Monday, April 29, 2013

Post-Literacy Post

"If they're REALLY too dumb to live, how are they HERE?"
So, I realize that we live in a post-literacy world. A world where, occasionally, the kids in my class are astonished to find out that certain words have spellings other than the ones they learned while texting each other. I get that. I daresay I've even somewhat made peace with it.

What I cannot make peace with is the idiomatic illiteracy (illidiocy?). Mind you, I'm not talking about the majority of my students, so maybe it's a little unfair to condemn "kids these days" for the stupidity of just a few, but even if most of my students aren't turning in these malapropisms, there's a steady stream of them, and not always from the same kids, leading me to believe that the problem is rather widespread. And I'm not just talking about classic and common confusions such as "baited breath" or "tow the line." Oh, no.


Examples? Oh, sure, why not. A smattering:


  • There's the poor dear who found herself "in turn oil" over some conundrum.
  • The kid who who was "at a lost," possibly over the same issue.
  • One child proposed that she might "beg to defer." Though the imagination leapt, I am fairly sure this wasn't a come-on.
  • Continuing in that theme, one student constructed an example involving one co-worker "making a past" at another. This wasn't a typo - it was repeated multiple times in the essay.
  • And then there was the otherwise-stellar student who repeatedly found himself "at what's end."
Truly, I am at what's end.

29 comments:

  1. I feel your pain. They don't read, is what it amounts to. They hear these common phrases and make sense of them phonetically.



    Good reading habits and a well-used copy of Strunk and White put me well ahead of many of my college classmates in terms of writing ability. But then, I also cared about my writing, so there's that.

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  2. I have a slew of these, but I teach several sections of the developmental sequence of comp, so that's somewhat expected. I really despair when these 'mondegreens' show up in the upper-division courses.

    My three favorite typos (less mondegreens than homophone problem) from this week:

    1. "The right to bare arms." I find special glee when I see this on NRA-type posts.

    2. "We need to get rid of the world's waist" (even the world is overweight!)...

    And: "According to God's diving command..." (interesting commandment that seems to privilege the swimmers of the world).

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    1. The meek shall inherit the bottom of the pool.

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  3. My favorite, although it was a comment on a FB photo rather than in academic writing, is "Total black male material!" I'm not sure I want to ask what ze thinks the etymology of that phrase is . . .

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  4. Not to make excuses, but could it be some of them are using speech recognition software (alluded to in the post about linguistics majors)? I can see where that could happen and, lacking proofreading skills, they turn these papers in because no red squiggle-lines appear on the page.

    One of my offspring just HAD to have one of these. It was a Christmas present and was only used long enough to realize more time was spent correcting it than would be needed to just type it oneself. Granted, it does say in the fine print on the box that it has a "learning curve" that must be overcome, but they don't tell you that on the commercials.

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  5. In some cases that's the fault of spell-check software. I once had a student whose lab report replaced every instance of the word "ethanol" with "ethical"." There were several other similar errors, I forget exactly what, but the cumulative effect was to turn what had been a merely bad report into perfectly-spelled word salad.

    I also see students losing terminal /t/ and /ts/ in pronunciation, and I think this affects their spelling -- I get "scientist are certain that. . .", for example, instead of "scientists", and I think it's because they just pronounce both as "scientiss". This may be why you get "making a past" and "at a lost" -- they might not distinguish "pass" and "past" in speech any more. And since they don't read except when forced, they may have no idea that the difference exists.

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    1. Spell-check software also wreaks havoc on students' attempts at using style guides. Why, oh why does MLA have to use lower-case initials with periods? (e.g., n.p. n.d.)

      You're right on the money about "scientiss" and pronunciation changes, I think. I asked some students last year why they didn't make "scientist" plural. They said they don't hear a difference.

      Foreign language classes have (or used to have) "dictee" exercises, in which the teacher would read aloud and students would write what they heard, aiming for the correct spelling. Wouldn't it be great if "Language Arts" classes adopted those exercises and graded them strictly?

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  6. Some of my favorites:

    "your suppose to be the rolemodel of the class" (from a real goddamned email).

    New World monkeys have "apprehensive" tails.

    Most primates have "a posable" thumb.

    And my all-time favorite:
    Lemurs have a "euphoric" placenta (actually, eutherian).


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  7. a professor of mine in undergrad called this "sonic writing" - writing the way things sound (sort of) instead of what they should be, and rarely stopping to figure out if the words you've written actually make sense. The solution, as Surly notes above, is probably due to the fact that they don't read enough (of anything that's been edited) to know better. I don't know what the solution is, but I like having something to call the problem

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    Replies
    1. Up 'til now, I had been calling it "stupidity."

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  8. It's a doggie dog world. But that's a horse of a different cover.

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  9. I had a student claim to not be able to come to class because of a "head ache and minstrel cramps." It was simultaneously the highlight of my pretty depressing day and the low point of a very snowflake heavy semster.

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    1. I had one with "ministerial" cramps. Clearly, no one knows the real word.

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  10. Oh god, bias, bias, bias.

    "This source is very bias because . . . "

    Every time I see it I want to stick a fork in my own nose.

    Never even mind that they don't realize what a bias is, or why it's not necessarily a bad thing to find one in a text, or why it's pretty difficult (perhaps even impossible) to write without one . . . no, they can't even hear the difference between "bias" and "biased."

    This is regular sound change; it's a feature of language; and it's nothing much to get upset about since it will happen no matter how we feel about it. I know. I took linguistics courses. But -- it really gets on my nerves anyway.

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    1. It seems like plain old illiteracy to me.

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    2. I remember complaining out loud about how my students would mangle their grammar and spelling. The department secretary overheard me and quickly stated that it wasn't my place to be concerned. Language, according to her, is always evolving.

      So I guess that by correcting spelling and grammar, I was impeding the forward march of civilization. Oddly, I never pictured my doing that as being the linguistic equivalent of sacking and pillaging Rome.

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    3. You don't understand. The Vandals were a positive, forward-looking cultural force, while Rome was a backwards-looking drag on the march of progress.

      Likewise, the little illiterate darlings are the vanguards (Vandals) of the future, in which nobody will have to worry about speling. (That said, the state of spelling in the 18th and 19th Centuries wasn't all that great either; though at least copy editors knew what they were about.)

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  11. For several years now I have been getting "out of bounce", "next-store neighbor" and "back round"--GAH! And where it used to be [obvious] only in written work, last Friday I had a kid clearly enunciate the first, and when I questioned him, asking that he repeat what he'd said after which I clarified it for him, he insisted he only SAYS it that way, that he would NEVER write it. Now, how would that work, given that he certainly THINKS the phrase is "out of bounce"?

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    1. "Out of bounce". Is that the same as "dead ball"?

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    2. That might actually work as an eggcorn -- which is like a malapropism, except that it actually makes a sort of sense. Like "ex-patriot" for "expatriate", or "old-timers' disease" for "Alzheimer's disease", or primates having "a posable thumb" instead of "an opposable thumb". "Out of bounce" could be construed as a metaphor for a basketball taking a wild bounce and flying into the bleachers."

      OK, it probably means that your student can't write. But it might improve your mood to look for student bloopers that show completely unintentional wit. . .

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    3. Shortly after I started, I was running a design project course. The students had to submit drawings and one stood out as being unintentionally funny. He designed a machine that made use of hydraulic ram assemblies and he made frequent reference to them on his drawings.

      I found it hard to keep a straight face whenever I read his abbreviation of "ram assembly" while marking his work.

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  12. But what does this tell us about their comprehension of written materials?

    A friend just received an essay on a rather famous piece of carpe diem poetry in which the student misreads "sun" as "son" -- and speculates that the couple will enter their unborn child in sports programs.

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    1. I guess your friend is just about Donne for. . .

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    2. As you might guess from my handle, I'm Donne for.

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  13. I've gotten a few that I have no idea what expression they're getting wrong...

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    1. In my syllabus is the sentence, "Lack of clarity will result in the presumption that you don't know what you are talking about."

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  14. My favorite is a student wanted to write "assess", but left of the last 's'.

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  15. Sally, having swallowed cheese,
    Directs down holes the scented breeze,
    Enticing thus with baited breath
    Nice mice to an untimely death.

    Cruel Clever Cat , by Geoffrey Taylor

    There, that should take care of this one. The things you find on the internet...

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