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‘Class’ical spelling issues abound

This past academic year was one of the most challenging and unforgettable years many of us have ever had to negotiate. And it was not lacking in bloopers, from all areas of life, although most of the infelicities described in this column are from the classroom. Some of these are from before we took classes online; others are straight from the virtual salón de clase. As we look to begin a new academic year, I hope you’ll enjoy the latest crop of bloopers.

Students are such a rich source of fascinating bloopers. Some of these are due to typos or misspellings. Describing the reaction of one Latin American country to the coronavirus, a student wrote that “Peru quickly enacted strict confinement measures yet still faced a massive death tool,” misspelling the intended word “toll.” Another typo, not from the classroom but from a church-related correspondence was captured this way, “Bring your concerns to the alter” where the unstressed final vowel has been rendered with an “e” instead of the correct spelling “altar.”

Other errors are the result of a partial understanding of a phrase or idea or confusion with another word that is phonetically similar. One very dear student asked me to look over something he had written and when I picked it up to read it, he said, “Let’s see if you can read my chicken scrap.” It conveyed such a whimsy and sense of fun that I had to enjoy the moment and resist correcting right away. Another student gave a description and specific examples of what he identified as “wrote memorization,” while another characterized poorly-gathered data for a research project as “shotty.” There’s something catchy about “shotty.” It makes you think of a New Englander pronouncing the nickname Shorty, or it summons up images of shot glasses haphazardly filled with your favorite liqueur. One student incorrectly recorded the adjective utmost when wrote that he was determined to do his “upmost in life.”

The following error is an example of lexical confusion between two pairs of words. In an essay on the development of English, one student wrote, “When the Arthur went into a long discussion about borrowing language structures and imposing them in English, I found it very intuitive.” The error is made more amusing because of the confusion with a personal name. A similar example is found in this student-generated sentence describing a well-known Broadway critic who was often critical of descriptive linguistics. He wrote “John Simon is an advent prescriptivist.” The student meant to write “ardent,” meaning “enthusiastic” or “passionate” but chose the more familiar word “advent” which is a noun, not an adjective and means the “arrival of a notable person or event,” mostly used in reference to the coming of Christmas in the church calendar.

Some student errors are the result of brand new lexical creations although the following example comes with a twist. In his research paper one student wrote, “And recent studies suggest that the neglection of proper hygiene may have fatal consequences.” While neglection is technically a word used way back in the 17th century, it has fallen out of common use, with the nouns neglect and negligence popularly used. I may be wrong but I believe the young author (not named Arthur) created this word because he did not feel the simple term “neglect” conveyed enough lexical power so he sought to strengthen it by the addition of a suffix found in words like memorization, conflation, and rationalization.

I found an unexpected error in an online cooking video that showed the list of ingredients the cook used and the list included the instruction to add “1/2 teaspoon of Kosha salt and whisk (it) into the flour.” This spelling of kosher reflects the phonological pattern in some varieties of English that deletes word final “-r.” I also recently saw the adjective “Swiss” written as “Swizz,” the confusion I’m guessing, due to the “z” in Switzerland. And one of my favorites is the re-formulation of English “to piggy back on an idea or comment” that is often heard in conversations. The re-formulation occurred in a group discussion from a non-native speaker of English and went something like this, “If I could piggy up on Brad’s comment, I also support the motion to create a committee to look at this issue more closely.” Idioms are difficult to master.

The following is an example of an error in reference and is from a conversation. A student was talking to a non-student friend who asked the student “Do you procrastinate?” To which the student answered “Yes, I do. I’m really bad at it.”

And I’ll close with this amusing error found at the end of a letter written by the administrator to a community. “We can’t not thank you enough for your continued support and understanding and we are looking toward better days soon.”

And the intended hope is certainly one we all share – that better days will be here soon.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.