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Observations occasioned by marking a shitload of essays

June 5, 2017

Here is another batch of common uses/misuses of English I’ve spotted whilst marking several score OU essays this summer:

Within used in place of in (“the protagonist within this novel”). Sounds odd to me, as if one is talking about something physically present between the pages; but they’re all doing it. I suspect this is because within has twice as many syllables as in, and so is thought to sound more impressive.

Simplistic used in place of simple. There’s no awareness that simplistic has a different meaning from simple (it means excessively or inappropriately simple); again it seems to be chosen just for the extra syllables.

Cleverly, as term of praise for author’s technique (“Stevenson cleverly makes Long John Silver a morally ambiguous character”). This one is really popular. It irks me considerably. One shouldn’t pat great writers on the head.

Asserts, instead of claims or argues (“Philippe Aries asserts that childhood as a distinct stage of life was not recognised until the late Middle Ages”). The unintended effect is to make the critic sound as if they are making dogmatic claims, simply asserting things without evidence or argument.

Incredibly as an intensifier (“Alice in Wonderland was an incredibly influential book”). To me, incredibly is too colloquial for an academic essay – I would choose highly or extremely instead – but to the large number of students who use it, it must sound appropriately scholarly.

But this is what mystifies me: why are these usages so widespread and where are the students getting them from? Not from the texts they’ve read on the courses, that’s for sure. The students come from all over the country and are unknown to each other – what’s the common source for these common errors? It as if there is an invisible cloud of bad-essay-language, drifting across the land like airborne bacteria. 

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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3 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    It would be interesting to see if these flourishes were used in an essay on Hemingway.
    Could it be that the use of more impressive sounding language is simply a reaction to text speak and other electronic communication in which abbreviations and contractions are the norm?

  2. It could indeed…

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Brandon, your post made me curious as to the origin of “shitload”. The earliest usage appears to be from 1962 and led on to the query whether “shedload” is a euphemism or a different amount and itself refers to the quantity that can be stored in a shed or that involved when a lorry sheds its load. Maybe some threads are best left unpulled.

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