Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
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.