Mistake! An Approach to Common Errors in Student Themes

This “F” was earned

Mistake! An Approach to Common Errors in Student Themes
Albert Anker,Schreibender Knabe mit Schwesterchen I (public domain)

Editor’s note: This essay was originally submitted by the author as a tenth grade (year eleven) English assignment. It is reproduced here verbatim, except for changes to names and other minor details.

The original assignment—subverted by the author for the purposes of humor and mischief—was to write a so-called “I-Search paper,” a questionable educational fad of the time. (Macrorie, Ken. The I-Search Paper. Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heinemann, 1988.)

Part I: I-Search for My Motives

The author tells of Conditions influencing his Choice of Topic in an engaging Fashion and at great Length.

My principal motive for writing this paper is that I am required to do so by my high-school English instructor. Indeed, if it were not for her admirable devotion to concocting such innovative educational methods, this arrangement of words might have never been written. But, lest the reader be moved to undertake in secret plottings against my teacher, I shall explain my shameful role in the dastardly execution of this paper.

I chose to investigate students’ common errors in writing for several reasons. Firstly, I find the subject intrinsically interesting. Secondly, I concur with the establishment of and adherence to universal convention within a language, and I consider this a good opportunity to reassert the matter. Thirdly, I personally despise the misuse of language (i.e., non-adherence to the popular language conventions of acknowledged intellectuals.) My dislike for this vague usage probably stems from the fourth reason I wrote on this topic: ambiguous writing hinders communication and must therefore be expurgated whenever possible. Lastly, I chose this topic because I felt it would help me toward my future career goals of teaching and linguistics.

The author relates the Adventures he had while Researching and Writing his Paper.

I decided upon a topic soon after the paper had been assigned. I determined, after talking with my Uncle Bob1 and contemplating my personal experiences, to write about waterways: their types, their sources, their behavior. When I visited the school library with my English class I worked on assignments for other classes or read books on language, poetry, and the writer’s craft, intending to complete my paper at home over the weekend.

As the weeks flew by I did minimal research using one of my brother’s college textbooks about Earth.2 But most of my work I did in my head: I spent numerous hours planning my paper’s structure, deciding how I would incorporate my personal adventures in Pine Creek’s Easy Tributary (East Bank) and on Chesapeake Bay and its upper rivers, inventing descriptive sentences I would later use, and all the while futilely straining to avoid following my instructor’s suggested research methods.

Finally, on May 6, 1988, I walked to the Murrysville Public Library’s Main Branch after school. There I checked out an ugly blue book on streams, lakes, and ponds,3 a sizable book about modern languages,4 and a thin linguistics book.5 The borrowing of these books started the transformation of a search for information into a search for a suitable topic.

For a couple weeks I read the language books and neglected waterways. Finally, on May 18, 1988, I made a decision: I would discard my original bodies-of-water topic and pursue an area that truly intrigues me: the common errors made in students’ written work. The remainder of the week was filled with intensive research and fervent writing; the result you see here.

Part III: I-Search the Topic

The author explores his Topic using much Explanations and Examples.

In this section I address what I consider to be the three worst errors I have observed in student writing through my own experiences in writing, in reading and editing classmates’ papers, and in acting as director of a student lobbying organization. These errors do not include technical aspects such as spelling, misuse of tenses, or comma faults, but rather are concerned with matters of basic style: inadequate vocabulary, verbosity, and flippancy.

Inadequate vocabulary refers to the inability of many students to express their ideas at a level appropriate to the subject. Such writing usually includes not only simple words but also simple and unvaried sentences. At best this can be annoying to intelligent readers, and at worst the communication of ideas may be impaired.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is verbosity, or the use of unnecessary, overly complicated, or circuitous language. Usually this is done to deceptively impress the reader; sometimes it is the author’s legitimate writing style. A classic example of verbosity is George Orwell’s distortion of the following verse from the Bible:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happened to them all.

Orwell edited this:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

Although most verbosity in student papers is not this blatant, many instances dangerously approach the absurdity of Mr. Orwell’s example.

Flippancy is the last mistake in student writing that I will examine. I cannot explain this error better than Stone and Bell do:

Flippant writing ... takes a serious subject lightly. Flippancy is ... comparable to whistling in church or making jokes about wooden legs to a cripple; ... it is seldom appreciated.

What follows is a sample from a freshman theme:

“I thought themes on what I did last summer went out with the Model T’s, but since they didn’t, I’ll dig right in, for there’s no point flunking out of this school before I’ve even given it a whirl (or vice versa). I’ll tell you what I did last summer: I worked in a canning factory. And I’ll tell you what I did every chance I got (which wasn’t often): I sat on my can.”

Most teachers will react to themes like this with bored tolerance. Sometimes, by accident, writing like this can be funny, but usually it fails of its own ingenuousness. . . . Some writers seem to think that whatever emerges from their gut is sacred and should be recorded without modification for posterity to ponder. Their teachers rarely agree, and hence a conflict arises.6


  1. Tom K. and Uncle Bob K., Discussion on Waterways (Murrysville, Pennsylvania: [unpublished], 1988), Part One.
  2. Arthur L. Bloom, The Surface of the Earth, Foundations of Earth Science Series (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Incorporated, 1969), pp. 53-80.
  3. Robert E. Coker, Streams, Lakes, Ponds (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968).
  4. Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.)
  5. Ronald Wardhaugh, Introduction to Linguistics (New York: Mc Graw-Hill, Incorporated, 1977.)
  6. Wilfred Stone and J. G. Bell, Prose Style: A Handbook for Writers (New York: Mc Graw-Hill Book Company, 1968), pp. 43-44.


  • Beardsley, Monroe C. Modes of Argument. New York: The Bobbs - Merrill Company, Incorporated, 1967.
  • Bloom, Arthur L. The Surface of the Earth. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Incorporated, 1969.
  • Coker, Robert E. Streams, Lakes, Ponds. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.
  • Katzner, Kenneth. The Languages of the World. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.
  • K., Thomas, and K., Robert, Uncle. Discussion on Waterways. Murrysville, Pennsylvania: [unpublished], 1988.
  • Minot, Stephen. Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Incorporated, 1965.
  • Stone, Wilfred, and Bell, J. G. Prose Style: A Handbook for Writers. New York: Mc Graw-Hill Book Company, 1968.
  • Strunk, William Jr. The Elements of Style. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.
  • Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. Introduction to Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill, Incorporated, 1977.
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