Pet Peeves in Grading

OK, the semester is over, and I’m ready to vent. (Yes, I know I’ve already done it, but the urge to vent seems to recur more often in some of us…) This time it’s about gripes I have about student papers. Not the usual ones, like misspellings (“Plagitigna” “Chisum” and worst of all “Kavanig”!) and poor grammar; not even absurd structure or total lack of it, or attempts at arguments that make you shake your head in disbelief. No, this is about true minutiae on the grand scale of sins of the paper. And be sure to contribute your own in the comments!

I’ll start with two for Peter Markie:
1. Confusing “like” and “as”. I’ll let him explain himself on this one, but you’ve never seen such a gleam in the eye at finding it!
2. Confusing adverbs and adjectives, as in “Oh, it hurts so bad” when it should be “Oh, it hurts so badly”. (Of course, if it’s quoted in dialogue, he’s got no case…)

But here are some of mine:
1. Learned from journalists: using “refute” when you mean “rebut”. Either that, or it’s an expression of inordinate optimism, as in “In this section I will refute the objection to my view arising from virtue epistemology.” Maybe so, but I think you meant “rebut”; and even if you didn’t, it is a wiser choice: my standards for refutations are pretty high, but rebuttals aren’t nearly so difficult to come by!

2. “I could care less”. If you can’t see what my complaint is here, then read the antecedent of this conditional as “if you can see what my complaint is here”.

3. Burden of proof arguments. Leave them in the courtroom where they belong. Jeez…enough already!

4. Confusion on idioms, such as “for all intensive purposes.” OK, that’s not really an idiom confusion, but how about “cut and dry” as in “the inability of position X to explain Y is rather cut and dry.” Or try: “beyond the pail”, “eyes pealed” (poor guy…), “freighty cat”, “stand to loose”, “veil of tears”, “reek havoc”, etc.

5. Getting confused on an explanation of analogy argument by thinking that “A is like B” is an identity statement. Like, think about it…

OK, you’re turn… 🙂


Pet Peeves in Grading — 26 Comments

  1. You’re probably also familiar with “casual laws”, “unconciouse thoughts” and “non exisistant memories”.

  2. Juan, you’re right that there’s the irony explanation of propriety, but that’s strained, I think. Sarcasm and irony are typically, or at least often, accompanied by behavioral clues, and they’re just not there when people say “I could care less.” I think the more likely explanation is that producing the sounds is harder for “I couldn’t care less” than for “I could care less”, and so efficiency takes over (some would call it laziness, but not I!).

  3. Jon, you might want to read the entries Juan cites, especially the Language Log one.
    The ‘irony’ defense is Pinker’s, but the linguists at Language Log think it’s entirely wrong. Still, the linguistic community is pretty well united in thinking that “I could care less” is a quite established and acceptable idiom.
    I’m with you on ‘refute’, and on burden of proof.
    My own pet peeve: “begging the question”, whose new meaning (raising or suggesting a question) is now so well established that I’ve given up correcting it, but sadly, and it still galls me every time I see it.

  4. Yes, Jamie, I do understand how, if people misuse a phrase long enough, it becomes acceptable. I stand and bitch as the world of usage moves on…

    By the way, on “begging the question”, I did a search on it once, and found the new usage in a newspaper headline from the late 1800’s!

  5. I know this isn’t quite on topic, but it’s in the same ballpark. From a paper by a student who is a staunch eliminative materialist:

    â??any materialist should really be an EMist as a consequence of their beliefâ??.

  6. I used to get upset over the use of “refute” rather than “rebut,” too, but I’ve changed my mind; here‘s what the dictionary says. Here‘s a Google search for “Pentagon refutes” with lots of references to denials that don’t rise to demonstrative proof.

  7. Yes, various dictionaries reject the normative view of language so strongly that they include anything that becomes used fairly commonly. Maybe they’re right, too…

    Anyway, here’s a journalistic complaint about the confusion: here. I’m somewhat sheepish to cite it, since it should be the linguists whose opinion matters. But when it comes to mixed evidence, I’m an example of Tom Kelly’s thesis: explain away the alternative viewpoints, and be reassured by those that agree with you!

  8. OK, here’s one I usually only see in otherwise good papers (once in a paper I reviewed for a very good journal). In the attempt to impress upon the reader the importance of X the following statement (form) is made: “the value of X cannot be underestimated.” Well, perhaps not, but …

    As for petty misspellings and other annoying errors, I now assign specific points for grades and will subtract one point from those totals for every misspelled or misused word on THE LIST: `argument,’ `existence,’ any philosopher’s name, any possessive noun, et cetera. I limit my deductions to 5 points (i.e. one-half grade) to provide a safety net. Consider this:

    Descarte gives an arguement for the existance of God in his Third Meditation. Descartes arguement is successful.

    The student who writes this on one of my exams would lose all 5 points on these two sentences. I know it seems silly, but it works like a charm. Less need to vent after grading and lots of money saved on pens.

  9. I once had a student write about the quote unquote best answer to a problem. This is what happens, I presume, when language is learned at the ear rather than the eye.


  10. Oh, am I glad you started this discussion, Jon. My conscious tells me some of my students wouldn’t want they’re mistakes held up for ridicule, but here are some examples of annoying kinds of errors:

    – Clocks usually tell the time of day. As such, an appeal to a clock may be considered legitimate evidence to support a belief about the time of day.
    – Being that … [followed by anything].
    – I’m having a sense data of a table.
    – In the middle ages, everyone knew that the Earth was flat. [This contains two errors!]
    – There are many different realities. Whose reality is true?
    – [Who could forget this one?] In saying he would not raise taxes on the middle class, the president inferred that he might raise other taxes.
    – [The worst of all:] … Heumer …
    – Hume’s argument is based off of three premises.
    – Determinism is reliant on two definitions.
    – Carrying a mouse in its mouth, John saw the cat enter the room.

  11. Note: I refuse to give up the word “refute”, because the abuse of this word is part and parcel of the abuse of “know”, “prove”, “true”, and “reality”, which seems to me to involve an attempt to erase the concepts of objective reality and knowledge.

  12. Under ‘refute’, the OED says

     ¶5. trans. Sometimes used erroneously to mean â��deny, repudiate’.

    But the American Heritage says

    2. To deny the accuracy or truth of: refuted the results of the poll.

  13. Another one: misuse of `rationalize’ as in “Hume rationalizes that we cannot have any evidence for believing that the future resembles the past.” I’d almost take `rationalize’ there if I could get the rest of that sentence!

    I’ve given up on my name. I’ll grade the papers for Professor Kling, too.

  14. One further thought: we all began with precious little knowledge. If our students could already write excellent philosophy papers, we’d be out of work. In my first semester of teaching ethics I became furious about the frequent misspelling of a famous utilitarian’s easy, four-letter name in many of the essays on my desk. “Can’t these people READ!” I fumed. Just as I was grading that stack of papers, I happened across a paper I’d written in my first semester of college in which I discussed the strenghths and weaknesses of the consequentialist view defended by that famous philosopher, John Stuart Mills. In grad school I wrote a paper in which I opined that we ought not be “phased” by the counterintutive consequences of Grunbaum’s view that time does not pass. I attempt to apply high standards with merciful understanding. (But I still use THE LIST to preserve my own tenuous grip on sanity. `Mills’ will get you a one-point deduction, unless you are writing on, say, Charles Mills.)

  15. Two words that test my equanimity are “argue” and “problematic.” More and more often, the former appears to be used by students to mean “argue against.” On the contrary, in my experience, “argue” (or “argue that”) means “adduce support for.”

    And “problematic” seems to have two often incompatible meanings: “uncertain of outcome” and “trouble-causing.”

    Am I alone in finding these words sources of annoyance?

    BTW, I hope Mr. Kvanvig will excuse my pointing out that his “But here’s some of mine” itself contains an error, one of subject/verb agreement. The expletive construction (“Here is/are”; “There is/are”) is notorious for breeding such solecisms. Because “here” (or “there”) occupies the “subject position” in the expletive construction, writers often overlook the fact that the grammatical subject (in this case, “some”) follows the verb. To some ears, “here’ (or “there”) sounds vaguely singular. Thus the erroneously singular “is” (“‘s”).

    Students need to learn that corrrect grammar and syntax are not functions of how passages sound but rather of how they are constructed.

  16. I’ll defer to the OED and reinstate some of my earlier unhappiness about success-not-implied uses of “refute.” And I applaud the OED’s normativity.

  17. I like THE LIST, and the point system for spelling errors. Philosophy students ought to be required to spell correctly, because they ought to be required to use language carefully, whether written or spoken. So too, I think we ought to fight the good fight when it comes to solecisms and misappropriated usage, such as ‘beg the question’ or ‘refute’ rather than ‘deny’. If a student of philosophy doesn’t know the difference between petitio principii and raising a question, he or she should learn it.

  18. Surely we all began with precious little knowledge. I’ll go so far as to say that we all began with no knowledge. Bizarre. This surge of humility might lead to a fascinating competition about who was dumber-than-thou.

  19. Re “I couldn’t care less”:

    Juan has provided (#3, above) links to two discussions of this disputed locution. Reluctant as I am to disagree with Pinker, his claim the “I could care less” is ironic rather than erroneous contains what seems to me a fatal flaw.

    To uncover the flaw, try a simple experiment in your classroom. Ask your students to fill in several blanks: (a) “This is just the — — — iceberg”; (b) “It’s raining — and —-“; and (c) “I ——- care —-.” (The experiment can be run orally or in writing.) Then address those who have written “I could care less.” You will find that their use of the phrase is not the result of conscious choice. In fact, even after the distinction between “could” and “couldn’t” in this phrase has been pointed out to them, those who do not express immediate surprise often find the distinction rather difficult to comprehend.

    The absence of conscious choice seems to me a definitive counterargument to the claim that “I could care less ” is being used ironically.

  20. For some reason that I have never been able to understand, students writing their first philosophy essays tend to use overly complicated phrases in an attempt to express a relatively simple idea. For example, rather than saying that the premise is true, they write, “The premise shares in the realm of those things that are veridical.” And then there are the newly devised words: “unrationalistic” etc. For the first 20 papers I grade, these make me smile. After that, I am no longer smiling.

  21. Michael, you’re right, of course, about the mistake. In this case, it’s not hearing it in a certain way, but constructing on the run without rewriting. I remember thinking I was going to say “here’s mine,” and then deciding that I had no reason to think the list would be complete. So halfway through the sentence I changed without correcting the beginning. Oops!

    It’s not the only mistake in that passage, but the other one was meant as a joke!

  22. Jon,

    Thank you for the correction–a valuable reminder that one’s most cherished assumptions often are the most fragile!

  23. Here are two that bother me:
    1. Using `less’ instead of `fewer’. Ex.: …no less than three occasions. `less’ should be used with mass nouns, `fewer’ with sortal nouns.

    2. When speaking of some number n of things (n< \i>>1), people often say “n< \i> different things.” I have yet to notice an instance of this sort where `difference’ isn’t pleonastic. If the things in question weren’t different, then there wouldn’t be multiple things (Identity of Indiscernables). If there are two things, for example, then those things must be different things; otherwise they would be the same thing, that is, only one thing. So it’s unnecessary to say that the things in question are different< \i> things.

  24. How about:
    1. Using “was” instead of “were” in a conditional phrase. (If I was rich, I could blog all day.)
    2. Using “least” when it means “lest,” and “would/should/could of” when it should be “would/should/could have”.
    3. Using “or” instead of “nor” after “neither”.

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