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Exam Everest

As usual at this time of year I am working my way through a veritable Everest of exam scripts that I have to mark (is that a mixed metaphor? Climbing my way up an Everest of exam scripts. Burrowing my way through…) and, as is also usual, I’ve become acutely aware of the same annoying mistakes and mannerisms, popping up with tedious regularity. Here is a selection:

within used consistently instead of in: for instance, The development of children’s literature within the nineteenth century… Presumably this is because within is thought to sound more formal; more of an essay-word.

Simplistic used consistently instead of simple; moralistic instead of moral; same reason as above.

Cleverly as a term of praise, patronisingly bestowed on famous authors: Robert Louis Stevenson cleverly makes Long Silver a morally ambiguous figure.

Subsequently used instead of consequently.

Assert instead of claim or argue – which makes it sound as if eminent critics are aggressively making unsubstantiated claims.

However used instead of but, in the mistaken belief that it is a conjunction (it isn’t; it is of course an adverb).

Incredibly routinely used as an intensifier, where highly or extremely would be more appropriate.

Inaccurate use of Furthermore. Traditionally this word has been used to mean something like “Here’s another point in support of what I’ve just been saying”; but here it’s used to mean “And now I’m totally changing the subject”.

Random apostrophes after authors’ names – eg Louisa May Alcott’s wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher; or Arthur Ransome’s was the author of a new kind of children’s story. I’m at a loss as to the reasoning behind this one.

Another thing I am puzzled about is how or why these errors and solecisms are so widespread – why students all over the country who’ve never met each other are all using them. They can’t have come across them in any of the books or essays they’ve read on the course. It’s as if errors are drifting about in the air, like spores borne by the wind.


flaunt or flout?

The confusion between flaunt and flout is one that pedants love to pounce on. Well, I am a pedant, so I’m going to go right ahead and pounce on it. In an essay about screen adaptations of children’s literature (it is one of the set readings on a course I teach for the Open University), the critic Deborah Cartmell has this to say: “In most Disney films, fidelity to the text is openly flaunted”.

Flaunt means to brazenly display. When I first read this, I assumed she meant that Disney made a really big deal about showing off how faithful to the original text they were. Then I remembered what Disney films are like and realised that couldn’t possibly be right. What Cartmell meant was flout: Disney films flout fidelity to the text, that is they brazenly defy or disregard it. So Cartmell has managed to say the exact opposite of what she intended to say.

And what is Deborah Cartmell’s job?

She is a Professor of English.

Double solution

Yesterday I was doing the crossword in The Times and I came upon that rare thing, a cryptic clue which had a double solution: two completely different solutions, both equally valid. Here is the clue: Long sweet film (8,4).

If you would like to look away and have a try at solving it, go ahead. Otherwise, the answer – answers, I mean, are below.

The official answer, which I finally got, was ‘Brighton Rock’. Get it? A stick of Brighton rock is a long sweet; it is also the title of a film. OK, that’s fine. But before I tumbled to this, I had arrived at a different solution, which I didn’t put in because it clashed with other clues which I’d already filled in. But it seems to me just as good as the setter’s solution. My alternative answer was ‘Enduring Love’. Because enduring is a synonym for long; and sweet (as a term of endearment) is a synonym for love; and ‘Enduring Love’ is the title of a film. And the whole thing is eight letters and four letters, just like the correct solution.

That’s a strange coincidence, isn’t it? I like things like that.

Do not go gentle

I am in Swansea tonight, because I am teaching a course here tomorrow. I have fond memories of Swansea; I did my PGCE here back in the 80s. Naturally the first thing I did on arriving was to go to a pub; and in that pub they had a big mural of Dylan Thomas, who is, of course, Swansea’s most famous son. There he was, with his curly hair and big eyes and snub nose and pink, pouty lips, looking like a very clever but rather petulant child; and underneath was probably the most famous line he ever wrote. Or rather an approximation to it. “Do not go gently into the good night,” it said.


Oh, do come on. I mean, just come on. As any fule kno, that ought to be Do not go gentle into that good night. Yes, gentle is ungrammatical, but that’s intentional. How they could have got that wrong – in Swansea itself, of all places – well, frankly it beggars belief, especially when you think of all the people who must have seen that mural before it was officially unveiled. And nobody said anything.

Do not go gently. Sic. That’s how it makes me feel.


I came across the word debonair the other day – it was in a crossword clue – and for the first time, as if in a flash of lightning, I understood its etymology. I already knew what it meant, of course. Someone who is debonair is smart, stylish, sophisticated; but there is also a suggestion of a bit of dash, a bit of swagger about them. It’s one of those gendered words: you can describe a man as debonair, but it would sound odd to use it of a woman. I have always liked to think that people would describe me as debonair; though rationally I know that the chances of this are zero. Anyway the word’s origin was suddenly clear to me: it comes straight from the French de bon air – having a good air.

I may not have a good air, but I am good at etymologies.


I’m currently marking a bunch of projects from creative writing students whom I mentor at the University of Westminster; and one contained a word I had never heard before: eccedentesiast. It means someone who is always smiling insincerely, and comes from a Latin phrase meaning ‘behold the teeth’. Not an easy word to slip into a story, but it is said by a character who would use exactly that sort of word. Eccedentiast. Brilliant. That student would get a top grade from me on the strength of that word alone. Fortunately the rest of the project is good too.


I was walking along the other day and I passed an elderly couple in the street. She was breezing along, but he was walking with a stick and struggling to keep up. I heard him say, “Slow down, Helen, I’m not so fleet as I used to be!”

Not so fleet. A curiously touching expression. Does anyone say fleet any more? It has an old-fashioned, literary air about it. Fleet of foot. You might use it in a tale about an athlete in Ancient Greece, or a horse in a mediaeval romance; not so much about an old bloke shuffling along Walhamstow High Street. It is still often used in the adjective fleeting, though, to mean quickly passing or short-lived. I don’t know its etymology, but I’d be prepared to bet it is linked, some way back, to fly, and perhaps float too.

And that is all I have to say about fleet.