Tag Archives: Copyediting

Why I’m Not Proud of You For Correcting Other People’s Typos

Cover for The Great Typo HuntAfter the title of the blog, the number one Google search that brings people to this site is some variant of the question:  “Is there a name for people who correct other people’s grammar?”  Well, in a professional setting, we call them copy editors.  When they are correcting your adverb usage at cocktail parties, we call them douchebags.  When they are traveling the United States correcting typographical errors on signs, I guess we can now call them published authors. When I first saw the Salon interview of Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, authors of The Great Typo Hunt, I had every intention of reading the book in its entirety and reviewing it for this blog, but all signs are pointing to that not happening anytime soon.  I do, however, have thoughts about said interview, the project itself, and the blog on which it is based, so I am going to comment generally here and delve into the finer points once my schedule clears up a bit.

In the wake of this post (which remains the top post on this blog more than two months later–go figure), I think I’ve been labeled by some as a kind of devil-may-care descriptivist when it comes to language.  I am a descriptivist, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the spelling and grammar rules we have agreed upon as a linguistic group aren’t worth anything.  They help us understand one another, and I do actually think it is worthwhile to strive for fluency (which is NOT the same thing as grammatical correctness), especially if your livelihood depends on written communication.  Avoiding typos and improper usage (as well as needlessly tortured sentence structures and opaque jargon) bespeaks professionalism and pride in one’s work.  I have worked as a copy editor before and am actually pretty damn good at it.

But I am led to ask the following question:  why would anyone take a cross-country trip for the sole purpose correcting typos when they are not being paid to do so?  Furthermore, why are so many people ready to give these guys medals for doing so?  Why is it that some feel that usage errors are a Huge Social Problem in need of fixing, and why do some also seem to feel that they are a kind of personal affront?  Let’s take the precipitating event of Deck’s project, described here by the Salon interviewer:

In November of 2007, Jeff Deck encountered a sign that would change his life. He had just returned from his five-year college reunion at Dartmouth College, embarrassed by his lack of accomplishment in life, when, walking near his apartment in Somerville, Mass., he encountered a sign that had already stopped him in his tracks multiple times: “Private Property: No Tresspassing.” The extra “s” in the sign had, as he puts it, long been “a needle of irritation” — but now something had changed: He felt the urgent need to correct it.

There is, needless to say, a lot going on there, and the interviewer seems to have cannily hinted at the insecurities that may have informed Deck and Herson’s epic journey:  the sense that degrees in the arts and humanities (Deck was a creative writing major) have  lost their relevance, the reality that even elite educations do not guarantee work that is both remunerative and soul satisfying, and, perhaps, the usual quarter-life crisis, the late twenties malaise that sets in when one realizes that one has not yet Made a Difference or even come close to achieving what one set out to do senior year in college.

At bottom, though, I think the impulse to correct proceeds from Rule-Follower Angst:  you have done everything (or everything that counts) right and have not been rewarded in the way you expected.  The wicked still prosper.  Out there, people are breaking the rules and getting away with it. On some level, the correcting impulse is about Being Right and making sure that people know it, and as snotty as this paragraph is, I sort of understand it.  But I also understand that this sort of behavior tends to drive people away, and for good reason.  And as the interviewer rather amusingly notes, there are often problematic privilege differentials at work:

It can seem pretty condescending to be correcting typos, in particular when a lot of the people responsible for them are probably immigrants still learning English.

I think the capacity for cruelty is just too much when you’re going after people writing in English as their second language — my French would be lucky if it were at that level of semi-comprehensibility — so we tried to stay away from those. But even with that aside, socioeconomics are definitely a factor to consider and we had to be sensitive to that.

Especially given that you’re two white guys with university education.

Heh.  To their credit, Deck and Herson seem to be sensitive to their positionality and to the educational deficiencies that wanton mis-spellings and eggcorns can betray.  It’s just that when it comes to their assessment of how exactly the educational system is failing some people, they seem to be rather aggressively missing the point:

Over the past several decades, there’s been a definite move away from phonics-based education in spelling and grammar — which ties the sight and sound of words very closely together — toward what’s sometimes called the “whole word method,” which is based more on the sight of words. With phonics you learn to sound out the parts of each word and then put them together, instead of the guesswork that’s involved in the “whole word” approach.

There was an interesting book that my co-author Benjamin discovered as we were on our typo hunt, called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” from around 1955. The author talked about some of the most common types of errors out there, like double-letter confusion: “timming” instead of “timing,” and “shiping” instead of “shipping.” It had this whole list of common typos, and a lot of them were the same ones we saw on this trip.

T-shirt that reads:  Hookt on Fonix Werkt Fer Me!There’s a lot of fail in these two paragraphs.  First of all, I guess both authors were living under a rock for the duration of the 90’s and never saw the T-shirt to the left.  Actually, that’s a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.  In fact, there is substantial evidence that an education that includes Phonetic Awareness Instruction is more effective at teaching children to read and spell than education that excludes it.  The problem is that Deck and Herson have deputized a book from 1955 into their argument.  Their answer suggests that Rudolf Flesch’s observations in Why Johnny Can’t Read were completely ignored at mid-century, when in fact that text was very successful.  Phonics did re-enter the standard curriculum and wasn’t really challenged until the “whole language” approach was introduced in the 1980’s.  Even then, phonics has never dropped out of elementary school curricula entirely, as this has been a contentious subject in pedagogical and linguistic circles ever since, with a comprehensive review of studies on the subject only having been conducted at the beginning of this decade.  In other words, Deck and Herson have no way of knowing if the people who committed the typos they traveled the country to correct were taught via phonics or whole language or some combination of methods.  In fact, there is a fair chance (given the chronology), that most people over the age of 30 were never touched by the whole word catastrophe that Deck and Herson point to as the root cause of our language woes.

There’s no denying that there are vast deficiencies in our educational system, but in order to get at those, we have to go past the phonics debate and look at the structural relationship between poverty and illiteracy, the deterioration of schools in poor neighborhoods, state and local governments that continue to drain money from public education, the shortage of qualified teachers, and other ways in which class, race, and geography function as barriers to education and functional literacy.  Deck and Herson address some of that, but when you look at the problem in that way, running around the country correcting typos on signs seems pitifully ineffectual as a means of correcting or even bringing attention to the problem.  It’s treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease.  It’s hacking away at the tip of the iceberg or whatever tortured metaphor you please.  Worse, it’s a self-serving stunt.

So no, guys, I’m not proud of you for correcting other people’s typos.  If the goal was get yourself published, then congrats, but in terms of addressing any larger problem, it’s pretty sad.

Addendum:  I’ve been skimming through the online preview of the book, and some of the prose is just, well…I’ll let you see for yourself:

I discussed my cross-country typo-hunting notion with barely anyone, cradling it close and secret lest the scrutiny of others burn mortal wounds into its gossamer body.

Yikes.  I don’t think I have another Lionel Tiger dissection in me right now, but let’s hit the high points:  “notion” seems to be in keeping with the affected, overwrought diction that infects everything I’ve read so far.  “Cradling it close and secret” is just flat-out awkward, and, come to think of it, should read “closeLY and secretLY” (not that the correction would improve it all that much).  And the metaphor at the end there made me die a little bit inside.

Addendum 2:  Deck and Herson once got arrested for correcting typos on defacing a historical artifact in Grand Canyon National Park.  Way to go.

The Value of Editing a Colleague’s Work

No LFF post this week, because that just isn’t where my head is, and if I can’t put together a decent post for that series, I am just not going to do it!  Where is my head right now?  Well, I’m in the midst of editing my boss’s book, which is an enormous project but is also, quite frankly, the most fun I’ve had as a graduate student in quite some time.  Natalia Cecire of the blog Works Cited recently posted on how to receive a colleague’s feedback on your work (hint:  graciously and thoughtfully), but I’m also finding that giving feedback on a colleague’s (or superior’s) work can be a valuable rhetorical exercise and stimulate self-reflection.

My boss is a professor outside the English department who works in a field that nevertheless interests me.  He holds an endowed chair, recently won the book award from the top organization in his field (an entire journal issue was dedicated to responses to that book), and the book he is currently working on is his fourth.  In other words, editing this guy’s book feels like kind of a big deal.  Yet the experience has taught me that even prestigious faculty have to work extremely hard at their writing and have to deal with rejection.  See, his book has been under contract at a major university press for the past couple of years, and having submitted the final draft in February, he is now in possession of some readers reports that are making him second guess the project or at least his relationship with this particular press.  They just seem to want a very different sort of book than the one he wrote, which isn’t an indictment of his scholarship so much as it is a reflection of the divergent visions of author and publisher.  Now, we’re talking about a high class problem when the scholar in question can say, “Well, Oxford UP is interested in this project, so I may just take my work there,” but the less-than-smooth road to this book’s publication has given me a helpful, if somewhat scary window into what one has to face in getting one’s work out into the world.

So, he is having me edit the entire book before he sends it off to Oxford and a couple of other presses that have expressed interest.  So, I have been commenting on each chapter, and sending it back to him.  He makes some changes and sends them back to me to see if I like them, and he genuinely seems to appreciate my feedback and suggestions.  We have a dialogue, a dialogue (if I can say this without sounding weird) that is very much like the ones I try to create with my students, not an authoritarian call and response, but a colleague offering up an opinion as an informed reader.  I’m finding that the rhetorical moves I was taught to use in writing center consultations and in paper comments–stating your reaction “as a reader” rather than ordering the other person around–are perfectly applicable in this situation as well.  It helps that the person on the other end of the conversation adapts to the needs of his reader rather than insisting that the reader just work harder to understand.  Where he has pushed back against the reader’s reports, it has always had to do with philosophical or political disagreements.  The argument of his book is more populist than the press wants, thus making them feel that it should me published for the trade market rather than for scholars.  Also, the book deals with some politically sensitive issues that pissed one reader off to no end.  I’m guessing that the ability to adapt the writing to the reader’s needs without compromising the entire visions is how he came to be writing his fourth book and can basically choose the press he wants to work with.

So, it’s been a good lesson in how to both give and receive feedback, but it’s also been a confidence builder and an experience that has driven home the importance of peer review exercises for me.  Reading someone else’s work–whether the other person is a classmate or a superior–fortifies your instincts about what good writing looks like and how problematic writing could be adjusted.  There is something about the way we are taught about textual communication that makes us think that it is entirely up to the reader to “get” the author’s meaning, that makes us forget that readers are sometimes qualified to make certain judgments about how well an author is communicating that meaning.  In my earliest grad seminars, we often had to critique each other’s work, and I would often get intimidated by particularly dense papers whose brilliance I assumed I just hadn’t grasped.  When I started this editing project, I similarly feared that I would be revealing my own ignorance or unsophistication if I pointed out things that were unclear to me or places where the prose became cumbersome, but after getting through a few chapters (and my boss’s gracious attitude helps), I’m reminded that I am part of the audience for this work, a legitimately informed reader with enough expertise to comment on how well the author is communicating.  And that’s a pretty cool realization.

Editing someone else’s work is also a reminder that everybody’s writing has quirks, that everyone struggles with some basic aspects of usage or structure.  I, for example, have a weird penchant for using “this” ambiguously by burying the antecedent.  This guy tends to overuse “however” and often doesn’t tie parts of his historical narrative to his interpretive argument in order to remind the reader what we’re supposed to be taking away from the narrative.  In other words, one of these chapters under utilizes commentary sentences, assuming that the evidence speaks for itself, one of the writing concepts that so often bedevils my undergraduates.

It feels like I’m going to end this on a kind of “Everybody Poops” note, but it’s true.  Everyone writes shitty first drafts, and sometimes even the second or third drafts are problematic.  But the real lesson I’m trying to convey here is that you should jump at opportunities to critique other people’s work.  For one thing, you may need that person to give you feedback on your own stuff.  But it’s also important to recognize that taking the time to do this sort of thing–even if you’re not getting paid for it–may have valuable consequences for your own self-confidence and your own writing.

On Being a Red Pen Instructor

In the wake of the post on grading and minimal marking, the cockles of my heart have been warmed by the people who were willing to confess to being “red pen instructors,” correctors of every single comma and verb tense fail, either in the present or at some point in their teaching career.  God bless you people!  I think most college instructors have been there, especially if we are teaching/have taught as know-nothing graduate student TA’s.  Like I said on that post, the minimal marking thing isn’t my original idea.  Other people had to show me the way.

Approaching grading in that way has saved me a ton of time and energy, and sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something.  I feel like I’m supposed to work much harder at grading, and honestly, I wonder if that isn’t where the impulse to be a red pen instructor comes from.  It’s the Good Student impulse, not really the good teacher impulse.  It’s the impulse to show our work, to prove we tried hard enough, to justify our conclusions right there on the page.  I haven’t actually been teaching that long, but I think I’ve seen enough to know that the abilities and instincts that make us good students only take us so far when the time comes to stand up in front of the classroom.

When one is trusting entirely to one’s “good student” instincts–which feels entirely natural, because they’re what got you in front of that classroom in the first place–it’s fairly easy for teaching to devolve into performance, a demonstration of what the instructor knows rather than an effective transmission of that knowledge.  It’s obvious how this happens in the dominant instructional model in giant public universities–the lecture–but teaching can also quickly become about performance in seminars.  I’ve been in graduate classes of twelve people or less in which the professor has repeatedly hijacked the “discussion” to talk about his interests, and in my own classes I have felt the almost irresistible urge to answer my own questions, because I’m afraid my students will never arrive at the answer I had envisioned when I was preparing for that day.  I have felt the urge to settle student confusion without allowing them to work out a problem themselves, because I want to look like I know what I’m talking about.  And I have felt the urge to mark every mistake in a paper, to essentially do the student’s work for her in order to show that I know the errors are there, in order to look like I did enough work.

But while teaching does require knowledge and preparation and lots and lots of work (we teachers have to study for our own classes to be sure), at some point I suspect that the subtle difference between the good student and the good teacher in every one of us is in knowing when to stop, when to trust students to be responsible for their own learning.  And that means allowing them to spout a lot of cringingly wrong answers, permitting confusion to remain when it’s pedagogically sound to do so, and letting students copyedit–with some guidance–their own goddamn papers.

Tales from the Writing Center: “There are Four Errors” OR That Goddamn Bird Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

It was the final week of the semester, and the writing center was packed to the gills, bleary-eyed students crowding the waiting area whilst world-weary front desk admins intoned–over and over again–”
no, you can’t just drop your paper off here for editing.” End-of-term is simultaneously that time when triage is most necessary–due to the difficulty of getting a walk-in appointment–and that time when the filter system falls apart, due to the mayhem. In other words, that’s when the really weird shit turns up.

The student in question was an unassuming young man bearing a heavy burden. As we walked to the computer terminals, he informed me that he was working on his final project for biology class, an ornithology class to be specific, in which he was supposed to record his identifications of over 200 local bird species observed throughout the semester. What a nightmare, I thought to myself, though I had no idea how bad it was going to get. At the computer terminal, he pulled up a gargantuan Excel file. Each entry described a bird, where it was sighted, the characteristics used to classify it, and the Latin name.

Perplexed about what he expected to get from this consultation, I asked why for he had come. “Well, you see, my professor takes a point off for each typo, spelling, or grammatical error.” I looked around the room and recalled with anguish that the entire writing center is windowless, thus, there was nothing to jump out of. I politely reminded the student that we were not a copy-editing service and that while I could show him how to correct certain usage problems, it would be up to him to edit the project himself. “No problem,” he said. “In fact, the professor already looked at a rough draft.” I had no idea that this was the precursor to something even more horrible. “He gave it back to me with one note: ‘There are four errors.’ I need help figuring out what the errors are.”

In a small but very loud corner of my brain, a high pitched voice was shrieking obscenities. So, this was a freaking “Where’s Waldo” exercise with words and punctuation, needles in a goddamn haystack. What’s worse, the student had no clue what the errors might be. They could be the aforementioned punctuation or spelling errors. They could also be formatting errors. They could be misspellings of the Latin bird names, or mis-identifications of the birds themselves. In other words, about twenty minutes in, I realized that what we were dealing with was not really part of my job description. I am not sure which damn fool recommended he bring his unidentified four errors to the writing center, but I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for that person.

While I have issues with the “one point off for every error” policy, I get the pedagogical point behind making students correct stuff if they want to get an A, and even getting them to figure out what’s wrong in the first place. But depending on the writing center (which at my university means people with MA’s in their field and full appointment books at the end of term) to help them correct this stuff is, quite simply, a waste of people’s time. I have no idea if this was a result of student laziness or instructor obliviousness, but WOW. Just wow.

I don’t think this is what Anne Lamott was talking about when she wrote Bird by Bird.

Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:


Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?


Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?


Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)


Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you.” Asking someone to give you free professional advice when they are not at work and just looking to enjoy casual conversation with their dry martini is, of course, total etiquette fail. But it gets even douchier when people want to tell me all about how they go ahead and correct other people’s grammar every chance they get. This happened with my new dentist, who, while digging around in my mouth with metal objects, regaled me with stories about how he calls people out–family members, friends, patients, probably also panhandlers with poorly copyedited signs–for using adverbs incorrectly. Adverb usage: apparently one of the Big Problems Today, along with oil rigs asploding in the Gulf and poverty and such. It’s like these people are part of a Douchebag Club and think they have recognized me as one of their own. To which I have this to say: I am not. I am not, in fact, proud of you for being a dick to the people around you. Now don’t get me wrong, I am sort of a dick sometimes, but this is one area of dickery I just don’t touch. I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.

It bothers me that some people think that this is what I do all day: copyedit my student’s documents and then take my work home with me by copyediting conversations with family and friends. That sounds joyless. And stupid. What I really do is research American literature and religion because I find it fascinating. Then I teach my students about literature and religion and try to find ways to make it fascinating for them. I also attempt to teach them to do fabulous things with words, things that are full of joy, as well as insight, nuance, and gravitas. In short, I love my job, but grammar has precious little to do with it (“it” being both my job and why I like it).

Then I work a shift in the undergraduate Writing Center and remember why people think this. Students come in, red-eyed and care-worn saying stuff like, “I just want to talk about the grammar. My professor takes off a point for every grammar mistake, so it’s really important that you look at the grammar. Grammar grammar grammar.” That’s when I want to put my head down on the desk, or maybe set fire to it so they’ll have to evacuate the building and I can avoid talking about grammar. I realize that these professors still exist, and I kind of think they are akin to the devil. One came to talk to the Writing Center staff a couple of years ago. She was from the business school, not the English department, mind you. After she basically insulted us for half an hour by implying that this room full of people holding Master’s degrees were essentially there to corral wayward commas and semi-colons and intoning that–unlike writing in English–writing in Business is supposed to be clear and readable, a friend of mine said, “So basically my entire job is grammar and obfuscation.” So frantic business students pour into the Writing Center so that people with Master’s degrees can catch whatever got through Word Grammar Check. Get me some lighter fluid and a match. (I am being FIGURATIVE here, kids. I do not condone arson.)

This explains another reaction I often get from people who know I’m an English teacher: they tell me all about the horrible, loathsome teacher they had in high school and college who perpetually handed back papers covered in blood red ink and killed their confidence when it came to writing. Many of these people are old, lots of them quite successful in fields like engineering and computer science and medicine. So, I kind of want to say to them, “Ummmm, get over it already? Why do you feel the need to unload this decades-old experience on me?” But for real, some people have deep psychic scars associated with their high school or college English teachers, teachers who made them hate their native language thanks to a promiscuous red pen and a vendetta against split infinitives.

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

Story time: yesterday, while I was in the midst of drafting this post, I had an encounter much like what I describe above, in which an acquaintance discovered that two people in our social gathering (myself and a middle school teacher) taught English. Suddenly, he was frothing at the mouth about how people who say “irregardless” are awful, horrible human beings. Apparently someone killed his cat while saying “irregardless” alot. To my surprise, other non-English teaching members of the group piled on, ranting on and on about the split infinitive in “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and how it peed in their breakfast cereal. Amused by the coincidence, I casually mentioned that I was writing a blog post about how much I don’t give a flying frack about whether or not people use proper grammar in casual conversation. The instigator then backtracked and said that it really wasn’t grammar that bothered him so much as people not saying precisely what they mean. Ok, I thought, that’s valid.

But now I’m having one of those moments in which, twelve hours after the fact, I’ve managed to formulate the perfect response, so I wish I had this guy’s phone number so that I could call him at work or something and say, “Then why didn’t you say exactly what you meant?!” That would show ’em. Because here’s the thing: when we talk about problems with grammar, we’re often actually talking about problems with clarity or, to use the term I suggested before, fluency. I see this a lot in the Writing Center, when students bring in papers with negative grades and lots and lots of red ink. Instructors (often TA’s but sometimes professors too) will just write “grammar” in the margin next to an awkward or unclear sentence, sometimes next to a grammatically correct sentence. That’s the problem with talking about grammar all the time. Grammar is only one of the tools in a pretty big toolbox that helps us express ourselves effectively. And grammatical correctness is never a guarantee that we have done so. Academic writers (even writers with tenure) are often guilty of this. Yesterday, Amanda Hess of The Sexist, one of my favoritest bloggers, posted the first page of God’s Brain, a book written by the founder of “Male Studies,” who is named, I kid you not Lionel Tiger. You can’t make this stuff up. Here is how it starts:

The first impulse animating this book was simple if enchanted puzzlement about the remarkable difference between what the brain created about religion and the vast and long-lasting social systems that were the result. This is obviously an extraordinarily important aspect of human behavior that has to be understood as skillfully as possible. But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religion on one loud and clamorous side. On the other, there was a self-confident certainty of both people and even governments about the need to quarantine the modes of faith from questions and from doubt.

Oh, you want me to stop now? There are four lights, you say? Okay, okay. That paragraph is technically grammatically correct, but it is excruciating to read because it is committing a number of other stylistic sins that have nothing to do with subject-verb agreement or the placement of punctuation.

1) Wordiness: Tiger is piling modifiers upon modifiers upon modifiers here. It’s like the man swallowed a Thesaurus and vomited it onto the page or like he was getting paid by the word and thus needed an adverb to modify every adjective. And I’m not just talking about “acidulous hostility” here. (Though in all seriousness, how great is that?) No, there are a lot of super boring modifiers in here too: “extraordinarily important” (Oh, well if it’s just important then I don’t care. Wait, extraordinarily important, you say?), “as skillfully as possible” (Can you understand something skillfully? I don’t think so.). He’s also redundant. Why does something have to be both “loud” AND “clamorous,” when clamorous by itself says exactly what he needs it to and is a perfectly interesting word on its own? Why is his “puzzlement” both “simple” and “enchanted?” Doesn’t “enchanted” on its own express the ironic bemusement he is trying to convey?

2) Cadence: Try reading this thing out loud. I am of the belief that reading is a kind of syn-aesthetic experience, that what we read with our eyes ought to be appealing to our ears as well. This is not. Cadence is what the kids these days would call “flow.” It’s what gives prose the quality of poetry or music. Ever read something that made you go, “Wow, that’s really beautiful?” Chances are it had something to do with how the writer establishes a rhythm and uses the tonal quality of words to enliven her point. The above paragraph is like a linguistic abortion. Instead of flowing, everything feels choppy, stopped short, disconnected. Instead of building on one another, these short modifying phrases actually stop the progress of the sentence and sort of bend it backward in some kind of syntactical contortion. You sort of lose track of where the sentence was going before it detoured from “simple” into “if enchanted” before finally arriving at “puzzlement.”

3) Parallel Structure: Tiger shuns parallel structure, so in addition to not sounding very pretty, relationships between ideas are lost. At the end of this paragraph, Tiger is presenting two opposing sides in a controversy and talking about how extremism on both sides stymies productive dialogue. Here’s how that starts: “But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religions on one loud and clamorous side. On the other,” Okay wait. On the other what? Oooooooh, side. I see. The first few times I read this, the fact that he was comparing two sides of an issue sort of floated past me unnoticed. That first sentence suggests that public dialogue is being shut down due to angry, angry people who hate religion. The fact that this represents only one side of an entrenched debate is buried in there in another sea of adjectives. Thus, by the time we get to “On the other,” we’ve sort of missed the antecedent of “other.” In Ancient Greek, there is a word that essentially means “one the one hand…on the other hand” that has to be used in specific syntactical ways. This is so that each element in the comparison is given equal grammatical weight and the relationship between them is clear. Also, it just sounds better if you do it like that.

4) Clarity: What the hell is Tiger even saying? I recognize that academic prose is necessarily dense. We’re talking about complex theoretical ideas here. My point in this little digression isn’t that Tiger is using too many big words. I am totally going to use “acidulous hostility” in my next conference paper. It isn’t even that he is resorting to professional jargon. The problem is that he is allowing the overuse of mundane language to make the reading experience torturous. The stuff I just mentioned pulls us out of the reading experience and by focusing our energies on decoding the sentence rather than contemplating the ideas. Remember Pig Latin? It wasn’t at all difficult to translate, but your brain still had to work a little harder than usual to figure out what the precise words were, so it took you longer than usual to arrive at what the person meant. That’s sort of what this paragraph is like.

And what are the ideas? Carping on about how someone said something is often a way of refusing to engage with what they actually did say. It’s a derailing tactic that gets leveled against feminist bloggers all of the time. I won’t do that here.* Tiger is talking about the cognitive theory of religion, which states that religion is at least partially a product of neurological processes, a psychological “need” for faith that is programmed into our very DNA. It’s a fascinating theory. I actually work for a professor right now who does this stuff. In this first paragraph, Tiger is saying that it is difficult to separate religion as a product of our brains from the social institutions that influence the way religion is practiced. He is saying that broaching this topic is challenging because people’s opinions on religion, even in academia, tend to be very polarized. There are those who do not want us to talk about religion at all because they sort of wish it would go away, and there are those who want religion to be immune from academic scrutiny, which might call the truth claims of religion into question. He goes on to say, in the next paragraph, that many scholars and even academic presses shrink from engaging with or publishing this sort of work because of the controversy it engenders. Now that’s something I might be interested in reading about, if the prose weren’t so weighed down with stuff that usually gets excised from shitty first drafts.

As one of Hess’s commenters suggests, some of the reviews on Amazon are telling. While the book has a few positive reviews, the negative ones cite the ponderousness of the writing as a serious disappointment. In other words, they were all excited about reading this book until they encountered “enchanted puzzlement.” I can’t say much for Tiger’s theories on gender, but he seems to have important things to say in the field of the scientific study of religion. And that’s what makes this infuriating: not that Tiger has committed some atrocity upon the English language but that provocative ideas have been lost in a sea of extraneous fourth grade adjectives like “extraordinarily” and “loud.” It’s just all so unnecessary. And that, for me, is far more aggravating than “to boldly go” or “irregardless.” At least those words fairly effectively capture what the speaker means to say.

*In all fairness, Hess isn’t doing that either. She has repeatedly engaged with the way “Male Studies” has been framed as an answer to “Men’s Studies,” and if attacking his style is sort of ad hominem, then it’s merely in response to Tiger’s ad hominem accusation that she just hasn’t read his stuff. One shouldn’t have to read the entire body of someone’s scholarship, especially for someone as prolific as Lionel Tiger (still a funny name) in order to be qualified to critique their ideas on one particular subject.