing truthfully, as they brought a new form of government into the world of the 18th century. My American Lit class just discussed the Declaration of Independence last week: many were surprised that the Declaration’s assertions and resolutions rest on a long list of evidence that clarifies and justifies the fateful decision to throw off the tyrant.

Justice Lewis Brandeis put it figuratively but made the same point: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

I don’t think my student meant to talk about the great sword of Truth, though. What did he mean?

The first and most readily explained possibility is “voraciously.” It’s only one letter away, and we might legitimately say they fought with great hunger, with an insatiable appetite, for freedom—freedom from the tyranny of George III, and freedom from the tyranny of disharmony that can impose unpleasant decisions as a way of quelling conflict (thank you, O Constitution)… and then freedom from the tyranny of the majority (thank you, O Bill of Rights). Their hunger for liberty was vast, and it prompted and enabled their struggle.

But I don’t think that was in his mind either.

Most likely candidate: “ferociously.” Only two letters different, and of the three possible adverbs the most appropriate (and obvious) to modify “struggled.” But I think for ferocious fighters we’d have to look at the stalwart foot soldiers of the Army of the Revolution, not at the educated and principled gentlemen (for the most part) who articulated its cause and steered its aftermath.

Not sure about that word “protect,” considering that the Revolution began to rid the Colonies of tyranny, not keep it out before it got in. But that’s a far less interesting issue here, and we’ll move on.

What makes the original statement so compelling right now is the current political season, or so far perhaps we should say “circus,” and the loudest of the media that keep us informed on it. Most of the candidates are claiming to have plans to protect against tyranny, although they don’t all agree on what that tyranny might consist of. But most of them, despite struggling ferociously by means of charges and countercharges and claims and counterclaims, and perhaps struggling voraciously, driven by a hunger to rule the nation or attach a nice title to their names or reshape the nation according to their notions, are not paying a whole lot of attention to the truth—or, at least sometimes, are deliberately turning their backs on Truth because she would interfere with their ferocity. And too few in the media are calling them out, and too many are urging them on.

Especially in a democracy, a form of government that depends entirely on the informed voter, the best way to protect against tyranny is to struggle veraciously: tell the truth, and demand the truth.

Let my student’s sentence, as written, serve as a Call to Arms!

“People thought the Titanic was going to be indestructible because it was the greatest ship they had made so far.”

I’m going to be playful in this post, but before I begin I want to say that as I write it, I am still mindful of the terrible Costa Concordia accident and the lives lost there.

My student’s sentence is somewhat awkward and probably not really exactly what he meant to say, but I think he’s put his finger on something nevertheless.

Hubris is a terrible thing, and it is waiting at every turn. Especially at the moment that we think “Well, this is the greatest thing I have ever done,” or “This is my best accomplishment,” or “Look how terrific I am,” we invite it to pounce on us and pound us on our impressive backs, shouting not “pretty good for a human being” but “You Are A God!” Thus the “people” in this sentence, who assume that a comparable (“greatest”) is the same as an absolute (“indestructible”).

My student knows more than they knew: he knows the “so far” part. The best so far isn’t the same as the best possible. My sister’s lurching baby toddle, immortalized on film to her great adult chagrin, was the best walking she had achieved so far. She was better at it even the very next day: We know this because we have all lurched and toddled, and then caught up to our feet, found our center, and gotten the walking thing right; some of us have even become ballerinas or marathon runners…who every day strive to do the best they have done so far.

Icebergs, rocks, vanity: all can bring down our towering achievements. Knowing that makes them all the lovelier, but should not make us believe the hubristic voice that urges us to think nothing can surpass them, or defeat them. When such thinking takes us over in an individual endeavor, perhaps we set only ourselves up for disaster; but those who make decisions on which multiple lives depend had better remember their own humanity, which ought to resemble humility in more than a few letters.


I copied only this word, no context.

Isn’t it lovely?

Sometimes a close and chronically critical listener will hear some strange oral alterations to words, from the incidental and minimal all the way to the spectacular and the hilarious. One of the minimal/incidental types is the insertion of little schwas, little unaccented and phonetically neutral sounds, between syllables, usually in words with consonant clusters (“atheletics,” for instance–the schwa properly typed looks like an upside-down e). Here’s a quickie Wikipedia definition, by way of which I have suddenly learned that the word originates in Hebrew! How irrelevant to my point, but how interesting!

I imagine my student meant “ancestry,” pure and simple, and was merely writing it down in the way she had heard it pronounced, possibly by her family. I can insert a schwa in this word without much effort and make it seem pretty natural, although the sound mine makes is closer to an “e” than an “o”: ancestery.

Did she mean more? The disillusioned voice of too many years of teaching first-year writers suggests the answer is “no.”

But I’ve just spent hours sitting at holiday tables listening to, and recounting, family stories—haven’t we all? This is one of the holiday rituals that really strengthen bonds while delighting the older family members and making the younger  ones squirm with impatience or, if they’ve brought special friends to the feast, embarrassment. Once they’ve grown up in their turn, those younger ones will find themselves wishing they’d listened a little more closely.

Anyway, speaking as a listener-to and a teller-of the old family stories, I’m fully aware that they are mixtures of fact and fancy so closely and permanently blended as to be properly described as literature, stories with both denotative and connotative significance—stories that, regardless of their factual accuracy, resonate with a deep human truth. I have probably added a few of those “fancy” elements myself, especially where the straight reporter in me noticed a missing piece of the narrative line and almost by instinct filled it smoothly in with a detail or explanation that probably was what happened, or most likely was why this happened…or just made everything more interesting. That’s the point of storytelling, after all, isn’t it?

What are the resulting narratives called? I can’t think of a better term than ancestory, and I hope you and yours have plenty of them!

“They gave the women no credit where credit was adieu.”

This is one of the strangest Horrors I’ve ever gotten. How in the world can “adieu” have gotten in there?

My mother used to like to recite a comic poem you won’t hear nowadays, alas, because of the Italian stereotype….But you can still find it online: “Giuseppe the Barber”—or, as I’ve just learned by looking for a copy to link to, “Mia Carlotta.”  It’s a great recitation piece, and a good example of that once-thriving form, dialect humor. If you can put your enlightened attitude about ethnic and linguistic respect aside for a moment, give it a try. Come on, nobody’s here but us polli.

Anyway, Giuseppe might have written my student’s Horror, because he habitually converts the unstressed final vowel sound typical of Italian into an “a” that he attaches to English words. True, he attaches it at the end of the word, appropriately enough for the language conversion he’s attempting; but letters on the ends of words migrate to the beginnings of adjacent words more easily than Giuseppe could board a ship: witness English words like a nuncle/an uncle and an ewt/a newt. So let’s assume a wandering “a” for Giuseppe when he encounters the phrase “credit where credit is due.” Voilà. Or should I say Ecco.

But my student was not trying to translate from one language to another, although he managed to do so anyway. Why not “no credit where credit was ado,” if he felt the need for an “a”? Maybe he had never seen the word “ado.” What a shame, if so. It would make an interesting comment. Certainly when I was house-hunting, I experienced Much Ado About Credit. I’m not sure credit itself was ado, although later, running up to 2008, this might be exactly what we can say happened. At least for the mortgage-slice-and-dicers and the credit-card-sharks, credit was ado. Or maybe it was amok.

Thinking Back to The Day, I confess my student may have been accidentally onto something. One of the big issues in the Women’s Liberation Movement II was the difficulty women, particularly unmarried women, had getting credit. For them, credit was adieu, in a sense: A lady walks into a bank and says, “I want to get a loan.” Banker says, “Adieu, lady.” (Yes, oh sharp of ear, I was channeling Greta Garbo there for a minute.) This experience was shared by American blacks, and other ethnic or socioeconomic groups I’m sure. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and a somewhat reasonable Congress (ah, those were The Days!), those barriers were removed, for the most part.

Of course nowadays credit is adieu for us all, or for 99% of us, bringing a new meaning to the term “equality.”

Okay, back to grading. Warning: I have a lot to say about dialect humor, and I will say it one of these days. Meanwhile, if you haven’t looked at “Mia Carlotta,” go and do that. Enjoy all the fondly-reminiscing comments, too (including the two confused ones that identify the poem’s speaker as Spanish and “negro”!).

Don't you wish YOU gotta?

“This woman is suffering from post pardon depression.”

He is writing about the narrator/main character in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gripping picture of a descent into madness. In 1892, when the story was first published, the term “post-partum depression” and indeed the very concept were unknown; but to the modern eye, that does seem to be where the narrator begins. My student, too, seems unfamiliar with the term, even though it had been mentioned in the class’s speculative discussion. “Post pardon” is the closest his inner lexicon will let him get.

In Shakespeare’s day and for some time after—and indeed, possibly today, if the speaker is bold enough or imaginative enough—one could be pregnant with something other than a fetus (or child or homunculus). It could be an idea, a task, an expectation of any kind; in fact, in a sixteenth-century play I read, it was imprisonment. We do still call some pauses, the ones that seem freighted with potential meaning, “pregnant.” Metaphorical usages of “labor” and “delivery” also abounded, as they do today. I think referring to an extended, intense, and hopeful task as a pregnancy is really not only useful, but also appropriate.

A lot of us have experienced the emotional equivalent of a step off an unexpected curb: a sudden disconcerting, briefly disorienting not-there-ness. Sometimes this feeling is followed by a kind of hollow wandering, a sense of loss of we know not what, even a kind of depression. All my fellow grad students and I remarked on this after passing our PhD qualifying exams: two years of course work and then a summer of unimaginably intense study (sometimes punctuated by brief flights into alcohol or the mists of marijuana), and then three days of written and oral exams, and then… “Congratulations! Go ahead and make arrangements with a dissertation director!” Rush to the phone booth, “Daddy, I passed! Yes! Whew!” Stagger home, take housemates out to dinner, hit the mattress, sweet dreams. And wake up the next morning to…what? what? what?

I’m feeling it this morning, after the closing performance yesterday of a show that was sheer delight and very intense work and suspense and high gratification with a cast and crew that were top-notch in their individual work and even more so as an ensemble, in Conor McPherson’s fabulous The Seafarer, to the kind of audience response that directors dream of. This morning I wake up to: forgot to put the garbage out, get myself together for two weeks of finals at my two schools, try to clean the house we call the Slough of Despond…where’s the excitement? where’s the joy? Where’s the rush?

I could call both these moments, and others like them over the years, step-off-the-curbs, or curb crises, or some such. But for a long time I’ve referred to them as post-partum depression. The great adventure has been accomplished. Now what?

In this light, my student’s Horror can almost pass. Think of a convict serving years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. The lawyers, the petitions, the arguments, the appeals, the hope… What if it’s successful? Reading about The Innocence Project, that noble and eye-opening endeavor that began as an assignment for a journalism class, I rejoice in the lives rescued from at least total injustice, but I’m also saddened to read of a number of people freed by that and similar efforts who, after a flutter in the free air, commit a crime and go to jail, or fall into despair, dislocation, and inertia. I think post pardon depression may be a real thing.

My student’s error is funny, certainly. But does it have a grain of truth he wasn’t aware of?

I think I’ll pick up some candy canes to take to today’s exam.

“The way to win a man’s heart is through his pallet.”

Not much needs to be said here.

For a word that sounds like this, a writer has four choices available: palate, the roof of the mouth or the “seat of taste”; palette, the board on which a painter places or mixes paints while working; pallet, a straw mattress or other temporary bed; and pallette, a piece of armor that shields the armpits.

I know my student meant the first, in a fancier phrasing of the cliché “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” (By adding “win,” she also changed the meaning of “way” from “road” to “method,” but that’s neither especially important nor especially interesting, so we’ll not pursue it. ) Well, good for her. Not just a hungry male: she’s talking about a discriminating one. Or she means to be talking about a discriminating one. Maybe, anyway.

If she wasn’t going to choose the correct word, I’m delighted that she didn’t make any references to painting equipment or armpits. I believe men with those particular tastes are relatively rare.

The error she did make was the fortunate, and probably fortuitous, choice. A young woman in her first year of college, she might already have learned a deeper lesson than the cliché teaches, and our friend Freud may have been guiding her typing fingers to express it.

(I should note here that the rest of the essay was neither satirical nor critical, and this writer was not likely to have known the word “pallet.” That the word she wrote was the word she meant is highly unlikely.)

I’m afraid today’s Horror falls into the category of “unintentionally true.” Your profiteroles or Coquilles Mornay will probably not go as far in seducing the average nineteen-year-old male as your roll in the hay.