Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I

[this one’s for my brother, Matt – sorry it took so long to get to it]

OK, first the nickname – I’m 6’4”-ish and I teach high school students.  “Big Mike” is their nickname for me, not one I gave myself.  To be honest, they probably have other nicknames for me that they don’t use in class.

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year. In fact, counting in-class essays and formal, process-driven essays, I grade around 1500 essays each school year.  I’ve been doing this for what is now my fourteenth year, so, if my out-of-practice math serves me correctly, I’ve scored at least 20,000 essays  in my career so far (and this is not counting the summer school courses I’ve taught at the local college).

Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.  I feel pretty safe in saying that most of these errors  are a result of a lack of attention to detail (i.e., laziness), as there’s NO WAY educated people who actually edit their papers should be making these kinds of errors.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to dwell on broader errors such as “lack of organization”, “not developing ideas” or “weak thesis statements”, though those kinds of problems certainly exist.  Instead, these are my top ten indicators of student laziness/ignorance, ordered by how much they annoy the shit out of me (pardon my french).

10. “Possess/Posses”

Admittedly, this first one doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the resulting sentence is always nonsensical. See, the problem with the word “possess” for many of my students is that damnable fourth “s” – there are obviously too many “esses” in the word (and therefore subversive), so it’s on occasion left out.  Of course, this results in an entirely different word that spell-check wouldn’t catch:


The same problem can occur with the word “assess”, but to more hilarity for me/embarrassment for the student.

9. “‘Scientist’ is not plural”

Another careless error, but I see it too regularly to think it’s just that.  Too many students seem to believe that words that end in “ist” are treated as plural, therefore I see sentences like, “Muslim terrorist try to impose their religion on the world” or “Some scientist believe that global warming is a myth.”  Now, not to be an elitist, but as a realist I have to be a pessimist about such students’ attempts to be essayists.  I don’t know, maybe they’re attempting to be satirists or maybe just nonconformists, but I suspect they’re just sadists.

And I’m a masochist who’s gonna need a psychotherapist.  Get the gist?

OK, enough of that.

8. “nowadays”

In the past few years, it seems, someone has been teaching my students that ‘nowadays’ is an acceptable substitute for “currently” or “today” or “now” or any other of  a dozen synonyms that don’t make them sound as if they have just stepped off the front porch of an antebellum Mississippi plantation. Jesus, they might as well start their essays with “Well,” and end by singing “zip-a-dee doo-dah”.

Academic writing is formal, not conversational.

7. “Attack of the egregious homophones”

I’m not talking about “too” and “to” – I don’t see that error too often, or at least not often enough to list it here (see what I did there?).  I’m talking about words that have NO BUSINESS getting mixed up.  “We take our right to free speech for granite.”  Dead serious – I’ve seen it. More than once.  “Accept” and “except” are commonly interchanged – “We just need to except the fact that __________ is here to stay.”  “Homosexuals should not be aloud to marry because that’s what my mom and dad believe.” Another one that grinds at me is “lead” (read (‘reed’) it as ‘led’) and “led”, which leads to all kinds of leaden writing. “Lead” (pronounced, er, ‘led’) is a metal. “Led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced “leed”).  See also: mislead/misled.

6. “Indefinite pronouns”

This one rankles me if only for the fact that I specifically tell my students to be cautious about this error, and they ignore me (BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT MY FEELINGS). Quick English lesson: pronouns are words substituted for the nouns that they represent.  For instance, in the sentence, “Daphne jumped out of the Mystery Machine, taking the box of Scooby-Snacks with her.”, “her” is the pronoun substitute for “Daphne.”

OK, now that I’ve insulted your intelligence, here’s the real problem.  There are a number of pronouns out there that seem to be plural but are really treated as singular.  You use them all the time, and, unless you’re a 67-year old retired English teacher, you’re not speaking grammatically correct English.


“Everyone needs to bring their book tomorrow” – most of us won’t bat an eye at that sentence, either reading it or hearing it spoken, but the truth is that that seemingly innocuous sentence is grammatically incorrect. ‘Everyone’ is one of those indefinite pronouns, and is treated as singular when substituting pronouns.  It should actually be written/said, “Everyone needs to bring his or her book tomorrow.”  But nobody says/writes that because that would sound pretentious.  Other indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, each, everybody, everything, neither, and nothing – all of them treated as singular.

This is one of those errors that, given a few more decades, will become grammatically acceptable, I suspect.  Because we’re lazy and don’t like rules.  But until then, I’ll still count off for it when it occurs in my students’ essays.

My top 5 will be posted within the next few days.  For now, it’s back to grading/stamping out ignorance.

5 Responses to “Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I”

  1. Mr. Williams,

    I, too, share these pet peeves, but I feel that a little more should be said about number 6. Yes, it is a singular-plural pronoun agreement problem, but it is not because “we’re lazy and don’t like rules” that many speakers violate the grammar. On the contrary, the grammar we unconsciously learn and speak natively from the time we are children is filled with a multitude of rules–complex rules that native speakers never think to question or violate.

    It appears to me that the pronoun disagreement stems from socio-linguistic factors rather than sheer ignorance or a desire to hurt Big Mike’s feelings. The problem is that the English language, unlike many other human languages, has no singular neutral-gender pronoun other than “it.” We are constantly forced to choose between the morphological variations of “he” and “she.” If we look at the instances where the pronoun-agreement is violated, it is nearly always due to the fact that the writer/speaker is attempting to circumvent the gender-specificity required by the English language. As you said, “Everyone needs to bring his or her book tomorrow” sounds pretentious, but it would also seem sexist to say “Everyone needs to bring his book tomorrow” if the class included females.

    I’m not arguing that the error should be ignored (Though, as you say, eventually our dialect of American English may change to incorporate singularity in the sematics of the pronouns “they” and “their”), I am arguing that students need to be taught tactful ways to circumvent the gender-specificity of English in their writing.

    The issue is one much larger than grammar violation and probes the controversial topic of gender identity. I will be interested to see what we do with the English language in the coming decades.

    P.S. Sorry if this sounds like a lecture. I’m approaching the grammar as a linguist. This spring I will complete a double major in English Literature and Linguistics.

    P.P.S. Thank you, Big Mike, for all your fantastic teaching! I am where I am because of you.

  2. J. Shoemake Says:

    So I’m grading timed writings from my final exam and I keep seeing the same error over and over again. It happens to be one of the errors you mentioned in this blog post, so I figured I would share in your frustration. 🙂 Which error, you may ask, do I keep seeing? I’ll give you a hint: “Idealist and realist both bring different view points and ideas to society; although idealist do contribute more.” Let’s ignore the incorrect use of the semicolon for now. Yes, you guessed it! Error #9!
    Another I keep seeing is “a women…” What’s up with that??!

  3. […] The Lower Frequencies « Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I […]

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  5. […] what actually gets on your last nerve? For instance, you might HATE flip-flops or you might have a whole list of writing errors that drive you nuts. You HATE something (you know you do!) – here’s […]

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