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You've got to be carefully taught

Some people go into teaching because they genuinely like children. And some, I think, become teachers because they like to push people around and children are easy.

Combine the bully with the peever, and you wind up with a pathological case like the one described by Stan Carey in his excellent blog Sentence First: the Irish teacher in the 1950s who scissored out errors from student papers and required the students to take a shovel and bury them out behind a shed.

Though this is an extreme example, I suspect that there are many pedagogical malpractices connected with writing and English usage. There is, for example, the model requiring that students write paragraphs of five sentences each. There is the anecdote in Eudora Welty’s memoirs about the teacher who stood at the door to the restroom and refused to let the girls out until the miscreant she had overheard say “might could” confessed.

Surely some of you good people could recount similar examples. I don’t mean the routine superstitions about not splitting infinitives and not putting prepositions at the end of sentences — there appears to be no end to that nonsense — or the misplaced reverence for Strunk and White “rules.” I mean outrageously bogus practices and disproportionate punishments. If you feel like sharing, please deposit your accounts of outrages below.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (15)


I had a HS English teacher who gave an automatic "F" for any piece of writing containing the word "thing." He considered it too imprecise.

As late as the first 3/4 of the 20th Century, many women were teachers because they had such limited career options.

I had forgotten about that blasted 5 sentence rule! I once wrote a very good paper, only to have it torn to pieces because I had too many sentences in my paragraphs.

(Captcha: maddest disrupt)

One of my favorite perversities was my middle school teacher (of a subject other than English, thank heaven) who insisted quite seriously, that poetry must rhyme.

Picture my political science teacher in college: He was a retired U.S. Army colonel who seated the students alphabetically and took roll-call every class.. He insisted that everyone sit with feet flat on the floor, and with palms face down on his/her desk except when writing. No slouching in his class!

That's entirely too much thinking for one lousy martini.

After delivering a speech to our 11th-grade English class, each of us was required to give Mrs. Gingrich our index cards bound together by two rubber bands, one at a right angle to the other. One rubber band, two rubber bands running the same direction, three rubber bands, string: F.

All pop quizzes were to be answered in ink, not pencil. All correct answers in pencil? F.

I could go on. For about three years after graduation this woman fell into the hard-teacher-who-really-helped-me category, but after that, she was just a bully.

My last English class in high school: I received an F because my thesis statement did not include an element of because and three main points in preview of the essay to follow. It was a perfectly fine thesis statement, even as I look back on it now, but it wasn't in the "proper" form.

My first paper in a composition class my first year in college: I misspelled "separate." It was the only word misspelled in the entire essay, but it counted for each of the seven times it occurred which meant an automatic F. True, I have never misspelled it since, but a painful experience nonetheless.

And can we count the time spent in the first grade, standing in the trash can with my face in the corner because I dared to write in cursive instead of printing? I was terrified of this bully of a teacher, but perversely inspired to continue writing in cursive since in my mind printing was for babies.

I misspelled only two words in my school career, so I found spelling tests rather dull. Once, in fifth grade, I wrote the words backwards just to liven things up. My teacher couldn't see mirror writing as the sign of a bored child and he took off five points.

I've forgiven him for being dull, but my loathing has never lessened for the principal, who used humiliation as a teaching tool. He asked our reading group if anyone understood everything they read. Thinking him to be referring to schoolbooks and the books I read on my own, I raised my hand. Foolish me! He whipped out the college textbook he'd brought just for the purpose and read a paragraph (calculus or some such), to the great amusement of my classmates. I hated his guts and his revolting aftershave and I still don't bother with stuff I can't understand.

Such long-term memory about incidents that should have taught them a lesson. Do it right and get on with it. And what if the entrant doesn't like martinis? (The aroma alone turns my stomach.)

I told a high school English teacher I wanted to write a sci-fi version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. She said I shouldn't because fairy tales have only one version and it would be improper to rewrite them and change the details.

"What about those Walt Disney movies based on fairy tales?"
"Disney's a major corporation, so they're allowed..."

She didn't dissuade me fortunately. But I wonder, what if I had written to Disney for their opinion on the matter? And I could have written to General Electric and IBM, too, since they're major corporations.

Oh, well. She's no longer teaching there, fortunately.

Had a high-school English teacher who automatically gave a failing grade to any paper that contained the first-person singular, nominative-case pronoun.

stephen, that teacher was a total fool.

I once had a history teacher collect quarters from students if they used the word "like", even if used to compare to different items. She would also kick a student from the class for chewing grape flavored bubble gum, and you would miss any credit that was given that day to include homework and/or quizes.
Although these neither of these particular issues bothered me, her class was the only one I ever failed.

The first time we were asked to write a paper with footnotes (circa 7th grade, I think), the teacher taught us a format for notes, a modified MLA /CMS sort of thing, and said that if we departed from it in any way we could face expulsion, and adults doing so could face jail, because not properly citing a source was plagiarism, which is a crime (it's not, of course). I believed this for about a month, until I noticed that no footnotes in any book I saw followed this format. But until then I was very, very careful.

I had a bully of a high school English teacher that told us that if we thought her rules were tough, when we got to college it would be MUCH tougher! I was really scared. Then I got to college and they didn't have anything like her rules, but rather guidelines and suggestions and discussions about good writing. I realized that I was already a pretty good writer by every standard but hers!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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