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Jack Smith

If an English professor followed the root of least resistance, he surely would open a jocular vein

March 03, 1986|Jack Smith

Our language as it is written by college students of English composition is a source of constant despair and delight to their professors.

We have seen here recently how children in kindergarten define abstract words; the sad truth is that many of them don't do much better when they get to college.

With the telephone and television replacing other mediums as the main means of communication in our time, there is perhaps no reason to worry that young people can't write.

Does anyone write love letters anymore? Why bother, when all you have to do to reach your inamorata in person is dial seven numbers. (Eleven, if she's outside your area.)

Teaching English is not among the highest-paid professions in our society, so I can understand why English teachers collect the spelling and usage blunders of their students. It is perhaps some compensation for the pain they bear; they must often ask themselves, "How have I failed?"

Judith Ramos, instructor of English at Moorpark College, has a sharp eye for the comical malapropism and the misunderstood cliche, which she keeps in a notebook she calls "The Jocular Vein," a phrase one of her students used when he obviously meant "the jugular vein."

She thinks many of these errors come from contemporary students' distaste for reading, and their tendency to misspell the words they hear.

She sends me the following samples from recent papers:

A profit of doom . . . pier pressure . . . my pears and myself . . . fowl language . . . designer genes.

Ms. Ramos is particularly pleased by "designer genes," in which she sees "a promise of fashionable genetic engineering."

Designer genes seems to me to be a technological step beyond even designer water , a phrase used by novelist Joseph Wambaugh with satirical intent, I suspect, for Perrier and other expensive sparkling waters.

Ms. Ramos has also discovered in her students' papers an actor who was a drug attic , a person who believes in the ideals of Lennon and Marx , and the idea that nuclear weapons are needed to protect us from hostel enemies .

"My favorite," she says, "is 'I guess there is nothing left to do but prey '--a cynical utterance meant to be reverent." Ms. Ramos is also enchanted by the possibilities of the new word prostidudes in "This movie promotes sexual intercoarse with prostidudes. "

This sentence, she notes, "unwittingly combines moral judgment of profligate behavior (intercoarse) with a delightful new name for male prostitutes."

Ms. Ramos says she tries to get her students to avoid cliches, but they use them anyway, often with ambiguous if not disastrous results. Thus, "He resigned under a clout" . . . "the root of least resistance" . . . "the route of all evil" . . . "tea totaler" and "tow the line."

Malapropisms are perhaps the most common kind of error. Students mistake one word for a similar-sounding word of different meaning:

"He disdained from the use of alcohol" . . . "I tried to affront the boy about stealing my watch" . . . "He received a conciliating prize for his efforts" . . . "The girl was affluent in both French and English" . . . and "The rabbits futility helped them to proliferate."

Well, the student who knows the meaning of proliferate has got a start on reality, anyway.

Ms. Ramos says: "Although I always like to read batches of essays to enter into the very sincere and often profound world of my students (some of them--let me be honest), I no longer go armed with a glass of chilled Chablis to deaden the pain of grammatical/structural chaos. The wild but dedicated writers of ideas struggling to be born make up for the uninteresting essays written by uninterested students."

Meanwhile, far away in Hawaii, A. Grove Day, senior professor of English, emeritus, University of Hawaii, recently published his collection of student errors as "Boners of Hawaii: An Anthology of Magnificent Mistakes," for private circulation.

Prof. Day's little book is dedicated to "the students enrolled in English classes at the university, who, while producing millions of effective sentences, have occasionally carved such gems as those shown (here), and to the instructors in English, whose labors have now and then been brightened by these examples of malapropisms, misplaced modifiers, and assorted solecisms. . . ."

Here are a few of Prof. Day's gems:

"Mother had placed her necklace somewhere in her drawers" . . . "My marital status is singular" . . . "He has an affair with his faithful handyman's daughter and bears her a child" . . . "Criticism is the type of writing usually used by critics for criticizing" . . . "At the University of Hawaii, three classes of professors compromise the teaching staff."

The wonder of malapropisms is that some of them seem to make some sense. For example, "Senators are chosen as committee chairmen on the basis of senility" . . . "Poland was dismembered peace by peace" . . . "Metaphysical poetry is about the things we know nothing about. . . ."

Also, "The hills were worn down by eroticism." What can be more wearing?

And who can doubt that "a hundred years from now the works of the old masters will be a thing of the past"?

Sometimes they are startling in their unconscious irony: "To combat secularism, I believe that all marriages should be consummated in church."

Can you imagine anything that would be more likely to promote secularism than the practice of consummating all marriages in church?

Sometimes the blunders are intrinsically ironic: "During the sixteenth century the populis was moastly illitirete."

The only reason I print these gleanings now and then is to remind the reader that English is not an easy language, and with the hope of being forgiven for my own occasional transgressions.

After all, he who laughs lasts.

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