Grammar Ninja Vs The Multisyllabic Nightmare

I became an online tutor because it was a versatile job that would travel with me everywhere from Washington, DC to Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hours are flexible and I can listen to music and wear comfy clothes while I work.  Few people can say that about their jobs (okay, now you just want to start listing jobs that allow music and comfy clothes, don’t you?).

What I didn’t expect from this job, I admit, were the number of absolutely unbelievable essays that would be sent my way.  Don’t get me wrong – I knew that bad essays were coming and I’ve seen my fair share of atrocious writing as a graduate assistant overseeing hordes of semi-literate freshmen (they call them freshers here… which I kind of like).  However, I just don’t think anything can prepare you for a constant onslaught of essays from across the nation from students who want everything from help constructing a thesis to, and I quote, ‘HOW TO DO SENTENCES.’ No matter how prepared I thought I was, I still find myself astonished by the variety of grammatical atrocities committed by writers.

All this leads up to the current frustration that I encountered yesterday.  It is one thing for a student who may have never written an essay in his/her life to submit a paper filled with errors, stumbling sentences, almost endearing (almost, but not quite, mind you) word mix-ups, and a structure so unstable that you can feel the whole paper trembling on the verge of collapse.  I accept that challenge nobly.

What I found so offensive about this one particular essay was its inept juggling of ponderous words and phrases.  This student seemed to think that the bigger the words were that she used, the more intelligent her paper would sound.  It is also quite possible that she was trying to reach a required page count, but I can only theorize.

Now, I have no problem with big words.  I find them appealing, myself.  What makes me start to twitch is when an essay wields long words and pretentious sentence structure like a giant’s club, knocking down all possible coherency in the process.  But, you know, there were long words, so it must be intelligent.  Right.

For example:

Nonetheless, attending to the specific difficulties triggers accountability and pressure on behalf of educational administrator as they provide support to the increasing development of these responsibilities in an effort to advance the implementation of effectual instructional teacher management positions.

Now, I don’t know about you, and perhaps I’m just not smart enough, but this sentence took several reads just to figure out what she was saying.  This could be said in a much simpler way and still get the exact same point across.

The thing is, this sort of fatal flaw is not limited to budding writers.  It is actually a common feature of scholarly articles.  Now, as I said before, I am a lover of beautiful lengthy words and crafting lovely sentences that are a joy to read and perhaps recite aloud for further intellectual delight (Now who’s pretentious?  But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?).

It becomes a bit tricky, I know.  Many scholars have an impressive vocabulary that just begs to be used.  On the upside, they know what the words mean.  The downside is that many of them still feel the need to make their papers so smart that they’re too hard to understand.  And that, in my opinion, is not the sign of a good piece of writing – not for freshers just out of school and not for the academics with their mighty, word-crafting pens.

In my opinion, what makes a paper sound intelligent, academic, and worth reading is if it is readable.  If the big word fits the sentence, go ahead and enjoy that heady sense of power as you type out all eight syllables and  twenty-five letters of it.  But if the simpler word makes as much (or more) sense and the sentence becomes easier to follow and understand, use it instead?  Make your essay one that is instantly accessible and even enjoyable.  The freshers will certainly appreciate your kindness if they are assigned to read it, and if you are making a sound, insightful argument, even the more pompous academics, if they are the honest sort, will have to concede that you are saying something worthwhile.

Enjoy the big words, but use them wisely.  The grammar ninja is watching.


“First, They Both Have Food” – How “Thinking” Has Become a New Elective

Sometimes, the only way teachers, tutors, and professors can survive a particularly “special” student paper is to learn how to enjoy it for its more charming qualities.  I have written before on grammatical “mystics”, but now I would just like to share a few thoughts on the tragedy (and hilarity) of simplicity.

Some students really don’t know how to convey deep ideas on paper.  It is not necessarily that they are unintelligent (though in the midst of our frustration in grading, we might begin to wonder), but that they are unwilling or unable to think deeply and critically about an idea.  It seems that the majority of students are exposed to little reading and even less writing in their middle and high school careers.  Most students do the bare minimum and escape the painful world of words as soon as they can.  By the time they arrive at college, they still struggle with the basics of a comparison/contrast essay.  How are cats and dogs similar?  How are they different?  Will we ever know?

Well, I got another one of those yesterday. This ambitious student wanted to compare two restaurants.  Charming soul that he was, he chose Hooters as one and compared it with an Italian place.   Aside from the fact that he rambled incoherently about his favorite foods and watching sports in the “wholesome family environment” at Hooters, he had a lot of trouble simply finding points of comparison and contrast.

He began his list of similarities with the astonishing revelation:

“First, they both serve food.”

I knew I had my work cut out for me.

How do you teach someone to think deeply and look beyond the most simplistic of revelations?  It comes down to more than just knowing how to write.  Do I have to teach these students how to think as well to put words on paper?  I tried to explain the problem here and asked him to look a little further and to try to bring something to his paper that the reader might not already know.  I will never know if I got through to him, but I can hope.

I guess the “moral” of this story is that most students dismiss reading and writing out of hand as irrelevant and useless to their futures without realizing the benefits of being both well-read and a good writer.  Reading and writing both force you to think and judge and learn how to express things for yourself, and that is what this student, among others, is sorely lacking.

I might philosophically dismiss this essay as just one poor paper and expect something better to follow.  After all, there are so many smart and well written students out there.  I should not despair entirely, right?  But of course, today was just not that sort of day.  My very next essay began with this gem:

Each day begins with morning and ends with night.

Let’s just say that was the most thought provoking thing that was said in the essay.

So I suppose I must continue to do my part in passing on what little I know about writing to those who know even less and hope for better and brighter days (that begin with morning and end with night, of course) in which my students will rise to the occasion and write thought-provoking essays on deep and interesting topics.

In the meantime, we can all dwell on the incredible news that there are two restaurants out there that share the unique attribute of serving food.

Who knew, right?