Grading Peeves

I’ve often thought about handing out my students a list of expressions and mistakes to particularly avoid in their essays. You know, those bits that jump out and inspire a pained wince as well as a swift circling with the pen (or highlighting with the word-processor’s comment function). But I fear stifling their voices or having the handout be one more piece of paper they overlook or ignore.

These are hardly the most important elements of marking an essay, of course: I put more emphasis on students’ ability to craft a good argument and use research to support their ideas. But regular confusion of their, they’re and there, misapplication of it’s and a frustrating blindness to the importance of capitalizing proper nouns (and vice versa)? These errors grate.

Last night, I asked other twitterstorians how they felt about contractions in a formal essay. Almost all were adamantly opposed. Yet I’d say that most students, particularly new to university essay writing, don’t have a clue about that preference. Some are saved by their habits of fearful composition where they tend to the bigger as better. Others wander fearfully in the unfamiliar avenues of essay composition.

Uncomfortable with formal prose, student often mistake big words for impressive writing. We then end up with ‘utilize’ and its ilk clogging up essay sentences and long passages in the passive voice. Matters only worsen with the lack of time and skill in proofreading. How many of your students willingly review and revise their work?

Some problems are timeless: a large number of students will always make these mistakes. Other fashions come and go: textspeak, for instance. This year, I’m also seeing a lot of scare quotes (and not so many actual quotes, urgh).

But the one writing tic that irks me the most is to use ‘impact’ as a verb. That’s guaranteed to spike my blood pressure and no amount of saying that it’s in a couple of dictionaries as an acceptable use will convince my inner self that it’s anything but an affront.

What writing tics drive you round the bend?



Filed under teaching, writing/editing

14 responses to “Grading Peeves

  1. Susan

    I’m with you on impact as a verb. The other word that irks me is societal. What’s wrong with social?

    My students tend to long quotes from sources rather than paraphrase.

    • J Liedl

      Oh, yes! Societal must be better because it’s longer, right?

      I’ve also seen entire paragraphs, covering most of a paper, that are nothing but an extended quote. When you need that much of the source to get your point across, a paraphrase is better in so many ways. Getting students to understand that is another matter.

      I suspect a lot of this is tied to word-count anxiety. When you’re a first year student, an eight-to-ten page paper can sound daunting. However, a lot of extended quotes and over-long words don’t do anyone any good!

  2. None of my students have used “impact” yet, but some mistakes make me wonder if they are using dictation software.

  3. “Based off of” rather than “based on” bugs me, as does “relatable,” since it doesn’t really mean much. And I’ve totally got a thing about dangling and misplaced modifiers. But contractions don’t bother me in the least.

    I’m trying to be more aware of the ways in which language changes over time (no need to tell a medievalist this, I know!). So, for example, along the same lines as “impact” as a verb, I know that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is a noun, and in formal writing I observe this usage, but in my “real life” I use “quote” as a noun all the time and don’t worry about it in the slightest. But I know that it’s something that drives some people around the bend, so I consider my audience when I write. And this consideration of audience is the way I’ve been trying to get my older students to think about all of these “rules” — not so much as incontrovertible laws but rather as things that may get in their way if their audience happens to be someone who cares about these things.

    (And yes, I know I had square quotes in that paragraph! And I just realized that you did the “quote”-as-a-noun thing in your post, which in a way is the perfect example of the point I was trying to make.)

    • J Liedl

      That’s a good point about quote as a noun. With students, I use it because they understand that better than quotation, to be honest. Some of them appear to believe that quotations are set in stone, famous phrases while quotes are anything they choose to use.

      My problem with some of these word choices in their writing is that they’re used so mindlessly. If something ‘impacted the societal world in many important ways’ in a student essay, that vague phrase is often it for articulation and precision. So it’s not just the novelty of impact as a verb that bothers me, it’s the intellectual disappointment the word use often implies.

  4. And no matter how many times you lay down the law (no direct quotes in a paper under 5 pages; direct quotes are not your work, and thus will not be evaluated as such; never use contractions in formal writing, etc.) the same things show up again and again.

    My pet peeve: “I used MLA, is that okay?” Answer: “This is not a language class, so no, MLA is not okay.”

    • J Liedl

      Yes, rules about writing are ignored when students just start writing.

      They find citation systems baffling. Probably 1/10 of my students went ahead and used some variant of the MLA system despite numerous explanations in class of what the systems are and what history uses. A new twist? The cut-and-paste examples provided by our databases for articles now includes TWO Chicago variants and author (date) comes first. Argh!

  5. David Leeson

    What writing tic drives me around the bend? ‘Of’ instead of ‘have’: would of, should of, could of. Every time I see that, I wish I still smoked cigarettes, so I could use one to burn a hole through the page.

    I think I actually hate that more than apostrophes with plurals. Or should I say–apostophe’s with plural’s. But it’s close.

    Some common word-choice errors I find in British history papers include: ’empirical’ instead of ‘imperial,’ ‘brutish’ instead of ‘British,’ ‘thrown’ instead of ‘throne,’ ‘Whales’ instead of ‘Wales,’ and ‘boarder’ instead of ‘border’. And of course, the ever-popular ‘novel’ instead of ‘book’.

    • J Liedl

      The misuse of the apostrophe! Oh, yes, that’s maddening. Every time I drive back to town from the other side of Azilda, I see a sign advertising for a store that’s “Open Sunday’s”.

      There’s not enough hard liquor in the world to blur that wince-inducing memory, right there.

      Regarding spell-check, last year I had an essay that mentioned the “Prince of Whales”. You’d like to think that a writer would see that and do a double-take but no dice!

  6. The fact that impact is in the dictionary as a verb only indicates that it is in common usage. You are free to be peeved by it and to suggest better alternatives to your students (and any errant bureaucrats you may encounter) who insist on using it this way :-)

    On the long words are better, I am particularly annoyed by things like ‘orientate’, obviously derived from orientation even though there is the perfectly acceptable orient (as a verb) from which orientation was originally derived.

    My biggest pet peeve is the past tense of the verb to lead. When did it get an ‘a’ in it?

    • J Liedl

      You’re right, I’d put out of my mind the pain that comes from reading ‘lead’ where ‘led’ is needed. What’s worse is seeing, on a digital submission, the red wavy underline indicating that our word processor’s already flagged the error but they’ve either not seen that or turned the feature off.

      I’ve tried to explain to students that those spell-check features can sometimes be useful. Not a crutch but a tool they can mindfully employ. Maybe I’ll do a better job of it the next go-round of essays.

  7. sophylou

    The thing I’ve been seeing everywhere lately (and I’m not teaching): using “pour” instead of “pore.” I think I saw it most recently as “pouring over historical maps” which sounds… um… detrimental to the maps…

    • J Liedl

      So many homonyms, so many ways to misuse them! Students who read widely enjoy a great advantage in this regard (at least if they pay attention). When someone doesn’t know enough to tell the difference between two words like pour and pore, reign and rein: that’s just a frustrating error in their writing, isn’t it?