Teachers at Work

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Lightening Struck: Strange Errors from the College Classroom

David Hollander is a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist who teaches fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. We asked him to share some of the more peculiar recurring errors of spelling and usage that he's come across in his students' work.

I've been teaching writing for nearly a decade, but I'm hardly a grammar maven. The fact is, I teach the kind of writing that those down in the trenches—wielding participles and parts of speech—find rather precious: I teach fiction writing, mostly to undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence College, where my job is to promote imaginative storytelling, not to improve linguistic mechanics. Consider, as evidence of my approach, that I don't even own a red pen, or that I couldn't confidently tell you the difference between a direct and an indirect object. My wife—who does teach grammar—routinely corrects my own miscues around the dinner table. (Once I said, "These potatoes came out good," and almost lost an eye.)

These are hardly the credentials one would expect from a writer complaining about spelling and usage errors. But over the years, I've witnessed a series of bizarrely reoccurring gaffes that would have any writer scratching his head. It's as if my students were continually passing mutated language-genes down to the next class. Herewith, a brief examination of four of the most ubiquitous of these miscues, with assistance from the esteemed Bryan Garner, whose Modern American Usage has become indispensable to settling arguments in our household. (Every now and again, I even win one.)

Lightening Strikes Twice

For some reason, "lightening"—the process by which something becomes lighter in either shade or weight—is often used by my students to mean "lightning," the thing you worry about during thunderstorms. I've asked some of the offenders to pronounce the word, and regardless of the spelling, they invariably do it in two syllables (lahyt-ning), suggesting that the actual word "lightening" (lahyt-n-ing), does not exist for them—which is unfortunate for anyone looking to remove a few bricks from their wheelbarrow.

But even a cursory online search shows that my students are not alone. Several sites suggest that Benjamin Franklin invented the "lightening rod" (go here or here), and Bryan Garner cites a similar misuse in as highfalutin a source as the Chronicle of Higher Education. I've put these two words side by side on the blackboard, and asked my students to carefully consider the difference. "Do you ever need to lighten your load?" I might ask. "And let's say you're doing that right now. Tell me about it." We might sit in uncomfortable silence for thirty seconds or so, but eventually they see what I'm getting at.

It Happened All of the Sudden

Believe it or not, I see this at least two or three times a semester, and until recently I'd just gone about quietly crossing out "the" and inserting "a," assuming self-correction would follow. But about a month ago a student insisted—during valuable class time, no less—that I was wrong, that the expression was indeed, "All of the sudden," not "all of a sudden." A quick show of hands indicated that she was hardly alone in her madness. Thankfully, majority consensus in a liberal arts classroom does not settle such disputes.

Garner is very clear about this. Seeing no need for a detailed analysis, he simply says: "The phrase is all of a sudden—not all of the sudden." But then why are so many of my students convinced otherwise? "All of a sudden" is an idiom, and so its "correctness" derives not from grammatical prescription, but from frequency of use. I, personally, have yet to hear the bastardized version outside my classroom (and thus my apoplexy over its recurrence there), but several usage mavens say they've seen and heard it from some high traffic sources, both online and in the world of television journalism. (See, for example, this.) Others suggest that "all of the sudden" is more popular in Southern states, where dialects run roughshod over rules and regulations. In any event, the lunatics might all of the sudden be running the asylum, should this ear-grating interpolation continue to gain traction. For now, let's just agree to use "suddenly," and avoid the problem entirely. Who's in?

I Can Hardly Breath Down Here!

The distinction between "breath" (a noun) and "breathe" (a verb) is apparently less obvious than it seems. On an alarming number of occasions, a student has insisted that there is no such word as "breathe," just as there is no such word as "potatoe" (as Dan Quayle once discovered the hard way), and that "breath" is pronounced with either the short or the long "e," depending on context. Garner cites some high profile examples of this error (The New York Times makes the list), which admittedly lessens my frustration with the erring youngsters. After all, that final "e" does sort of dangle out there, like it's ready to jump ship.

In fact, "breathe" and "seethe" are the only two common English words that end in "-he" and possess that internal long "e" sound. But that hardly seems reason to excise them entirely from the language. I'll just keep passing the dictionary to my non-believers. When "breathe" ceases to appear there, I'll quit mocking them.

"What do you want?", He asked.

As I mentioned, I teach fiction writing. Which means I see a lot of dialogue. Which means I see a lot of dialogue bizarrely formatted. The above example has become so common that I've actually put together a gently corrective handout, which we read through in class while my students nod approvingly, eager to get back to butchering the language.

Garner has nothing to say about this, having (apparently) never taught a fiction writing workshop. Left to my own devices, I explain to my students that "He said" is not a complete sentence, and so naturally the "h" can not be capitalized. When writing dialogue, question marks and exclamation points that occur mid-sentence are treated like commas. As in:

"What do you want?" he asked.

"Die a miserable death!" he said.

The other thing necessary to convey, is that a question mark that ends a sentence—even if that ending is within dialogue—is sufficient, and requires no further ink. So that this is correct:

He asked, "What do you want?"

While these are not:

He asked, "What do you want?".

He asked, "What do you want?."

Often, I seem to be the only one to whom this is obvious. Years ago, the magicians Penn & Teller offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove the existence of the supernatural to their (i.e., Penn & Teller's) satisfaction. Similarly, I have offered large cash prizes to anyone who locates a single example of reputable-source dialogue that looks like any of the above nonsense. For someone making a teacher's salary, that's the very definition of confidence.

A Final, Somewhat Mean-Spirited Thought

This is an uphill battle. And by "this" I mean all of it—the whole endeavor to convince non-believers that precision matters. Of course, editors asked to consider error-riddled manuscripts for publication will be far less gentle than yours truly, and between the lines of those many red-penned rejection slips will exist my own smug "I told you so."

David Hollander is the author of the novel, L.I.E. (Random House, 2001). His short fiction was recently anthologized in Best American Fantasy, 2007. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers, and Gastronomica, among other fine venues. Hollander teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and to children in the New York City public schools.


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Thursday January 29th 2009, 2:54 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Thank you. An entertaining article. It makes me very happy to know that someone with Mr. Hollander's store of knowledge---provided in a package with a lovely sense of humor and charming modesty---is sharing his world view and good sense with students in both public and private venues. We need more like him. And, as always, I am cheered by an obviously intelligent fellow human who shares my inability to readily differentiate unaided between such things as objects direct and indirect.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Anne S.
A great peace of work. Only kidding! -Piece. Incorrect spelling is becoming the norm.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Brad Heden (Ellicott City, MD)
I have been writing fiction for about a year now and agree that proper grammar, spelling, and usage are sometimes not given the consideration they deserve either, in formal technical and business writing, or in prose, and in fact, first learning proper convention and usage and then learning to sometimes ignore proper usage and acceptable structure in favor of voice and characterization is one of the most difficult challenges that faces a beginning author.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Elisa B. (Addison, TX)
I would agree that "breathe" needs to stay, as well as "clothe." Egalitarian yet silent essence that "e" can be.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Steve K.
My wife and I hear "all of the sudden" so much now we're tired of wincing every time someone says it. We hear it both on TV and in casual conversation, and I fear it's becoming epidemic. We live in Memphis, so perhaps it is just more prevalent in the south. I hope so, because it grates on my last nerve every time.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 3:53 PM
Comment by: The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY)
Steve K., I feel your pain. You'd think idioms would be immune from corruption, given that they're already corrupt. (Well, "corrupt" is a strange word in this context... it's not like the idioms have been taking dirty money.) "All of the sudden" drives me bonkers, but I fear it's catching fire and will burn its way through the lexicon with or without our approval. Still, I'll keep waving my fire hose and trying to clear the building of infants. It's the right thing to do, dammit.

-The Author
Thursday January 29th 2009, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Esther N.
I'd like to add "teethe" to "breathe" and "seethe."
Thursday January 29th 2009, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
And two less common words: "sheathe" and "wreathe."

If you want a fancy linguistic term for such oddities as "all of the sudden," "once in the while," "once in the blue moon," and "one at the time," Arnold Zwicky has called them "definitizations."
Thursday January 29th 2009, 4:05 PM
Comment by: Valerie R.
I've never seen the word "miscue" used in this context before. Maybe that's because I'm English. A "cue" to me is a the phrase that indicates to an actor that he's the next one to speak.
Thursday January 29th 2009, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Having tried to teach writing short stories to 14 and 15 year olds, I can vouch for every problem discussed in this wonderful article.

I too just crossed out both versions of 'all of the/a sudden' and pencilled in 'suddenly'.

Teaching conversation to pupils that age was difficult, so we started off by using just the coversation bits from a really good story, and having them make up the plot and body as their own. That worked, especially with the motivated ones.

I had a problem with the bath/bathe words. I don't know how often we 'bath' the baby! 'Bathed' would have worked, but it would get pronounnced with the 'bath' sounding just like 'bath'. We then 'batht' babies.

Perhaps the other words ending in that 'e' that changed the victim from a noun to a verb were beyond vocabulary thus remaining safe.
Friday January 30th 2009, 2:38 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
Upon a second reading of the article, I realized that when I read the subtitle "I Can Hardly Breath Down Here!" my mind's eye and internal voice corrected it on the first read, "I Can Hardly Breathe Down Here!". Perhaps that could explain the genesis of incorrect usage.

Let's say someone who wasn't sure about the correct spelling of "breathe" encountered the above subtitle in a different context, such as dialogue from a character. They would know from conversational usage that, "I can hardly breath down here!" would be nonsensical. Rather than consult a proper resource, they might assume that proper editing, which should have relied on such resources took place (rather than editing which relied too much on automated spellcheckers?). Trusting the "proper editing" they then assume that "breath" can be read either with a long or a short e, perpetuating an incorrect usage.

As far as "all of the sudden" goes. Telling today's generation it is incorrect, virtually guarantees that the usage will gain "street imprimatur". For shizzy.
Sunday February 1st 2009, 12:36 AM
Comment by: Harry L.
All these references to dictionaries remind me of my grammer school teacher in our one room school house in which about 15 kids were enrolled. As you know, raising your hand with one or two fingers extended allowed one to get to the out door facility pronto when all of the(!)sudden there was that feeling. Three fingers, on the other hand (or either hand), got you one of our three dictionaries. When I noticed that all three were in use, I would raise three fingers. Our dear teacher would motion me to come to her desk. She then reached into her purse and produced this small dictionary. It was not the black leather cover nor the gold edged pages which caught my fancy. Back at my desk, I appeared to be fumbling with a pencil and paper. In fact, I was sniffing. As I turned the pages a blend of heavenly fragrances escaped. A blend of all the indescribable scents found in a woman's purse! Indescribable to early teenagers of those ancient days.
Sunday February 1st 2009, 3:38 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I loved the article. I always cringe when I hear and see some of the atrocious mis-uses of our beautiful language. The rise of "texting" and other horrors of modern life seems to be drowning proper English. I feel that ignorance of grammar and spelling is simply a symptom of our age of technology. This carelessness for the language erodes any sense of intelligence I might have had for the writer.
Monday February 2nd 2009, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
David Hollander tells of the battle against the "e" in breathe. Apparently, it is less common to see the verb used in place of the noun, rather than the noun used in place of the verb. I don't mean to add to David's frustrations, but I felt his pain when I saw the following usage error in the text description of a Youtube video:

"The earthquakes could release poisonous gasses that could kill someone or a group in a breathe."
Thursday November 12th 2009, 7:29 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
My emotions are all over the place as a result of this wonderful article. From what I read here, Mr. Hollander
is an admirable teacher. He has sought to established an atmosphere of creativity. At the same time, he wants students who can spell and follow precise rules. Sounds like a great educator. As I read through this piece, past articles began to haunt me. They are: "Vocab Lab: The Myself Generation", "Mastering the Ins and Outs of American Slang", "Making History Every Time You Speak", "Spelling, Usage and the Singular They" and "What You Said". They all give a different perspective on the same theme--like it or not, there will be changes--and not always for the better. I read these past columns with a dismayed, but acquiescent spirit. Then I 'meet' Mr. Holland, and I am happy to once again be critical of bad grammar, bad spelling et al. I think it would be stimulating to listen in on a round table discussion with Mr.Holland and the other illustrious educators who inspired the afore-mentioned articles.
Thursday November 12th 2009, 7:32 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
My emotions are all over the place as a result of this wonderful article. From what I read here, Mr. Hollander
is an admirable teacher. He has sought to establish an atmosphere of creativity. At the same time, he wants students who can spell and follow precise rules. Sounds like a great educator. As I read through this piece, past articles began to haunt me. They are: "Vocab Lab: The Myself Generation", "Mastering the Ins and Outs of American Slang", "Making History Every Time You Speak", "Spelling, Usage and the Singular They" and "What You Said". They all give a different perspective on the same theme--like it or not, there will be changes--and not always for the better. I read these past columns with a dismayed, but acquiescent spirit. Then I 'meet' Mr. Holland, and I am happy to once again be critical of bad grammar, bad spelling et al. I think it would be stimulating to listen in on a round table discussion with Mr.Holland and the other illustrious educators who inspired the afore-mentioned articles.

Corrected typo
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:54 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Thanks for this great article, David!
Monday February 11th 2013, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Julia H.
I'm late to this article - it managed to be funny and empathetic, to kids and their English teachers both! I'm adding two teeth-grinders from rural Northern Maine - pregnant for, as in "When I was pregnant for my daughter, we moved to a new house across the river." (surrogacy?), and on accident, as in "I was doing donuts on my snowsled in the front yard yesterday and my cellphone was in the pocket of my sweatpants, and on accident it fell out. Guess what I'm doing after school today?" That one I did NOT make up - just heard it this morning after the two feet of white stuff that fell on Saturday! David, you are so fun to read - thanks.
Wednesday February 20th 2013, 8:04 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
John Gielgud : You breathe in, you breathe out all your life and then you forget to breathe for a few minutes - every body else owns your stuff.
Margareth Attwood : Every breath is a door stopper to death.
Thursday April 18th 2013, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Mr Hollander, I am a fellow fiction writer and I fear I have bad news for you (and your students). The red-penciling with which you threaten them is dying out. My last book was severely edited and copy-edited, I am happy to say, but that was simply because I had dedicated, Don Quixote-ish women doing it and I am grateful to them. I work and read in the field of fantasy and the amount of linguistic rubble I've had to crawl through this past few years has been frightening. (And it has bruised my legs as well.) On my Kindle I am finding books which don't meet the grammatical standard of a sixth-grade teacher, and it knocks me right out of concern for plot and character. It's difficult to keep in with the story when I am stopping every few sentences to figure out just what the writer meant when he/she wrote that phrase. It's a terrible curse to a new writer, or to an old one like myself who grew up depending upon the copywriters I cursed. Forgive me, sweet, stern copyeditors! You are invaluable, even when sometimes wrong-headed.

Mr. Hollander, may you continue to have editors to use as a threat to your students. They may save their lives . . . er, careers.
Thursday September 12th 2013, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
I have to agree with Roberta. Whether its fantasy, fiction, or even in some cases, non-fiction, the whole flow of my enjoyment of the piece is disrupted by some silly mistake. I'm truly not a perfectionist, but unless written in dialect, the writing should sound "right" in my head.
Monday November 11th 2013, 9:54 PM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
Great article David - and you must be a great teacher!
Monday February 10th, 9:52 AM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
I have just recently come to this discussion. This topic of correct usage in language creates interesting points of focus: for me it is the spoken word as much as the written word. How often in written dialogue (dialog?) does one find, for example,
"Where are you at?" I assume this intends to convey a more specific location if it is used in spoken language, but grates on my ears! Simply saying "Where are you?" requires much less effort and rolls off the tongue smoothly. Are you aware of the "at" construction anywhere in written dialog (dialogue?), such as deliberate evocation of regional dialect?

John E., Pennsylania
Saturday March 1st, 3:04 AM
Comment by: PKP (Costa Mesa, CA)
What a bunch of loosers!
Friday July 18th, 11:52 PM
Comment by: Julie S. (Columbia, SC)
After teaching English/Language Arts to high school students for forty years, I am too exhausted to do much commenting. However, the teacher in me just can’t keep quiet. I, too, have seen most of the issues you discussed.

Funny, I do live in the Deep South but have not heard “the� sudden before. I was going to say never, but I just got hearing aids, so I’m not sure whether I have heard it or not.

I do have an idea for the dialogue writing. I would have students bring a novel with lots of dialogue or use a short story in their lit books. First, I would have them write a conversation or scene with lots of dialogue. Then, either as they were composing or after if they chose, I had them find an example in their professionally written story which matched the punctuation of theirs. Most students could find the examples, but many had a very hard time with the missing mark when a character spoke paragraphs. It was amazing to see students who read voraciously suddenly realize that they didn’t know how to punctuate their own dialogue. Did everyone gain perfection in dialogue writing? Heavens no! But a few did, and many others began to get the idea.

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