Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Sins of the Pen

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by Joe Schall

Growing up Catholic, a mischievous but basically honest altar boy, I was repeatedly assured by my parents that, in matters of sin, you can’t shock a priest. When I was thirteen, to test the hypothesis, I once told a priest that I had thought about breaking all ten commandments in a single day, but the priest remained unflappable, even managing a chuckle. Now, decades later, I understand his response. I’m a writing teacher, and, like a priest, I find that I can no longer be shocked—but I can be amused—by sins of the pen.

Just as a sin is said to separate one from God, a slip of the pen can slice a chasm between writer and reader. Witness the first sentence of a paper that a colleague of mine once received on the subject of voluntary euthanasia:

"If someone is a vegetable, it is fruitless to try to keep him alive on a machine."

As a reader of this sentence, I’m afraid can’t attend to the topic and summon my empathy for the plight of the comatose, their families, and their doctors—I’m just too busy laughing. But as a lover of language, I must take a moment to marvel as well: here a student has accidentally employed word play, set forth a hypothetical, come to a conclusion, and committed irony—all in one glorious sentence. Despite the enormity of the mistake made, I’m not sure a student should be asked to revise such a beautifully rendered statement.

Like all writing teachers, I need such sentences in my life; we teachers of composition typically read and comment on 300-500 papers per semester. But no matter how jaded writing teachers may become during marathon reading sessions, the moment we stumble upon an unintentional irony, accidental paradox, or an especially charming typo, we’re refreshed and grateful.

After two decades of teaching writing and commenting on student papers, I’ve been refreshed and grateful many times. While poring over my students’ words, I’ve come across numerous delightful examples of lapsus calami (slips of the pen), and they’ve come from disciplines as various as Philosophy:

"In war, man kills so he can improve his culture."

History:

"The past does not interest me because we already know everything about it."

Earth Science:

"The value of carrying a canteen at field camp is that it makes drinking water potable."

Religious Studies:

"If I could time travel, I would go back to Christ’s time and upon hearing him speak, would think, ‘I can’t believe it—his words are almost exactly as they appear in the Bible!’"

Meteorology:

"All my experiences with lightening took place when I was smaller."

and Animal Agriculture:

"To keep milk from turning sour, leave it in the cow."

The splendor of each serendipitous sentence above is that, by itself, each sentence is likely to be more memorable than any other commentary the paper provides. These sentences will linger with me for years, and, because I’ve repeated them so often, I hope that a few will be handed down to generations of composition teachers after me.

Such errors are not merely limited to the pen, of course. If we listen closely, our daily lives are also filled with ample instances of lapsus linguae (slips of the tongue). As a beginning, we can turn to Sheridan’s 1775 play "The Rivals," in which Mrs. Malaprop notes that "comparisons are odorous" and refers to another character as "the very pineapple of politeness." So laughable were Mrs. Malaprop’s errors that her name gave birth to the term malapropism—ludicrous misuse of a term. For other sources of malapropism, we can turn to quotable quotes from figures such as Yogi Berra, whose infamous malapropisms included the line, "I just want to thank everyone who made this day necessary."

For more slips of the tongue, we can enjoy spoonerisms (accidental transposition of words or sounds) and study the folklore surrounding the Reverend William A. Spooner, Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford, during Victoria’s reign. Spooner was said to be a gifted conversationalist and preacher, who nonetheless was prone to hilarious linguistic trespasses, as in his from-the-pulpit admonishment that "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." Spooner was also prone to "slips of the mind," as when he innocently queried one of his undergraduates,

"Now, let me see. Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?"

Thanks to Spooner, who posthumously lent his surname to the term spoonerism, we have a name for the error made when a flustered professor warns a lazy student, "You have tasted the whole worm," or a child innocently comments that the school cafeteria serves "chilled grease sandwiches" for lunch.

Of course, if we dig deeply enough, we are all certain to unearth some embarrassing moments from our own writing pasts. How many of us wrote a book report solely on Chapter One, so that "there wouldn’t be too many themes to talk about," or plagiarized something without citation because "it was just so well written," or were struck by the 2:00 a.m. inspiration that nothing could be more fitting—after putting off writing a definition paper for two weeks—than writing the paper on the topic of procrastination, using the example of our own procrastination as the paper’s principal content.

So we must remember to forgive others as we forgive ourselves, and allow writers and speakers to devise their own penance—if any—for their verbal transgressions. I am reminded of a final example that punctuates this point, sent to me via e-mail from a professor of Shakespeare in Great Britain. On her Shakespeare final, one of the professor’s students had boldly asserted:

"Romeo cannot really be blamed for Ophelia’s death."

The student was, after all, correct. Wink