Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 4

On Using Your Words the Wrong Way

You may have seen, or even been given, lists of words and phrases that students commonly misuse. Common example include to/too/two and there/their/they’re. Well, you will see these listed in the first section, below, but the professors that responded to my call for errors gave me so much more . . .

Homophones and homonyms, misuse, and misspellings

The example in the opening paragraph refers to misuse that occurs because words sound alike. Often, these are homophones or homonyms. Homophones are words that sound the same by have different meanings, and homonyms are words with the same spelling or sound, but not the same meaning. (Don’t worry: there won’t be a quiz.) Here’s a list of words that students have been getting wrong for decades:

  • There (a place) vs. their (possessive form of they) vs. they’re (contraction of they are)
  • Your (possessive form of you) vs. you’re (contraction of you are)
  • To (preposition that indicates direction or location) vs. too (also) vs. two (the number)
  • No (negative response; none) vs. know (understanding)
  • Affect (verb, to cause a change in condition, OR emotion) vs. effect (the result of being affected) (Example: His meddling affected the data so much that the effect was named after him.)
  • Prophet (a religious figure that foretells the future or tells you what god wants) and profit (as in money you earn from selling something)
  • Feet (the things at the end of one’s legs) and feat (as in a feat of strength)
  • Segue (in language, moving from one idea to another) and segway (that two-wheeled thing people ride on)

Misuse: that (refers to place or animal, not a human) vs. who (preferred for human; that is still correct but not preferred)

Misspellings: These mistakes problems are probably are the result of technology: the occur when we transpose letters or accept a suggested word without paying attention. Spell-check will not catch these, because they are real words, even though they weren’t the ones we were reaching for. I have made so many of these mistakes, but of course can’t remember them when I need to. So I submit to you:

  • Defiantly (what you do when you stand up to abuses of power) and definitely (for certain)

Tip: use your computer’s built-in accessibility software to have your computer read your paper to you. You may not catch all of the errors, but you would definitely catch some of them. 

Malapropisms and incorrect idioms

These terms refer to words and turns of phrase that people got . . . well . . . very wrong. Sometimes the effect is funny for the reader, but not for the student trying to develop a professional persona. Here are some common ones:

  • Self-esteem, not “self of steam”
  • Taken for granted, not “taken for granite”
  • For all intents and purposes, not “for all intensive purposes”
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world, not “it’s a doggy dog world”
  • If you want to stop a behavior early, you nip it in the bud, not “nip it in the butt”
  • (Worth repeating) When you show off, it’s a feat of strength, not a “feet of strength”
  • If something really got your attention, it piqued your interest, not “peaked your interest”
  • Likewise, if you react to something that has really annoyed you, you act in a fit of pique, not a “fit of peak”
  • A large number of people, not large “amount” of people
  • Should have, not “should of” (better to avoid “should” because it implies judgement)
  • Would have/could have, not “would of”/ “could of”
  • Based on, not “based off” or “based off of”
  • More than, not “over”

(Some of the above may not technically be malapropisms or incorrect idioms, but this seemed to be the best place to put them. Please don’t sue me.)

I do not think that word means what you think it means

What self-respecting blog is complete without a reference to The Princess Bride? Well, probably quite a few, but . . . moving on . . .

It is the nature of language to change over time, but occasionally an existing word will pick up a new meaning in spoken language that isn’t appropriate for academic papers. Currently, two of the most problematic culprits are “literally” and “random,” although I suspect that “rude” may be joining this category soon. These words are problematic not simply because the misuse is very informal, but also because these words have scientific implications that are important.

  • “Literally” is being used to apply to, like, literally anything that someone wants to emphasize. “Yesterday was literally the worst day of my life,” or “that was literally the worst game ever.” The word “literally” literally has a very specific meaning, and if you use it, it means that you are stating exactly what happened. If you write in your chemistry notes that your experiment “literally blew up in our faces,” then you and your lab partner should have singed eyebrows. “Literal” is the opposite of “figurative.”
  • “Random” is being used to refer to unexpected and unwelcome events. “Some random dude just came up and asked for my number” or “Robert Frost wrote about having to randomly choose which road he wanted to take.” “Random” literally refers to a quality of unpredictability (see what I did there?). We randomly select a number from a list, for example, using a method by which any other number could have just as easily been chosen.
Regional and Cultural Differences

Contributors had an interesting discussion about this category online, and here’s why. As I mentioned above, languages evolve, and they evolve according to linguistic rules . . . but the same language does not always evolve in the same way across regions. There are many dialects across the United States, but since this is not my area of expertise, I will keep this explanation focused on the dialect that has been labeled African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE). Some of the items below are characteristic of BVE. But why does this matter?

It matters because how language use is perceived can become a “gatekeeping” issue. Whether different dialects are viewed as “legitimate” or not is largely a matter of who decides. In an academic setting, using words like “wanna” or “goin'” will be read as too informal; conversely, speaking “properly” in other settings could be read as snobbish. As with many elements of our society, what is considered acceptable or proper has primarily to do with whoever holds the authority in society. People using dialects are often labeled as uneducated and unintelligent, whether that is the dialect of Appalachia, southern Kansas, or BVE. “Proper” academic language is considered to be the language of the elite, which means that those who do not speak it may be discriminated against and blocked from academic and career opportunities. (Note that this gatekeeping may or may not be deliberate, but the effect is the same on the person who is seen as not “fitting in.”)

Individuals can learn to code-switch, or shift between dialects depending on the situation, but there is a lot of debate over the ethics of this expectation.

Some of the following appear in BVE and among students who do not appear to be using BVE. Setting aside the debate mentioned above, the following would be considered inappropriate for college writing:

  • Leaving the -ed off of adjectives (for example: “He is bias” instead of “He is biased;” “Stain glass windows” instead of “stained glass windows”)
  • Leaving out “of” (for example: “I ran out the house” instead of “I ran out of the house”)
  • Leaving “a” off of “a majority”
  • Discriminated against/in favor of instead of “discriminated”
  • That said instead of “with that being said”
  • Nauseous instead of nauseated
  • Curse, not cuss
Miscellaneous words and phrases to avoid
  • Hence why
  • In other words (delete anything before that phrase and keep the simpler explanation)
  • Needless to say (then why say it?)
  • Clearly (you may not have convinced your reader, or may be missing something. Just make your claim without insisting that it is “clear”)
  • At the end of the day
  • Little did they know

Making a sweep through your paper for these errors will go a long way in making your work sound more scholarly.

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This post builds on Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 3

This discussion concludes in Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 5.

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