Big Mike’s Top Ten Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part II

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year.  Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.

Here are my top 5:

5. “‘bias’ rather than ‘biased’; ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘prejudiced’; ‘use to’ rather than ‘used to'”

A couple errors from numbers 6 – 10 might occur more frequently, but this one irritates me more.  Too many students don’t seem to understand the idiomatic use of these words – they mistakenly use the noun rather than the adjective.  For example, “I might be prejudice against them” or “They are bias against the idea”.  Grates on you, doesn’t it?  Now imagine seeing it at least four times in every batch of papers you grade.

Some students say I am biased when I grade their papers, but it’s not so.  I show bias against those who don’t carefully edit their papers.

4. “Their vs. they’re vs. there”

Dammit, this is taught in the third grade, people! On occasion I’ve been tempted to bring my fourth grade daughter to class to demonstrate the proper use of the three homophones for my seniors.  That’d show ’em.

This error is high on my list because it’s not an error my students make out of ignorance – they KNOW the differences between the uses.  This error is reflective of their writing habits – waiting until the last minute to write their papers, and thus not having the time to proof-read for simple errors such as this one.  When I see this error repeated in a paper (anyone can have a typo) I know the paper was written in a half-assed manner (btw, it’s not manor) and the essay shouldn’t make any higher than a low C.  Unfair?  Petty? I’d argue that it’s a reflection of a student’s ethos, and if he or she is going to make this kind of mistake, why give him or her any benefit of the doubt on the rest of the paper?

3. “your vs. you’re”

This one ranks higher than “their/they’re/there” because there are only two of them this time – fewer to confuse, and therefore more irritating when someone interchanges them. Your is possessive: There are reasons your grades on your papers are so low.  You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You’re going to fail another paper if you don’t edit your papers more carefully.

Again, my students know this difference; the errors come from a lack of concern/lack of proof-reading.

2. “its vs. it’s”

It’s a hard and fast rule, people: its is possessive, meaning something belongs to the ‘it’ in question: “The cheetah cub cried for its mother but the momma-cheetah was hunting for dinner.” It’s is a contraction for “it is”: “It’s a certainty that this paper, with all of its careless errors, will receive a mid-D.”

I’m not so sure the students who make this error know the difference between the two.  And the hell with them if they’re still getting it wrong by the time they’re seniors, because if it didn’t take when they were elementary-level sponges, it’s not going to take now that they’re jaded, disillusioned teenagers.

And, for the love of God, there’s no such word as its’!

And, finally, my number one pet peeve.  I think English teachers all over the world will agree with me on this one:

1. “could/would/should/might of vs. have

I remember the first time I saw this error in a student paper.  It was my first semester as a English grad student and I was T.A.-ing for a senior level technical writing class, and grading their final papers. Some guy had written “should of” in this formal proposal and it floored me – I mean, it absolutely ASTOUNDED me that a senior in college could make such an egregious error.  I was naive –  I saw the error a half dozen more times that day, and on that day I wept for the English language and recognized how great a threat it faced in the form of student writing.

Let me illustrate this: this is a grammatical error that Mark Twain wouldn’t allow Huck Finn, an illiterate white trash southern boy, to make in a novel of over 300 pages.  Go ahead, check.

“Could/would/should/might of” makes no sense whatsoever as a grammatical construction.  It’s a transcription of our saying “might’ve” or “should’ve” which, of course, are contractions for might have and should have.

I suppose I could try to blame Cormac McCarthy and the legion of other authors who write in the vernacular, but my students don’t read McCarthy until I assign him (and, admittedly, they may not read him even then).  But I’ve seen their writing before then.

Now that my teeth are grinding nicely, I’m reminded that I’m currently on semester break and have no papers to grade, and it will be another month until I do.  Until then, perhaps you, my reader, can keep these common errors in mind when you write your emails and facebook posts, and together we can make the world a more pleasant place…at least for your former English teachers.

“Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.” – Mark Twain

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