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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Who can can spell synecdoche? I certainly can't. I just look up the word each time I need to use it. Spelling is trivial. Misspelling, on the other hand, is far from trivial. In other words, nobody cares after the third grade whether you can spell a word in a spelling contest. People only care if you don't spell something right. You don't look smart for spelling things right; you only look idiotic for not doing so.

A lot of other features of scholarly writing are like that: if you get them wrong they are distractions, but if you get them right, your paper just looks normal. You don't get extra credit for just doing basic things correctly.


If you are a student you might want to not

--spell the professor's name wrong.
--put a grammatical error in the title of your paper.
--use a word from the list of the words your professor told you never to use.
--get the name of the main character in the novel wrong.


matt said...

Students find this concept difficult to grasp because so much of their writing has been assessed based on these word-level mishaps rather than on the strength of their ideas.

I try to communicate this idea using the analogy of selling a house. The inside of the house might be neat, clean, comfortable, updated, and so on, but if the yard is a jungle, a gutter is hanging down over the front porch, and the paint is peeling, then you might never get anyone to come inside and see how great the house really is.

So it goes with our writing. The ideas are most important, but if the word-level is distracting, your audience might never get to your ideas...of course, the reverse is true. I've read some really clean writing with no ideas.

Clarissa said...

My last name is difficult. It is, however, mentioned at the very top of the syllabus. It also can be easily located in the course catalogue. This is why I was quite disturbed when a student handed in a paper written in the course of Prof. XXX. Does it mean that, in his mind, I'm X-rated? Or is it a code-word for my name?

Jonathan said...

The student probably put in the xxx as a placeholder and was going to check the spelling later and then forgot. I get "Mayhem" once in a while, a word meaning riotous chaos or severe bodily harm.