Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Please Tell Me What Has Led You to Believe that Apostrophes are Optional

Okay, first of all:

I don't know if this really counts as me being back in the strictest sense of the word. I shouldn't actually even be writing this post because I have far too much marking to do and, in fact, should probably have finished it weeks ago. I'll be working on this post in between my increasingly desperate attempts to mark the last six papers in a pile of a hundred and twenty. It isn't even a "pile" because--somewhat against my will--I am marking online. Marking online is an agonising procedure I would not wish on my worst enemy.* I am about to go mad, and one of the reasons I am about to go mad will be fuelling today's Document of Puppies and Happiness.

Hello, undergrads. Did you miss me? I expect you didn't. While I was gone, did you post on Internet message boards every day? You did? That's wonderful! Did your posts contain plurals? They did! Did your posts contain possessives? Fantastic! Did you mix up the goddamn plural and possessive forms in every bloody post because you had never ever bothered to learn a single blessed thing about apostrophes?

I know the answer to this one. Do you know why I know the answer to this one?

I know the answer to this one because every single one of you is apparently in my class right now. That is why. Damn it all to Hades.

I am shocked to glance back over my index page and realise that I have apparently never ranted about apostrophes. The omission must be remedied. I am back, my dear, dear friends, so that I can terrify you into learning to use apostrophes properly. This is my follow that matter how matter how far. I feel a lot like Don Quixote sometimes.**

The apostrophe is a strange little beast. It has been around for a fairly long time, but it is still a relatively recent arrival to the English language and has probably been misused since its first appearance, which was likely--according to this Random Paper I Have Found on the Internet, at least--at some point in the sixteenth century. It has two main functions in English: 1) to indicate that something is missing from a word or phrase and 2) to denote possession in combination with the letter "s."

Simple? You would think so. However, if undergrads treat commas like the chocolate sprinkles of written language, they treat apostrophes rather like dessert forks: unnecessary utensils that only snobs learn to use properly. Undergrads, your reckless refusal to internalise two or three simple, necessary rules is driving me completely mad. Apostrophes are not dessert forks. I wish they were steak knives so that I could intimidate you with them.

Since you, O Undergrads, should not be using contractions in formal writing,**** I shouldn't really have to explain the "omission" rule of apostrophe use, but what the hell. If you're leaving letters out of a word or yoking two words together in abbreviated form to make a single term, you replace the missing letters with an apostrophe. Cannot becomes can't and I have becomes I've. In fiction, you will often see authors adding verisimilitude to their dialogue via apostrophes, turning because into 'cause, of course into 'course, or looking into lookin'.***** Undergrads who are prone to flaunting the rules of formal writing and using contractions may also be prone to leaving the apostrophes out of those contractions. They need to realise that can't and cant are, in fact, two entirely different words. One is what you say when your sister asks you to babysit her triplets; the other is what politicians and religious leaders fling at your head for fun. You may be able to see how the apostrophe clarifies matters in this case. It is also useful when distinguishing between 'cause and cause, I'd and Id, 'course and course, she'd and shed, she'll and shell, he'll and hell, and so on. Apostrophes clarify, people. They are not dessert forks.

However, the more usual error in formal essays involves the possessive form. As I sincerely hope every schoolchild learns, 's denotes possession in English. The language is quite unusual in this regard. I know some Swedish, a language that is related to English via their shared Germanic roots; in that language, the possessive is denoted by a plain "s" without a preceding apostrophe. I believe German itself does the same thing, though like English, it also has a form roughly equivalent to "the X of the Y" ("the eyes of the dragon" instead of "the dragon's eyes"), just like French. Way back in the Middle Ages, English had the plain s possessive as well.

At any rate, yes, modern English is weird. That doesn't mean that you don't have to follow the damn rules. I am seriously doubting that the students who consistently leave apostrophes out of possessives are sitting there thinking, "The Germans do it, so why shouldn't I?"

Simple, simple rule: if you are talking about someone or something possessing something or someone, the possessor gets an apostrophe. Period. (One small note: this rule does not apply to pronouns, which are governed by their own rules. You need to learn those rules as well. I'm just saying.)

The problem is that we use that final s (without the apostrophe) to denote something else in English: the plural form. If you bother to take ten minutes to learn the difference, you are only going to mix up the two forms when your fingers are typing more quickly than your brain can handle, but a lot of people don't take those ten minutes. Thus, instead of Felicia's cats--with Felicia (possessive) owning at least two cats (plural)--we may get the abomination Felicias cat's. Just typing that made my head explode. There is absolutely no reason anyone should pluralise Felicia or turn her cats into a singular beastie that owns something unspecified. There is also absolutely no reason anyone should make this mistake when the plural form of a word differs substantially from its singular form. For instance, I have seen students writing about "the families secret" instead of "the family's secret." Ow. My brain.

Please learn this rule. It is simple. It is effective. If you know it, I shall have fewer reasons to scream and hit things.

Note of interest: the insertion of an apostrophe into a plural is prevalent enough that the error has its own name: the greengrocer's (or greengrocers') apostrophe. This name has come about because grocers are unfortunately prone to selling apple's, pear's, carrot's, and other maddeningly mangled pluralised fruit and vegetables (or, perhaps, vegetable's).

I have had students who consistently mix up the plural and possessive forms and others who use the apostrophes randomly, sometimes sticking them into possessives and sometimes into plurals. Others simply don't use apostrophes at all, ever. I realise that this error goes back hundreds of years, but I still blame the Internet.****** My dear, dear students, do you know how tired I get of typing, "Apostrophes are your friends. Please do not neglect or misuse them. Please read up on the difference between plurals and possessives"? I get almost as tired as I get of typing, "Avoid discussing authorial intent," "Please double space all university essays," "What is the significance of this observation?", and "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH." That is how bleeding tired I get.

Another source of confusion is the plural possessive and/or the possessive form of words ending in s. This issue is a controversial one, and for once, I am not going to stand up and declare that my way of approaching it is the right way, mostly because everybody disagrees so strenuously on what the rule actually is that I really don't know what is true any more.******* However, I'll eventually reveal my favourite version of the rule. I do think you need to pick a version and stick with it.

The guy over at Motivated Grammar has summarised the issue succinctly; his rant is worth a read. Basically, the debate is over how to make words ending in s possessive. Such words include singular nouns such as dress, plural nouns such as puppies, surnames such as Dickens, first names such as James, and historical first names such as Jesus. The basic rule, and the one to which I try to stick, is that singular nouns (including proper nouns) ending in s are made possessive with 's, whereas plural nouns ending in s are made possessive with ' alone. Therefore, the list above gives us the following possessives: dress's, puppies', Dickens's, James's, and Jesus's. I like this rule. It is easy to remember. However, as the Motivated Grammar guy informs us, there are several possible variations on this rule; some people advocate using the plain ' for all names, for names that would be difficult to pronounce with 's, or for ancient names such as Jesus and Moses. My personal belief is that these variations make things too freaking difficult, but I'm willing to accept them if you follow a given rule consistently. I am not willing to accept dress' as the possessive of dress. Singular non-proper nouns ending in s are subject to the same rules as singular non-proper nouns not ending in s.

However--darling undergrads--none of the variations allows for Dicken's being the possessive form of Dickens. I have even seen Mr. Dickens's name itself--neither pluralised, which would properly be Dickenses, or as a possessive--being written as Dicken's (as in, "Charles Dicken's is the author of Great Expectations"). Despite the fact that common sense would seem to indicate the SHEER UNMITIGATED FOLLY of this error, people still make it.

I realise that in order to follow these rules consistently, you will have to spend a few minutes proofreading each essay you write. My heart bleeds for you, albeit not really all that much. Remember: proofreading may be a minor inconvenience for you, but if you do it, and do it well, you will improve your markers' lives immeasurably. You have to read only your essay. Your markers have to read your essay and the essays written by all your classmates. When thirty-five students in a class of fifty do not understand how to use apostrophes, tears happen.

I am now finished the six essays I mentioned at the beginning of this document. I believe four of the six students made apostrophe errors. I am going to go sit in a corner and wail softly now. Go forth, young undergrads. Go forth and apostrophise.********

*Unless, of course, my worst enemy were a Batman plagiarist, which, to be frank, he or she probably is.
**The rest of the bridge of "The Impossible Dream" is even more appropriate here, actually.***
***Guess what I just did? I just played "The Impossible Dream" on the pennywhistle so that I wouldn't have to go back to marking. Unfortunately, now I really have to go back to marking, and my neighbours probably want to kill me.
****Even though you bloody well do.
*****Unless the author is Stephen King, at which point looking becomes lookin. We generally just let Stephen King do whatever the hell he wants.
******Plus possibly the greengrocers.
********In all senses of the word. Look it up. It's an interesting word.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I Am a Bad, Bad Person

I am going to post again properly. I swear. Someday, somehow, I shall free myself from the Tyranny of the Paying Job that Requires Me to Give Myself a Headache Marking and post a real post on this blog. Lately, I've simply had too much to do. I'm currently in the middle of marking one hundred midterms. My brain is throbbing, and it is probably not really going to let me sleep much tonight. I'm not even sure this post is going to be coherent at all.

However, I did promise to post on Blog Action Day, which will be over in thirteen minutes (I finished tomorrow's lecture five minutes ago, by the way). The theme this year is "poverty." As we are allowed to approach the topic from any angle we like, I shall be all ornery and write on poverty of coherent thought.

Undergraduates don't mean to write essays that deserve to be fed immediately into the shredder, then cursed with eternal life and scattered to the four winds. For the most part, students remain unaware of the horror they are visiting upon their markers. They are well-meaning, chock full of good intentions, and tripping merrily down the road to Hell.* When they reach the gates, they are appalled. How did they get here? Why are their marks so terrible? They're doing everything right; what's going wrong?

Dear Undergraduate and/or High-School Student:

You have the ability to think and write coherently. You are intelligent, motivated, and possibly even moderately creative. Now you must learn to follow a few extremely simple rules. They will improve your life immeasurably. If you are really lucky, they will usher you off the road to Hell and onto the road to Good Analysis and Pretty Decent Grades.

Here they are:

1) Read the damn instructions. Seriously: read them all the way through. I know you're tired/stressed/busy/way too confident in your own psychic powers/etc., but if you don't read the instructions, you are probably not going to follow them. When I am setting a midterm...and I provide you beforehand with a rubric that emphasises in boldface the fact that I want you to do a close reading of the passage provided and not simply use it as an excuse to wander off on a vague and garbled repetition of those of your lecture notes that pertain to the text as a whole and not, in fact, this particular passage at all...and then I mention in class that you should pay particular attention to the bolded section...and I read it aloud very slowly and tell you exactly what it means...and we practise close reading for forty-five minutes...and I read out the bolded section again...and I provide it once more on your actual midterm...then if you completely ignore the bloody bolded section, you are not going to get a good mark. The instructions are right there in front of you. I fail to see how I could make them more apparent. I suppose I could scream them loudly in your face.

2) Buy a style guide. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You are responsible for knowing the fiddly little rules of essay format. You are expected to understand when to underline a title and when to put it in quotation marks. I am trying to teach you about Geoffrey Chaucer. I shall sketch out the major rules if you are first- or second-year students, but I don't have time to go over them all. They are not difficult. Figure them out, then use them.

3) It isn't an argument if it is so obvious that if you said it to Homer Simpson, he would respond, "Well, duh." In other words, your huge essay on why The Castle of Otranto is a work of Gothic fiction leaves me cold. I know it is a work of Gothic fiction. It is the freaking definition of a work of Gothic fiction. It does not take a working human brain to formulate an "argument" on why it is a work of Gothic fiction. Deal with meaning, not observable fact. An essay is not a piece of busy-work; it is meant to make you think. So think.

4) I am not the devil because I insist that you back up your points with evidence.** You think you're being creative; I think you're making stuff up. You can be creative and still analyse the text via what is actually in it. You can be downright weird as long as you have evidence to support your weirdness.

5) If your handwriting is illegible even to you, I shall not be able to read it. My inability to decipher a sentence that seems to read, "In duck blorgia Hamilton, the pruit somed it crrgulatiory ciruins, ta," does not give you licence to hate me forever. My own handwriting can be...difficult. I print. Oh...and please stop complaining because I ask you to write double-spaced. You simply have to remember to skip every other line for the duration of the midterm. I'm the one who has to squint her way through reams of single-spaced, illegible, comma-splice-heavy plot summary written by someone who can apparently not follow instructions at all.

6) Ooh...look...look! You've had a good idea! It's simple...effective...relevant...and full of--no! No, don't leave it! Don't move on until you've--

Festering Hades.

If you come up with a good idea, deal with it. Dwell on it. Explore its implications. Follow up on it. Provide evidence to support it. Love and cherish it forever. Don't simply blob it briefly onto your paper, then wander away without comment. I would rather read an essay that dealt minutely with one solid idea than an essay containing six scattered gems of brilliance, none of which was explained or elaborated upon.

It's nearly 12:30 a.m., and I have to teach a lot of people a lot of things tomorrow. I'm sorry I've been absent, and I promise I'll be back. Write well, my children...write well.

*My personal Hell, generally.
**I am the devil for completely unrelated reasons.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Ranty Post for the Batman Plagiarists

Dear Members of a Certain (High-School?) Class in Delhi, New Delhi, India or Thereabouts:

Your teacher has set you a very interesting assignment. He* has, in fact, asked you to write a paragraph on what it would be like to be Batman for a day. I would like to have been set this assignment in high school myself. There are many things I would do if I could be Batman for a day, though I am not going to tell you what they are because you little freaks of nature are trolling the Internet in an attempt to plagiarise the Batman assignment.

What the hell is wrong with you? Your entire class has googled this phrase and stumbled upon my website. Are you really all going to hand in the same paragraph? I hope you do. I hope your teacher googles the phrase and comes across this blog entry. Hey, teacher in India! Guess what? Your students are a bunch of spineless cheaters! They are completely incapable of independent thought. If you told them to jump off a cliff, they would jump off a cliff, though perhaps not before googling the best cliff locations worldwide.

Hey, students in India! You are cheating. You are stealing. You are taking credit for work that is not yours. You are Avoiding. Writing. A paragraph. On Batman. Your teacher is not asking you to describe a room or explain how to make a sandwich. He wants you to write on Batman! Batman! Batman! My God...are you really that lazy? Are you truly incapable of spending fifteen minutes thinking about what you might do if you were Batman for a day? Okay, so not everyone likes or knows very much about Batman.** If you must go straight to the goddamn Internet as soon as you get your assignment, why not, you know, use this fantastic resource to find out what kind of person Batman is and what sorts of things he might do in the course of a day? This sort of research is creative (not to mention fun) and will give you the background to come up with ideas of your own. plug the title of your assignment into Google and hope against hope that someone else has already completed such an assignment and posted it online. Your laziness truly knows no bounds.

I lied earlier. I shall tell you what I would do if I were Batman for a day: I would work my little armoured butt off to figure out who you guys were and rat you out to your teacher. Boring, I know...but Batman could certainly do it.


*Or she, but let us simplify our pronouns.
**I do, though.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Commas are Not "Pauses"...not "Pauses" at All

About a hundred and fifty years ago, a reader sent me a link to this useful site, which lists--and I quote--"50+ Open Courseware Writing Classes from the World's Leading Universities." If you want to learn how to write essays, stories, poetry, plays, terribly boring business documents, even more terribly boring scientific articles, or blogs that do not insult their readers in every other paragraph and go off into pointless rants about comma splices, this site is for you. If you do not want to learn any of the above, I am not sure why you are reading these words. Go away.

I am still not Officially on My Break and am, in fact, supposed to be marking twenty exams right now, so I shall still not be returning to my regular scheduled railing quite yet. I realise that it has been a long, long time since I claimed I was going to deal with the narrative mode. I am a bad person. I deserve to have to mark twenty exams. I also deserve to have lost at Scrabble to a man who got a bingo* with the word "mariner." He always gets a bingo with the word "mariner." How does he? Why can't I? Why do I always end up with two "v"s, four "i"s, and a "u"?** Is "ivuivii" a word? ("Aalii" is. Use this information well, my friends.)

At any may be time for another Grammar Moment. It may especially be time for another Grammar Moment because the bleak and sordid fact of the matter is that I have never actually had a real comma-splice rant in this blog. Oh, I mention comma splices in passing occasionally, but I haven't explained what a comma splice is and why the very thought of it makes me try to gouge my own eyes out with my teeth.

I shall deal with commas in general, then work my way up to the comma splice and, incidentally, into a righteous fury.

Here we go:

I have already explained--here--the extraordinarily simple but almost universally ignored fact that a comma is not "a pause" and a semi-colon is not "a longer pause." Punctuation marks, believe it or not, have particular functions. If they didn't, I would not scream and punch my desk when confronted with something like:

He was; a good student who, liked to finish! his work. On time...

If you use a comma, it had better be in your sentence for a reason. Otherwise, I shall have to hunt you down and personally terrify you into learning the punctuation rules.

Let's start with a basic sentence:

John laughs.

Only someone with the grammatical sense of a lemming would write this sentence as follows:

John, laughs.

Why? You don't separate the subject from the verb with a freaking comma...that's why. There's no need to do so. The subject and the verb are connected. A comma between them implies that they need to be separated for some reason.

At any rate, I know that you are right now staring in bafflement at this sentence and thinking, "Why is Kem explaining such a simple rule? Has she finally lost it? Has the marking destroyed her sense of proportion? If she goes mad and jumps into a ravine, can I have her piano?"

I am explaining "such a simple rule" because people break it all the time. They may not do so in sentences as tiny as the one above, but I cannot get through a batch of marking without encountering a shudder-inducing construction such as:

In Beowulf, the title character is a hero because he, is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.

Gosh...the sentence is longer than "John laughs"! It must need more commas! Let's stick 'em any old where!

The whole separating-the-subject-from-the-verb-with-a-comma thing baffles me. Even the erroneous "pause" rule doesn't work here; who besides William Shatner would pause between "he" and "is"? For crying out loud, people: common sense does quite frequently work fairly well with regards to punctuation. By the way, that sentence would also not work with a comma following "In," "the," "title," "character," "is," "a"," "hero," "because," "is," "able," "to," "expel," "the," "monsters," or "from."
Commas are not the chocolate sprinkles of written language.

Someone else might write the Beowulf sentence above as follows:

Beowulf the title character is a hero because he is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.

In informal writing, the comma that follows an introductory word or phrase is sometimes optional. In formal writing, it isn't. The comma after "Beowulf" fulfils a certain function: it separates the initial modifier ("In Beowulf") from the clause ("the title character is a hero") that follows it. Leaving out the initial comma can sometimes lead to confusion. For instance, in the sentence:

Once we had finished sorting out the quilts our cousins made us cookies.

the reader may experience a short period of bafflement while trying to figure out whether the cousins had made the quilts or the cookies. Sure, the meaning does eventually become clear, but in that moment of bewilderment, the reader's concentration is broken. A comma after "quilts" saves her a headache and a small amount of despair.

Another common comma problem arises in the following two examples:

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin, and Rosemary had taught him everything he knew.

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin and had learned everything he knew from Rosemary.

Many writers would leave out the comma in the first sentence and add one after "assassin" in the second. I would then grow to monstrous size and stomp on their heads.**

Two simple rules:

1) If you have two complete clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction, a comma must appear before the conjunction.

2) If you have two phrases joined with a coordinating conjunction, leave the comma out or risk Kem's wrath.

Think of it this way: "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin" can be a complete sentence, as can, "Rosemary had taught him everything he knew." They may be joined with a semi-colon or a comma and coordinating conjunction; alternately, you can leave them as two complete sentences. However, "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" cannot be a complete sentence.*** The "and" there is actually joining "was an excellent ninja assassin" (a phrase) with "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" (another phrase). There are two sentences in here, but they are, "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin," and, "Bob had learned everything he knew from Rosemary." Because you omit the second "Bob," you are squishing phrases, not clauses, together, and you can ( must) leave out the damned comma.

A major function of the comma is as an indicator of parenthetical words or phrases: i.e., bits of a sentence that don't actually have to be there for the sentence to make sense. Some examples:

The gilded baseball bat, which was falling to pieces, was probably not going to last much longer as a trophy.

Claire, my sister, is completely insane.

The boy slid down the roof, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase.

It was, however, not a good day to die.

The commas clarify the functions of the parenthetical constructions. The parenthetical pair of commas also, by the way, allows you to separate the subject from the verb...but with two commas (with words in between 'em), not one.

If you write, "It was however not a good day to die," I shall metaphorically flay you.

There are many other tiny comma rules, but these ones will do to go on with. One more huge one remains. It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to discuss my least favourite error:

The Comma Splice.

O comma splice, how I hate thee. How I wish published authors hated thee too. When I am reading happily along in a book by J. K. Rowling or Terry Pratchett, both of whom should really know better, and you suddenly rear your hideous head, I feel like retiring to a corner to weep. Why do people love you so? Why do they not realise that you are promoting terrible laziness? What is wrong with everyone?

A comma splice occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with a comma. An example might be:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

"The evil overlord was at the end of his tether" is a sentence. "He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel" is a sentence. Together, joined only by a comma, they are still two freaking bloody sentences.

Stop using comma splices! Stop it now! There are so many perfectly legitimate ways to join independent clauses that you have no excuses for your lazy rule-flaunting. Write the sentence like this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether; he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, for he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether. He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

Look at all the options. Look at them just sitting there, waiting for you. Pick one, damn it. Don't abuse the poor comma.

Another capacity in which I sometimes see comma splices is in the introduction of quotations into a paragraph. Students get all frightened***** when I jump up and down and scream about the need for them to incorporate quotations into sentences of their own. They end up "incorporating" the quotations as follows:

King Lear, Edmund is motivated to revenge by his own illegitimacy, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.16-18).

Dear fictional are not incorporating the bloody quotation by sticking it onto the end of your sentence by means of an illegal comma. You may as well just be plunking it down into the middle of the paragraph without explanation; you're really doing the same thing here. The only difference is that you've substituted a comma for a period. Make the quotation part of your actual sentence, please. You haven't even realised that the quotation you have chosen is not really appropriate to your point. If you had actually made an effort and incorporated the quotation properly, you could not have failed to notice. Try:

King Lear, Edmund's observation that his "father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.17-18) spurs his attempt to rise above both "Legitimate Edgar" (1.2.16) and the father whose fault his illegitimacy is.

There: the quotations have actively become part of your argument, and the monstrous comma splice is gone forever. The Forces of Half-Decent Writing have Prevailed.

That's enough about commas for now. I shall leave you with some Filthy Plagiarism:******

composition on hold your blue gold

...the hell? I don't even know what this moron means. I hope he accidentally bites a hole in his tongue.

write a paragraph describing your best friend

example of paragraph describing your best friend

How many times do I have to say this? It's your best friend. Sit the hell down and describe her, you putrefying rat corpse.

writing an essay describing plot eternal present

The Eternal Present
seems to be a film. Perhaps you could go and watch it, then describe its plot. Just a suggestion.

narrative paragraph on making a sandwich

Are there really that many people out there who are incapable of describing how to make a friggin' sandwich? Dude: make a sandwich, then write about it. You can eat the sandwich afterwards if you like. If you steal the description off the Internet, you don't get to eat the sandwich.

essay writing on fame

I'll give you fame, you pustule. I'll make you famous for being a cheating piece of slime. HEY, TEACHERS WHO HAVE SET TOPICS ON "FAME": AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS CHEATING! NAIL THE LITTLE FREAK!

essay writing about different ways a person is "smart"

It is understandable that you would need to "cheat" on this "topic," as you are clearly not "familiar" with the whole "smart" thing.

write an essay on fault is within me not in the world

You are an essay on fault is within me not in the world.

paragraph writing about if i were batman for a day

I am still completely incapable of understanding why anyone assigned an essay or paragraph on Batman would not want to write it. Admittedly, I do enjoy the opportunity to imagine what Batman would do to someone he caught stealing an essay about him.*******

My brain is bleeding, and I need to go to bed. I'll be back when I've finished marking and thus honed my bitterness to a fine point.

*A "bingo" is what you get in Scrabble when you use all seven of your letters and earn a fifty-point bonus. It is not what I get in Scrabble when I use all seven of my letters and earn a fifty-point bonus, since I never actually manage to do that. A "scream of frustration" is what you get in Scrabble when you can't come up with a bingo and continually lose to someone who keeps spelling bloody "mariner."
**Just like Dr. Horrible, though admittedly, he only gets to do it in a wish-fulfilment musical number.
*** matter how sincerely you wish it could.
This sentence is pretty clumsy (you want to get the modifier as close to the subject as possible); the problem is that "The boy, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase, slid down the roof" is also clumsy in a different way.
*****I can't imagine why.
******New readers: the Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour records Google searches done by idiots who stumble upon this site while searching for material to steal.
*******It would involve batarangs and the words, "Fear me."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out for Blood: My Immoderate Response to the Garbage of Dale Spender

Before you read the following, please go here and try to get through this article without wanting to kill somebody. Then pick up your sword and return to the Kemzone.

Dear Dr. Dale Spender:

I hesitate to respond publicly to the festering crap you have been spouting to The Australian, if only because I would really rather that your views not be spread and therefore legitimised. However, there's a fine line between trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by ignoring it and trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by administering an antidote. I think I'll go the antidote route this time around. I'll probably do it by yelling a lot.

So you, madam, are "in touch" with the youth of today, yo? Your deep experience with "educationalism" has obviously prepared you for your new and exciting role as a proponent of cheating. Don't you roll your eyes at me! How on earth is cutting and pasting random material from the Internet and presenting it as original work any different from cutting and pasting random material from printed books and articles and presenting it as original work? Are students who lift whole papers from the Web just "learning"? Are the little bastards who troll my site looking for "free essays" on subjects ranging from The Hobbit to Batman to descriptions of their own aunts simply educationalisming themselves in their own ways? Or are they, in fact, attempting not to do any bloody work? You decide, O Educationalist.

All right...let's assume, for a moment, that you're not insane enough to be talking about students who steal entire papers. Let's assume your warm glow of benevolence extends only far enough to include students who take ideas, sentences, and/or passages from the Internet and pass them off as their own. Let's explore this practice in light of my particular discipline, English literature. Please stop me if you've heard this one before:

A student walks into an Internet cafe, essay assignment clutched in his hot little hand. He has a choice of five topics; let's say he's decided to go with #2, which is:

Discuss the motif of the journey in at least two of the texts we have studied this term.*

At the top of the instruction sheet is a blurb in which the prof explains that the student will be expected to narrow the topic down, finding a unique analytical angle from which to approach it. He will also be expected not to refer extensively to secondary sources but to "close-read" the texts; secondary material should be used for back-up only (i.e., secondary sources can help confirm points by providing necessary information, but they cannot themselves make points).

Let us pause for a moment and explore why the assignment is set up in this way. Is the prof "out of touch" with the ways students learn? Is she attempting to stifle the creativity one accesses when one goes onto Wikipedia and lifts a few paragraphs from an article on As You Like It? No, actually. She wants her students to learn how to analyse. She wants them to realise that analytical writing is not a cut-and-paste process, even with proper citation; it doesn't consist of reading other people's opinions and repeating them in an essay of one's own. Instead, it involves students using evidence from the texts at hand and coming up with their own (informed) opinions.

Last year, I was starting a group of students on a poetry unit when one young woman raised her hand. "I don't like poetry," she said. "I never get it. When I write essays on it, I always know I'm not going to have anything smart to say about it; that's why I like to read stuff about it online. Those people are much smarter than I am, and I can never come up to their level, so I need to read their stuff first."

Those people are much smarter than I am. This student was smart. She made intelligent comments in class; when she was pushed to it, she could find meaning in the poetry we were analysing. However, someone had made her feel as if her analytical opinions weren't valid because they "weren't as good" as the stuff she'd seen online. Well, no...possibly they weren't. She was a first-year student approaching poetry at the university level for the first time ever. However, she certainly had a chance to learn to be "as good" as these other critics if she was not bashed over the head with the idea that poetry was incomprehensible to anyone but experts and that she would be penalised for writing anything other than what these experts themselves had written.

First-years tend to see analysis as this great big magical process that is completely inaccessible to them. Some view it as "making stuff up." Some think they're simply "not smart enough" to understand it. Some buckle down and figure it out...but members of the first two groups may gravitate towards the ultimately harmful process of going to the critics first and deriving information from their work without fully understanding it. If students don't cite the sources properly, they're cheating. If they do cite the sources properly, they're filling their essays with other people's ideas and therefore losing out on the original-content marks.

To return to the theoretical student in the theoretical cafe with the theoretical assignment on the journey motif:

This student, whose name may as well be Siegfried, is baffled by the assignment. Journey motifs? What does that mean? He takes a look at the two texts on which he wants to write, the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Book I of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Both texts involve physical journeys, but he can't really think of anything to say about that. They're just journeys, right? What's to say?

Siegfried sits down at a computer and logs on. He types "Canterbury Tales" and "essay" into Google. Oh, hey: here's a whole site full of papers on Chaucer! He checks, but none of them seems to be about journeys per se. That's all right; here's an essay on estate satire. Isn't it true that life itself is a journey? Don't people take metaphorical personal journeys all the time? Aren't we really going on a journey every time we make a decision about what to have for breakfast? Couldn't it be said that Chaucer himself is going on a journey when he makes the decision to write his poem as estate satire? That sort of thing is much more interesting than actual physical journeys, and look at all this ready-made analysis right here on the Internet! Siegfried is ecstatic. That's half his essay right there.

Now...Spenser. Siegfriend googles "Faerie Queene" and "essay." Damn...nothing on journeys...but here's a paper on allegory, and here's another one on the Redcrosse Knight and the stupid choices he makes. Maybe, Siegfried thinks, he can combine the two approaches and write about how Redcrosse's dumb choices take him on an allegorical journey of decision-making! Brilliant!

Siegfried gets to work and busily lifts ideas (and sometimes even full paragraphs, since they fit so well) from the online papers. He adds a generic introduction and a conclusion that repeats it almost word for word. VoilĂ : an essay...and he's hardly had to think about it at all.

Oh, Siegfried, you cheating, lying little idiot. Even if you had been honest about your sources, you would have shot yourself in the foot here.

Dr. Spender, tell me true: do you think Siegfried has learned anything from his little online adventure? I think he has learned a great deal about misinterpreting his set topic, but very little else. Students who go online for "answers" often do end up lifting inappropriate information because they can't find anything else; they try to make their stolen paragraphs fit into the topics provided, with the result that the prof finds herself blinking in puzzlement--and growing suspicion--at a paper that is supposedly on the role of women but actually on the masculine qualities of heroism...with the word "women" plugged in once in a while. Another major problem with Siegfried's approach** is that he has found three different essays on three different topics; he is therefore going to have a hard time actually comparing the texts he is discussing. He will probably write two mini-essays in one, joining them together only with a flimsy transitional phrase such as, "As well, in The Faerie Queene...."

Oh, I'll grant you that some students approach plagiarism much more intelligently than Siegfried, finding appropriate material and integrating it smoothly into their texts. If they don't understand the material, they shouldn't be incorporating it; if they do, they are bright enough to think up original ideas themselves and, well, shouldn't be incorporating it. Students don't learn to analyse when they steal. They simply learn to steal. Sure, some of them will internalise and learn from the new information they have pilfered, but they won't thereby figure out how to create such information themselves using their very own brains.

Dr. Spender, O Thou Well-Known Educationalist: perhaps you should descend from the heady heights of educationalism and actually spend some time in a classroom. You may think you are hip and with it when you validate students' cheating, but you are actually just ignoring the fact--extremely obvious to many of us--that students who cut and paste off the Internet are no different from students who copy information from books and articles...or from their friends...or from their parents or siblings or guidance counselors. Such students, my friend, have been around since the Dawn of Students. Internet plagiarism is not "just part of the way students learn"; it is a relatively recent permutation of the way students have always cheated.

Yours with great sincerity and quite a lot of uncontrollable fury,

Kem the Merciless

*This one's a pretty standard topic in English classes, actually; I've seen it used several times. If any of my students have stumbled across this site, however, they should note that though many of them wrote on a similar topic last term, none of them is implicated in the story of Siegfried. The most problematic of their essays were simply a bit off topic. It is, of course, entirely possible to write off-topic papers without the aid of plagiarism.
**Aside from the fact that he is plagiarising, that is.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Rules Are Made to Be Broken, but Not the Little Annoying Ones

I'm really not sure I'm going to be able to keep up with the once-a-week thing I seem to be forcing on myself--especially as I should really currently be marking, writing a lecture, drawing four comics, and cleaning my apartment in anticipation of my parents' visit, which will coincide with my convocation this Friday (the 13th, of course)--but it's hot, and it's Saturday, and I feel like complaining about stuff.* Before I begin ripping into you, however, I have a few comments to make about Other Business:

1) I've been neglecting PFROD. It's admittedly kind of exhausting to maintain; however, I'll get back to it eventually. I've stuck a few entries at the bottom of this post, though you should note that these entries constitute only a tiny fraction of what I get every day.

2) If you haven't seen the comments on the last post, check them out. Two Instigators of Filthy Plagiarism have infiltrated the site, and I and a reader named Kyle have declared war on them. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?**

3) I sometimes amuse myself by googling this blog's name and trying to figure out who has noticed it, mostly because I like it when people get funny ideas about it or, well, me. A case in point: the nice people at Blogged have filed KUMGEW under "Entertainment." What? Entertainment? Essay writing is not entertainment! It is deadly serious and can destroy you if you do it badly! Would it be entertaining if you started an essay with a quotation one too many times and your marker came after you with a hatchet? Would it be entertaining if you repeated your thesis statement word for word in your conclusion and inadvertently started a nuclear war?*** I. Think. Not.

As well, a StumbleUpon user has described KUMGEW as "hilarious, British, spicy, educational." Note the "educational" (not "entertaining"). "Hilarious" and "spicy" I'll give you (and thank you, sir), but it's the "British" that gets me here.

Blimey, mate...why do you think my blog is British? It's sodding Canadian, innit? Bloody hell. I go out of my way to project a bracing northern sort of character, and what do I get for it? Suddenly, I'm British! That's bollocks! Too right I've gone off my nut on this one. Give us some credit, will you, love? Cheers.****

Seriously, though: do I sound British? I don't mind sounding British, but do I? I don't sound British in real life.

4) KUMGEW is possibly the worst acronym ever. Well, oops.

Now that all that randomness is out of the way, I proudly present:

Stupid Essay-Writing Rules and Why You Should Follow Them

In my postwriting post, I spent a lot of time explaining in great detail the ten thousand important things you needed to do to your essay between the time you finished writing it and the time you handed it in. I neglected the ten thousand and first: after you have read for sense, content, form, spelling, flow, consistency, and logic, you also need to make sure you have followed the formal conventions that are keeping your markers from losing their brilliant but fragile minds.

You see, it is possible to grow tired of writing, "Underline or italicise titles of novels," in the margins over and over and over again. It is possible to come to loath the sight of the words, "Incorporate quotations into sentences of your own," "Use double quotation marks consistently; single quotation marks should appear internally only,"***** "Indent twice for block quotations," "Take block quotations all the way to the right margin," "Double-space block quotations," "READ UP ON THE RULES FOR BLOCK QUOTATIONS!", "No comma between author's name and page number," "No 'p.' before page number," "Use parenthetical citations, not footnotes," and, "Use footnotes, not endnotes." It is extremely possible to hate writing these comments so much that one will eventually, when faced with the prospect of an essay riddled with such errors, begin to cry.

Some of the comments above apply exclusively to MLA-formatted essays. Other styles involve other rules. The important thing is that you know which rules you are meant to be following, then follow them. Ignorance is no excuse. If you don't own a style guide, acquire one; if, for some reason, you can't acquire one, find one at the library or check out one of the many websites that cover these niggling little rules.

Why do I care? Am I anal? Well, yes, I kind of am. Do I hate you and want to mark up your essays in evil and unnecessary ways? No, I do not. I would prefer not to have to mark up your essays at all. I would love to receive papers so pristine and beautifully argued that all I could really do was swoon and award them "A+"s. I don't enjoy writing the same bloody comments thirty times in a row. I do it because I am trying to cure you of sloppiness, laziness, and a propensity to regard essays as busy-work.

You're not just learning to read, write, and argue; you're learning to present yourself and your ideas. If published authors aren't allowed to format their pieces any old how, you shouldn't be allowed to do so either. Following conventions is tedious, but it creates damned professional-looking essays. If you go on in academia and submit journal articles in which you haven't bothered to italicise titles--or, worse, if you are blithely italicising the wrong titles--editors may reject your work, no matter how brilliant it is. If you take an office job and demonstrate an unwillingness to stick to the formal rules necessary to reports and presentations, you may be branded as lazy, sloppy, or irresponsible. Sure, these rules are "petty." They're still rules. Make an effort to learn them; they are really not all that difficult to remember.

I won't claim the rules pertaining to titles are absolutely universal, but here are the ones I have always been taught to follow:

1) Underline or italicise titles of books, plays, long poems, or websites. Choose either underlining or italics; they mean the same thing. Underlining is a convention dating from the days of the typewriter. As typewriters could not italicise words, writers would have to use underlining as a sort of shorthand for italics. I would recommend sticking to italics in typed work, while underlining titles in in-class essays.

2) Put quotation marks around the titles of short stories, articles, short poems, web pages (belonging to larger websites), lectures, and unpublished books (such as dissertations).

If in doubt as to whether your professor subscribes to these rules, approach her and ask. With luck, she won't even bite your head off.******

The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour

Today's selections from FPROD are:

free discrition essay written by a student on myroom with a bay window

As I have said time and time again, why don't you simply walk into your room and describe it? It's your freaking room. Why do you need to steal someone else's description? Could it possibly be because you can't spell "description"? You are evil, and I hate you. I don't know whether or not I should be encouraged (or less angry) because after you found my blog, you actually spent the next fifteen minutes reading various bits of it. Have I shamed you out of being a Filthy Plagiarist? Please say yes.

How Do You Write An Essay About Aliens

It is possible that this person is simply looking for very specific instructions about how to write an essay that happens to be about aliens. It is also possible that I am British.

opinion essay example hobbit

Honestly...does anyone write an original essay on The Hobbit any more? The impression I get from FPROD is that there exists, somewhere on the Internet, one essay******* about The Hobbit, and everyone else is constantly stealing it and handing it in.

need good sentence in English describing a room

describing a room essay without telling a story

It is also my theory that all students asked to describe a room have been copying the same essay off the Internet and are thus describing the same room countless times for countless different markers. I'm tempted to write a really bad description of a room and post it online somewhere. If I did, I think the failure rate in English classes around the globe would probably go up.

sample narrative essay primates

A narrative essay is often simply a (true) story. You are going to steal a true story about primates? How? Are you going to claim that your name is Jane Goodall and that you have been living with the chimps?

My temple is throbbing, and I am continually beating back the urge to kill. That's probably enough for now.

Until next time, I remain,

Kem the Merciless
(beating up plagiarists since 2007)

*It's true that only the first two of these circumstances do not apply all the freaking time.
**I cite my sources. Those last three questions are lyrics from Les Miserables.
***It's possible.
****I am so, so sorry.
*****There: I just proved I wasn't British.
*******To rule them all.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Have a Headache, and Other Essay-Related Stories

Today is not this blog's first anniversary, but for some reason, I thought it was, and so I wrote this post as if it were. Now I am realising that there may be something wrong with my head, and I have changed this post. Somebody slap me.

At any rate, I have guilted myself into returning, over five months since my last post, to write something, at least, and avoid living with the shame of being the Negligent Blogger from Hell. I really do want to continue with the blog; I just keep on having to, well, teach stuff to real people in classrooms. It's the whole rent thing. Every thirty-odd days, my landlady starts getting this look in her eye...the sort of look that conveys the following idea: "If you don't write me a cheque for a ridiculous amount of money and shove it through the slot in my door right now, I shall threaten you with eviction, neglect to inform you the next time your rent increases, and behave like the injured party because you are not psychic."*

Therefore, I have been ignoring the blog. I am a terrible, terrible person. Bad Kem. Bad...Kem!

There we go. Let's talk about essays.

In celebration of my blog's anniversary, and in further celebration of the headache I have given myself by marking for six hours straight, I proudly present the following unreasonably vitriolic rant on:

Quoting Stuff in Essays

Hello, undergrad. I know you are a wonderful person. I know you have a beautiful, fresh, untutored mind that is begging and pleading for enlightenment. I know that every time you enter a classroom, you think, "I am an empty vessel, waiting to be filled to the brim with wonderful, terrible knowledge! Fill me, professor! Fill me!"**

I am going to fill you with knowledge.*** I am going to fill you with knowledge you should really already possess. I am, in fact, going to teach you how to quote sources without passing yourself off as an absolute freaking idiot.

I mark a lot of papers containing passages that look rather like this:

In "The Day John Ate Six Raspberries," Sarah is a very shy person. "She shrank behind the potted plant, knowing it didn't hide much of her, hoping she was not such a beacon as she felt, bulking in the corner in her bright red dress" (12). This quote shows Sarah's shyness.

As I have already screamed and ranted here, "quote" is not, in fact, a noun and would not be a good word to use in this context even if it were. However, even replacing the word "quote" with a less stupid word--"sentence" or "passage," say--would not help this "analysis" much. The only thing that would really help this "analysis" much would be a flamethrower, or possibly two. The writer has, in these three sentences, told me absolutely nothing and made me want to bounce my fist up and down on top of her head.

Let's start with the most egregious error here: the treatment of the quotation itself. The writer has decided to write a "floater"; in other words, she has simply stuck the quotation into her paragraph and left it to its own devices. In doing so, she has failed to contextualise it at all. The reader has no idea exactly where in the story the quotation is from or what the writer's purpose is in bringing it up. The quotation is just sitting there, grinning smugly at the reader. Moreover, the sentences that surround it are also doing quite a lot of smug grinning. Sarah is shy. Whoop-de-doo. Why do I care? Are you even going to let me know? So what? So what? So what?

Dear Writer:

Are you demonstrating Sarah's shyness? Are you demonstrating a particular aspect of Sarah's shyness? What portion of the quotation strikes you as evidence that Sarah is shy? Why is this shyness important? Why would you be making such a big bloody deal of this character's shyness unless you had an actual point? Do you have an actual point? What is your actual point?

"Love," Kem.

When you quote a text, do not plop the quotation down in the middle of things and run away, giggling. Make it feel wanted by incorporating it into a sentence of your own, and make sure that this sentence allows you to launch directly from the quotation into a meaningful discussion of it. Try:

In "The Day John Ate Six Raspberries," Miller uses Sarah's shyness as a symptom of her alienation from her family; her behaviour around her classmates is related, through repetitive imagery, to her inadvertent position as the family black sheep. At the school dance, she "shr[i]nk[s] behind the potted plant, . . . bulking in the corner in her bright red dress" (12); the image is a direct echo of her favourite hiding place in her own garden, "behind an apple tree too slender to hide her lumbering form" (10, cf. 13). Sarah is continually attempting to disappear behind plants too small to hide her. When she does so in the vicinity of her family members, who see her as a "withered branch . . . of a withered tree" (9), she does vanish, a vegetable among vegetables. At the school dance, however, the familiar method of hiding in plain sight only makes her more conspicuous, and the "latent animal behind her eyes" (12) begins to show beneath her shyness as her body becomes visible, and bright red, on the other side of the potted plant.

Yes, boys and girls: here we have analysis. Analysis is a very good thing, albeit not the easiest one to accomplish, and quoting effectively is an important part of it. Note that the quotations in the paragraph above are not simply shoved unceremoniously into the text. Each one is--grammatically, structurally, and thematically--part of the larger sentence that contains it. If the writer needs to change the tense of a word, she does so, using square brackets to denote the alterations. Most importantly, she follows each quotation with analysis. Each quotation--each piece of evidence--leads the writer deeper into her own argument. She does not shove evidence at the reader and then wander away, never to return...for she knows, as you will soon know too, that

an example is not a thesis point.

As per usual, let me just repeat this revolutionary idea:

An example is not a thesis point.

Quotations are examples. They are not thesis points. They are not stand-alone chunks of text that boost your word count. They will help you get your idea across, but they are not that idea itself. Treat them with respect, and stop making me want to box your ears.

There are many more things I could say about quotations, but my long and unexpected conversation with the friend who happened to be at a wedding held just upstairs from the library in which I am now seated has ensured that I have missed my own deadline and failed to complete this entry on the 31st, even though Blogger claims that I am lying at the moment. Besides, it's twenty after twelve. I need to go home and cry. I shall save other quotation-related comments for some other time I decide to get off my butt and write rude things about undergraduate essays.

Perhaps I shall even do so relatively soon. I'm hoping this next break won't be five months long, at any rate.

Farewell, my friends. Thanks for reading. Go write something intelligent. If it contains comma splices, I shall know.****

*All true. I should probably move.
**Okay, actually, I hope you're not thinking that. That's kind of gross.
***But not in that way.
****I have powers.