Friday, January 1, 2016

Misteaks, Mis-Takes, m-Stakes, Unconventional Writing

by Jean Roberta

In some contexts, I can agree that there are really no mistakes, that every experience has the potential of making one wiser, and that the journey is more important than the destination.

If we’re discussing sentence construction, however, I doubt if I will ever agree that every word choice is beautiful in its own way.

There is a war on over this, and I can’t see how the two sides could possibly agree on a treaty.

Here is a passage from an essay written by one of my students in the final exam:

“When an individual reads this poem, they may be (in a sense), be interacting with Shakespeares lover. Even though the person may not physically be here, the poem is the root for their soul. Shakespeare indicated that this poem shows the amount of care and love he has put into a poem, which then gives him the first of many to indicate his eternal love for them.”

Does this explain Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”) to your satisfaction? If not, are you a philistine who refuses to see the beauty of creative composition? When I explain to students that their writing is unclear, ungrammatical, or both, I am often told that I am a born bureaucrat, a stickler for old rules that no longer apply in the twenty-first century.

When I ask students why they switched verb tenses in the middle of a paragraph, I don’t necessarily mean that they made a mistake. When a statement that “Character A walks into the room” is followed by “Years later, he had considered the consequences,” I would really like to know why present tense is followed by past perfect, especially if the description of events seems intended to be chronological.

In this case, I rarely get a logical explanation. Usually, I get a confused look, and a defensive claim that “I just write what I feel,” or a question: “What do you want me to write?”

These reactions could be excused as evidence of naivete in typical university undergraduates (generally aged 18-22), but those who write unclearly have an enormous amount of support.

There is the special-needs argument that students who have learning disabilities or psychological problems such as attention-deficit disorders shouldn’t be held to the same standards as students in the default (“normal”) category. A spokesperson from the university office for students with disabilities once addressed a meeting of the English Department by pleading for the “rights” of the disabled, including the right to get passing grades on written assignments, apparently without regard for their quality. “Is it really that important for students to use commas in the right places?” she asked. For a moment, there was a loud silence in the room.

Compared to global warming and the constant threat of another world war, I thought, the placement of commas is not that important. If I were in a life-threatening situation and needed to contact someone who could save me, I probably wouldn’t worry much about commas. It doesn’t follow that punctuation should be considered irrelevant to the needs of students in a university English class.

Then there is the anti-racist argument that if a person who learned (or is still learning) English as an adult writes unclearly, he/she should not be “punished” for this by getting a failing grade in a class, or by getting fired from a writing job. When I have complained about the writing of students from elsewhere, I’ve been asked, “How well can you write in their language(s)?”

My response is that when a bilingual friend of mine who learned French at her mother’s knee advised me to apply for a job at L’Eau Vive [“Fresh Water,” the local weekly French-language newspaper] on grounds that this would be a good job for a writer, I said, “Pas du tout.” I knew that my French is nowhere close to being “comme il faut” and that a hefty French-English dictionary couldn’t help me enough.

Then there is the Humpty-Dumpty argument. (In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty-Dumpty tells Alice that when he uses a word, it means whatever he wants it to mean. He tells her that the issue is “who is to be master.”) Several months ago, one of my students contacted the Associate Dean of Arts to ask him to assign some other prof to reread her essay (on guess what? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18) because I had given her a disappointing grade on it.

Among other statements in the essay, the student claimed that Shakespeare was describing “irreverent beauty.” When I met with her, I explained to her that if you revere something, you respect it a lot. Therefore, if someone or something (?) is “irreverent,” this adjective essentially means disrespectful. I asked how the “beauty” described by Shakespeare was disrespectful – of what or whom? She couldn’t really answer my question, but she said the sentence sounded “right” to her.

Luckily, in this case, the Associate Dean was on my side, but there seems to be a Peasants’ Revolt going on outside the Ivory Tower, and its spokespeople have been firing shots since at least the 1960s. From time to time, a delegation of rebels breaks in to tell us we’re doing it wrong, and that we need to become aware of how unfair it is to discriminate between “good” and “bad” writing. Isn’t that a completely subjective value judgment? (No.) How dare we grade non-English-speaking writers “down?” (We dare this because language is ethnocentric by definition – not that adult language-learners can’t learn to write brilliantly in their second or third language.)

I’m sure the war won’t end in my lifetime. I just hope that no misplaced punctuation or misleading verbiage finds its way onto my tombstone.

Happy First Day of 2016! May the force (of clear expression) be with you!


  1. In my view there is a difference between academic qualifications at a certain level and competency tests. In the UK the academic qualifications begin, essentially, with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in which a student can gain grades from an A* (A star) at the highest score through to an F (lowest actual grade) or a U (even lower since it means 'ungraded'. Because schools are judged as succeeding or failing according to the per capita of students number of GCSE passes at grade C (the level most employers are believed to consider the minimum required) the pressure is on schools to obtain as many GCSE A to C grade passes as possible among their students. No alternative structure is offered, so children with learning difficulties are also pressured into taking the GCSE, including the English GCSE which includes study of Shakespeare, of poetry and of more modern novelists.This is often stressful for those students and for their teachers, and what would be more worthwhile would be a separate examination system based purely on competency levels so that someone getting a particular grade would be considered to have sufficient ability in English to write a decent letter, an email, be able to file alphabetically and so on. This would be for students who would probably never look at Shakespeare or any other form of serious literature after leaving school, and of these there are many. Whilst the academic students would be able to acquire an additional, separate competency qualification, those with learning difficulties would need to aim only for the competency qualification. The big problem then is that you need teachers, timetable slots and rooms for the 'competency classes', and you're not going to get those with education finance in its present state. I don't want to fly in a plane that is piloted by somebody whose qualifications were adjudicated sympathetically on the basis of their having some degree of disability, and I don't want our kids taught by people whose academic qualifications were fudged for the same reason

  2. Can there be any winners in a race to the bottom? 'Literally' and 'figuratively' already mean the same thing. Can a 'virtual' degree be far in the future?

  3. If you're teaching a course in writing and/or literature, it's your job to teach students the rules of grammar, sentence construction, literary analysis, and whatever else the course requires. Teachers who don't grade their students on how well they learn these things aren't doing the job they're paid for. I can see, say, a history teacher giving more credit for substance than for form, although clarity has to count even then, but the facts and influences of history are what are being taught. In English writing classes, proper writing is what's being taught, and students should feel cheated if that isn't the case. I was going to say "that's what they're there for," but I suppose the majority are just there to get the required credits and grades that won't bring down their averages.

    Full disclosure: the only reason I passed the required college French course was that the professor gave two grades on each paper, one for the analysis of the literature being studied, and a separate one for the proper use of the language. My strength was definitely not in the latter. Even though I benefitted from her policy--which none of the other French professors there shared, as far as I could tell--I don't, and didn't, think it was right.

  4. I'm deeply concerned by the trends you cite here, Jean. (Also, I'm delighted you've come up with such a original yet relevant direction to conclude out our fortnight discussing "mistakes".)

    I blame the increasing emphasis on visual media for the notion that clear and correct language usage is unimportant. There's this (mistaken, in my opinion) notion that a picture is worth a thousand words and by extension, the words aren't important. For instance, instead of publishing user manuals, software companies now just put "tutorial videos" up on YouTube, and figure they've done their jobs.

    Of course, the less they read, the fewer models students will have for correct English. I admire what you do, as difficult and frustrating as it must be--it's critically important.

    As to it being "unfair to discriminate between good and bad writing", this isn't a value judgement. Issues of style are subjective, and even grammatical correctness can be argued in some cases, but there's no possible circumstance under which the paragraph you cite could be considered correct English.

  5. What a thread! Thanks for commenting, all. I agree that there are different levels of language competency, and that someone who never heard of Shakespeare could be competent in a variety of jobs that require a basic knowledge of English. However, I don't agree with students who tell me they "don't need" to understand poetry because they never intend to write it. When a student tells me he (it's usually a he) has a strictly practical approach to language, I show him a publishing contract and ask him to sum up the rights and obligations on both sides. It turns out that most students who don't understand poetry also don't understand legalese! I also agree that lack of funding makes a bad situation worse. I really hope the new Liberal gov't of Canada will raise funding levels for universities, but time will tell. Re grading standards, I follow a scheme proposed years ago by a colleague of mine. Student essays get 3 grades (one for overall argument, one for paragraph structure & use of quoted evidence, one for sentence-level stuff: word choice, spelling, punctuation.) Then I add up the grades, divide them by 3, and the result is the official grade. I spend some time in the first week showing on the blackboard how 2 different essays could both get scores of 6 out of 10.

  6. The arguments the students put forth are mainstream. This is why I talked my son out of getting his degree in English. No one values the ability to read/analyze/synthesize information. They say they do, but "they" also say they value children and education, and we all know that's a pile of crap, since teachers are some of the lowest paid "professionals." And my daughter insisted on getting her degree in elementary education...sigh.

    When I was in sales, after 5 years I was promoted to an office position. One of the vice-presidents used to send me back every memo I sent out, with a red pen having marked up all of what he called, "extra words he didn't have time to read." No matter how terse I tried to make my memos, he always found fault in them. I finally asked someone over lunch if that VP had a college degree. Of course he didn't...and he probably had hated his English teachers, so he was taking it out on me.

    Being a good English teacher is all about teaching others how to organize their thoughts to express them coherently, either verbally or on paper. You are teaching that person to think. But we don't value thinking much either. Hence the popularity of our current crop of politicians.

    FYI, my hernia surgery went well, and I'm on the mend. Work starts tomorrow again, but "only" at one job. The teachers have an institute day, so no calls to sub until Tuesday at the earliest. I'm trying to catch up on emails today. Almost 1000. Will be a while before I'm done.

  7. Glad to hear you are on the mend, Fiona! Re time management, look up a blogger named Kelly Diels, who has written "Time Is a Feminist Issue." There is a link on Facebook, but I didn't write it down.

  8. I would so love if people generally could get a better understand of what is and isn't subjective. I have rants on all sides of this issue, but it really frustrates me when people try to argue that grammar is subjective. Or, on the other side, that certain stylistic guidelines aren't.