Monday, May 17, 2010

The Magpie Factor: What's in a World--Er, I mean Word?

by Julia Buckley
At this time of year I am awash in student writing. Some of it bodes well for the future of the human race. Some, well . . . :)

A trend I notice in student reading and writing these days is that students will glance at the first three or so letters and then just assume they know the word. Therefore, they are often wrong.

Allow me to share some examples. One youngster, writing about the fate of King Oedipus and the plague sent by the angry Apollo because of a murder that was never punished, wrote about it with great confidence: "Until Oedipus finds the murderer of the former king, he won't be able to do anything about the plaque on the people of Thebes."

That wonderful spell-check that students rely upon so heavily will not find an error like this, and so Oedipus' weighty problem is reduced to an issue of dental hygiene.

Another student, in a direct quote, changed "I thought those were contraband here," to "I thought those were condemned here." Same thing, right? I mean, there are at least four similar letters.

One young lady referred to her younger sibling as "my little bother." While my older son would suggest this is an accurate synonym for "brother," I would suggest that these small errors--Freudian slips though they may be--make a significant difference in the message, and should therefore be found in proofreading.

Proofreading? What's that? Ah--and now we get to the true "plaque" of writing in the classroom--the surprising disinterest students have in the products they turn in. From my perspective, my written words are a reflection of me, and I must make sure they are just right. From many a student's perspective, it's just an assignment, and when it flies out of the printer they put it directly into their folders, never bothering to determine whether or not, upon second or third reading, it makes sense.

One student, sharing insights into the weighty Crime and Punishment, wrote of the manipulative pawnbroker, and the fact that "her costumers were fed up with the way she treated them." Thus, the mean, dirty, rat-like Alena Ivanovna was transformed in my mind's eye into a Cher of 19th Century Russia, with her own Vegas-like routine that required lots of costume changes.

Perhaps grading papers in large quantities makes me a bit punchy about the errors within them. Perhaps it is a cruel and unusual punishment to have to read, literally, hundreds of papers in one month. Perhaps I long to breathe outside air or have some sort of life of my own.

So I continue to hold tiny grudges when I find seemingly preventable errors. My all-time favorite story involves a young man who wrote his final paper on Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Some slip of the fingers had him spelling it "Magpie." Of course spell check didn't spare him from my wrath, especially when it turned out that EVERY reference to Maggie was spelled "Magpie." Magpie was a victim, Magpie never had a chance in a Darwinistic sense, Magpie's beauty was a detriment to her.

When confronted, he had not a leg to stand on, since errors of this magnitude are the equivalent of wearing a sign that reads, "I didn't read even one line of my paper before I turned it in."

In my vengefulness, I circled every Magpie.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Ohhh...that would be so frustrating. I think kids run spell-checks on documents sometimes and don't read them over to see if they make sense.

Mystery Writing is Murder

G.M. Malliet said...

When I proofread onscreen, there are mistakes I just don't catch. So I print the whole thing out, sometimes more than once. But there are other typos I don't catch until the book is in print, alas. Not defending lazy spellcheckers, I'm just sayin'.

Julia Buckley said...

Gin, I suppose my gripe is less about the quality than about the quantity.

And Elizabeth, that is too true.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

This post made me both laugh and cringe. I am always amazed when I'm proofreading my own work what oddities of my fingers' speed emerge. But then, that's why we're *supposed* to read it over and over and over. I once worked for a church and one of my duties was preparing the weekly bulletin for Sunday service. I remember once catching "whoreship service" and "liquor fund" (fortunately, before it was printed), when it should have been "worship service" and "locker fund." Or maybe that was a foreboding of my future heathenism.

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, thinks for the poster. I reconnoiter we should just grim and bare it.

Darrell James said...

I must confess I'm one of those who see on the page what I expect to see, a brain-thing maybe. (Sue Ann- in your comment I first saw "hedonism" instead of "heathenism"... See what I mean? :) I have to read, re-read and re-read my work hundreds of times and I still find errors. Really fun post, Julia!

Julia Buckley said...

Sue Ann and Keith, you crack me up. Whoreship service! And I am grim while I bear it--but that's a malady of this time of year.

Darrell, I'm certainly not saying I don't make errors in my own writing--I'm much like you. But the difference is that we try to eliminate those errors. :)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Darrell, proper hedonism takes money and more energy than I have right now. Heathenism merely involves no longer believing the teachings of my youth. But they do look a lot alike, don't they?

G.M. Malliet said...

Every now and then, an email makes the rounds containing bloopers taken from church bulletins. For example:

The sermon this morning: "Jesus Walks on the Water."
The sermon tonight: "Searching for Jesus."


The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.


Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 PM. Please use the back door.

I suspect these are NOT made up.

M Pax said...

:) Amusing and disturbing.

I work at an observatory and am often stunned by what people [adults and teenagers] don't know.

Alice Loweecey said...

This brings back memories of my time in Purgatory--er, I mean my time teaching middle school. And I tell everyone, especially my kids, that Spellcheck is a tool of the devil.

I'm also one of those who proofs on a hard copy. I miss so many things otherwise.

LOL @ "whoreship service"!

Julia Buckley said...

MPax, Alice, and GM--thanks for the comments. Yes, Spellcheck really eliminates effort. It reminds me of the story I heard about pencil technology--that when pencils with erasers were first invented, teachers resisted them, saying that students would get lazy with erasers that close to the lead.

Beth Groundwater said...

Your post makes me even more grateful for my critique group, who I rely on to catch those typos and word-os that I don't, as well as catching many other things (such as character inconsistencies and plot logic problems).

Julia Buckley said...

Beth, my critique group does the same for me. Once they told me that my character had breakfast twice. I guess I was hungry while I was writing.