Category Archives: your guess is as good as mine

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him…”

You may think at first that my student was writing about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the character-name “Orinso” suggests something more in the soap-opera line…

All right, yes: she was writing about Twelfth Night.  And I’m willing to assume, because the other names are correct, that “Orinso” is merely an o’typo—although that play has been through a number of strange variations at the hands of students, including one who seems to have thought it was an episode from The Morte d’Arthur.

The student error this sentence really reminds me of is a lovely misuse of the word “gander” as a transitive verb—I invite you to read my discussion of it, which may persuade you, as it has persuaded me, to adopt the error as part of your own colorful verbal armory.

I think I would have liked the sentence here better if it had ended after the ninth word: “Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia.” “Swoon” can be a noun (“a partial or total loss of consciousness…a state of bewilderment or ecstasy…a state of suspended animation,” says Webster) or a verb (“to faint…to become enraptured…to float or fade”). But, as Webster assures us, “swoon” is an INtransitive verb; that is, it takes no object. I suppose a writer could get away with writing “She swooned a swoon of joy,” but I can’t think of anything else one could swoon. Still, picturing Cesario/Viola trying to swoon Olivia is rather charming; perhaps it would involve putting a swooning spell on her? In my student’s mind, perhaps there could have been a vision of the comely Viola-in-Cesario-disguise standing before an Olivia fainting with rapture. I’d be willing to buy that as an explanation for the first nine words.

But she goes on. “To swoon Olivia to like him”? What is in her mind? Does she mean Cesario is to try to put a spell on Olivia to like Orinso? (Really, I have to apologize. I should be calling him “Orsino,” since I have confessed that I believe “Orinso” was bad typing rather than bad thinking—but I’m really, really getting a kick out of pretending Shakespeare named a character “Orinso.”) Anyway, Cesario trying to put a spell on Olivia to like him: could that be the intention?

No way of knowing. And of course there’s a little more. Here’s the whole sentence:

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him and that’s when it really starts.”

Is this statement a companion piece to another, long-ago, student’s comment that “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble”? So young they are, and so jaded.

Does she mean that the play really starts when Orinso makes this difficult request of Viola? Or does she mean the attraction of Olivia to Viola? or the fun starts? or the trouble? Well, something really starts, anyway.

Let it be a lesson to us all. When we try to swoon people into doing things, we start something. And there’s no predicting how it will all turn out.

Happy New Year!

“Horses were not always house pets.”

This sits alone in a margin of an old gradebook. I have no context for it, although another Horror a few pages later does mention a character in Equus, so maybe this student was also writing about that play, although I have never taught it in a course.

I once had a student who built her assigned literature anthology on the subject of horses. This gradebook is from the University where I used that assignment. Perhaps, then, it is a statement from her anthology’s Introduction. In that case, it might have been one of those opening statements that offer the reader a quick and breathtakingly generalized vision of history.

Did she then mean to observe that horses were not always domesticated but used to live free and wild? But many domesticated animals live in designated areas other than their human family’s own dwelling. Even back in the days when domestic animals lived under the same roof as their human family, they were segregated from the rest of the living quarters and were definitely not thought of as “pets” or invited to climb up on laps or sofas.

I had to share this, if only for the bizarre image…although the thought did cross my mind that I might find a nice picture of a wild horse to drive home the point, as it were. My consequent trip through Creative Commons yielded a photo so bizarre that I hesitate to put it here although Creative Commons would let me. It is evidently “from Francesca Romana” and may have something to do with the closing of a horse track in Milan. It is so appropriate to this post that it might almost be a photo taken or inspired by my student. Anyway, I invite you to follow this link and judge for yourself whether horses have, in fact, become house pets unbeknownst to you or me:

Beyond this, I believe my student’s sentence needs no further comment. Let it stand as unembellished and unexplained. Enjoy imagining contexts for it, or picturing the many dimensions of strangeness that lurk beneath her serene observation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…the governments would revert to equality…”

My prolonged lack of new posts is the result of several newsletters, a stage production, and a mountain of student papers and exams coming into extravagant collision.

Today’s post is, thank goodness, NOT so much typical as cumulative. That is, this student managed, in his meanderings and maunderings, to sum up so much of what drives us paper-readers to despair. I leave it to you to decide if he actually thinks he’s saying something or merely trying to  free-associate his way to filling up the required number of pages. (The topic, by the way, was of his own choosing!)

I take comfort in my hopeful belief that he is not majoring in economics, political science, history, sociology, or logic. Or, of course, writing.


“Greed prevents governments that are harmful to society like that of communism and socialism. Greed makes it so that there is a division between social classes, this division helps to separate the classes and stop the spread of communism. If greed did not exist the world would indeed be a better place but the governments would revert to equality among the classes and the sharing of wealth, which in the long run would deplete the economies.”

“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.”

“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!

“Parents always stretch an extra limb for their children.”

I know already that when I check the “categories” boxes for this I’ll be checking “Your guess is as good as mine.”

I can imagine parents stretching out a helping hand for their children. I can see them going the extra mile. I know they will risk life and limb.

My student’s bizarre image may be an amalgam of these: the stretch, the extra, the limb…

But what I see is a tree-like parent sprouting a new branch that then grows and grows, out in the direction of the children, eventually reaching them. Perhaps then they clamber up onto the branch to swing, or climb, or read a book. I don’t know if I find this idea sweet or creepy. Certainly it’s a creepy picture. And if the parents always do this, they must develop quite a thick and tangled maze of branches before the kids finally move out of the house in search of other, younger limbs.

This picture is less bizarre than the other one I get, parents producing extra arms and legs, those limbs elongating themselves…. Would this stretching be done “for” the children’s assistance, “for” their comfort, or “for” their amusement? My student does not say. For their sakes, I guess.

I believe that if my niece needed some extraordinary kind of help, my sister and brother-in-law would find a way to generate an extra limb if that’s what it took. This is parental love.

And I know my student meant to describe just that kind of love.

However creepy (or just bizarre) the picture she created, it certainly beats the hell out of what most of my students say their parents will do for them: “be there for them.” Cold-hearted, I always write “where?” in the margin. I know what this expression is meant to mean, too; I’m just sick of it. Talk about wishy-washy sentimentality. I can’t steel myself to be so cruel as to write that in the margin; I’ll have to let the writers live long enough to read the phrase a thousand times or two, at which point they’ll realize that its meaning resides only in the writer’s mind (or soul), doesn’t make the trip onto the page where the reader can see it. And then they’ll stop writing it.

Meanwhile, I’ll prefer the image of that extra parental limb, stretching, endlessly stretching….

“One feels precious Kosher casualness in Edgar Degas’ ‘Woman in the Bath.'”


I take delight in this Horror but have no idea where to begin to think about why my student wrote it.

Is “precious Kosher” meant to be “precocious”? But would that be any improvement?

Is the casualness Degas’ or the bathing woman’s? What’s the difference between Kosher casualness and Tref casualness?

I have a sneaking feeling, largely because of the “one feels,” that this sentence is copied from some critic’s statement but with vocabulary substitutions, my student trying not to plagiarize but not realizing that 1) mere word-substitution is no protection from plagiarism and 2) the sentence as now written has no discernible meaning.

The alternative, of course, is that he was trying to say something deep and just made a series of disastrous word choices. “Kosher” would be a particularly ironic choice in view of the fact that Degas became decidedly antisemitic in his later life.

I beg for suggestions from my resourceful and inventive readers. WHAT do you think my student is trying to say?

“These two novels express love and relationships and were written long after one another.”

Neither piece was actually a novel, but then, many students lately seem to have a remarkably hard time differentiating among poetry, prose, and plays, let alone fiction and nonfiction. Why? Oh, sure, heady discussions of the finer points of genre go on in graduate schools. But an undergraduate should be able to tell prose from poetry at twenty paces!

I know literature can express love; but how can it “express” relationships?

But both of these considerations are breathtakingly swept aside by the final observation that the two pieces were “written long after one another.” The statement reminds me of a horror I’ve already written about, “People blame one thing after the next.” Are we living at such a speed now that time has become circular?

At least I’m getting dizzy here! Rather than try to talk about this any further, I will leave you to ponder the relativity, circularity, malleability, ineffability, of time.

Three deep questions. Enjoy!

“Most people don’t actually think with their brains.”

I honestly don’t know what more there is to be said!

Of course, trying to imagine what else these people do think with is very entertaining.