Archive for grammar

Big Mike’s Top Ten Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part II

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on January 1, 2012 by Mike

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year.  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.

Here are my top 5:

5. “‘bias’ rather than ‘biased’; ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘prejudiced’; ‘use to’ rather than ‘used to'”

A couple errors from numbers 6 – 10 might occur more frequently, but this one irritates me more.  Too many students don’t seem to understand the idiomatic use of these words – they mistakenly use the noun rather than the adjective.  For example, “I might be prejudice against them” or “They are bias against the idea”.  Grates on you, doesn’t it?  Now imagine seeing it at least four times in every batch of papers you grade.

Some students say I am biased when I grade their papers, but it’s not so.  I show bias against those who don’t carefully edit their papers.

4. “Their vs. they’re vs. there”

Dammit, this is taught in the third grade, people! On occasion I’ve been tempted to bring my fourth grade daughter to class to demonstrate the proper use of the three homophones for my seniors.  That’d show ’em.

This error is high on my list because it’s not an error my students make out of ignorance – they KNOW the differences between the uses.  This error is reflective of their writing habits – waiting until the last minute to write their papers, and thus not having the time to proof-read for simple errors such as this one.  When I see this error repeated in a paper (anyone can have a typo) I know the paper was written in a half-assed manner (btw, it’s not manor) and the essay shouldn’t make any higher than a low C.  Unfair?  Petty? I’d argue that it’s a reflection of a student’s ethos, and if he or she is going to make this kind of mistake, why give him or her any benefit of the doubt on the rest of the paper?

3. “your vs. you’re”

This one ranks higher than “their/they’re/there” because there are only two of them this time – fewer to confuse, and therefore more irritating when someone interchanges them. Your is possessive: There are reasons your grades on your papers are so low.  You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You’re going to fail another paper if you don’t edit your papers more carefully.

Again, my students know this difference; the errors come from a lack of concern/lack of proof-reading.

2. “its vs. it’s”

It’s a hard and fast rule, people: its is possessive, meaning something belongs to the ‘it’ in question: “The cheetah cub cried for its mother but the momma-cheetah was hunting for dinner.” It’s is a contraction for “it is”: “It’s a certainty that this paper, with all of its careless errors, will receive a mid-D.”

I’m not so sure the students who make this error know the difference between the two.  And the hell with them if they’re still getting it wrong by the time they’re seniors, because if it didn’t take when they were elementary-level sponges, it’s not going to take now that they’re jaded, disillusioned teenagers.

And, for the love of God, there’s no such word as its’!

And, finally, my number one pet peeve.  I think English teachers all over the world will agree with me on this one:

1. “could/would/should/might of vs. have

I remember the first time I saw this error in a student paper.  It was my first semester as a English grad student and I was T.A.-ing for a senior level technical writing class, and grading their final papers. Some guy had written “should of” in this formal proposal and it floored me – I mean, it absolutely ASTOUNDED me that a senior in college could make such an egregious error.  I was naive –  I saw the error a half dozen more times that day, and on that day I wept for the English language and recognized how great a threat it faced in the form of student writing.

Let me illustrate this: this is a grammatical error that Mark Twain wouldn’t allow Huck Finn, an illiterate white trash southern boy, to make in a novel of over 300 pages.  Go ahead, check.

“Could/would/should/might of” makes no sense whatsoever as a grammatical construction.  It’s a transcription of our saying “might’ve” or “should’ve” which, of course, are contractions for might have and should have.

I suppose I could try to blame Cormac McCarthy and the legion of other authors who write in the vernacular, but my students don’t read McCarthy until I assign him (and, admittedly, they may not read him even then).  But I’ve seen their writing before then.

Now that my teeth are grinding nicely, I’m reminded that I’m currently on semester break and have no papers to grade, and it will be another month until I do.  Until then, perhaps you, my reader, can keep these common errors in mind when you write your emails and facebook posts, and together we can make the world a more pleasant place…at least for your former English teachers.

“Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.” – Mark Twain

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

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on December 14, 2011 by Mike

[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.