Like a Bowl in a China Shop

August 09, 2006

One of my students recently described a "mute point" in an essay.

My usual reaction to that sort of flub is to write something in the margins along the lines of, "Be more careful," or "Avoid mixing up homonyms." I often suggest, "Reading your work aloud can help you identify mistakes of this type," even though that advice probably wouldn't help in this case. Depending on my level of crankiness and alcohol consumption, I might just write, "Your proofreading is horrible."

But I'm not going to write any of that stuff this time.

Instead, I'll point out to the student that a lot of writers have made the same mistake -- in fact, a mid-July Google search located more than 152,000 hits for "mute point," which means my student has enough company to fill a football stadium or two. Even allowing for discussions of the "moot" versus "mute" usage, that's still a metric truckload of mute pointers.

I'll tell the student that there's a reason so many people think the wrong expression is right: Not only does "mute point" sound like "moot point," but a moot point does (or should) end up being silent, unheard, squelched, and yep, mute. Far from being a result of sloppy proofreading or stupidity, "mute point" actually demonstrates that the writer -- though wrong -- is logical, informed, and inventive.

I'll also mention that "mute point" is an "eggcorn" -- a new category of writing mistake that linguists have identified and my fellow college teachers might find useful in responding to student writing. I'm certainly glad to have a new tool that helps me climb down from the high horse I have occasionally mounted in 10-plus years of teaching creative writing, essay writing, business writing, and you-fill-in-the-blank-here writing. It's nice to have a way of explaining mistakes that doesn't make students feel stupid.

So what's an eggcorn? Originally, the word "eggcorn" was just an amusing misspelling of "acorn." Linguists -- especially those on the Language Log blog -- noticed that "eggcorn" made a kind of intuitive sense and was an apt guess if you didn't know the real spelling.

Linguists Arnold Zwicky, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and Mark Liberman had been collecting similarly intuitive misspellings, and soon those goofs were given the eggcorn label; more than 560 eggcorns can now be found at Chris Waigl's Eggcorn Database. Anyone can point an eggcorn out, and I'm proud to have spotted "on the spurt of the moment," "leadway," "boggled down," and "put the cat before the horse" in the wild and contributed them to the collection.

All eggcorns make sense on some level. For example, the eggcorn "girdle one's loins" is far more understandable than the archaic "gird one's loins." "Free reign" -- an extremely common misspelling -- expresses a similar laxness to "free rein," and there's a kind of exclamatory kismet between "whoa is me!" and "woe is me!" Another eggcorn, "woeth me!" makes an old-fashioned-sounding word even more so. And since a rabble-rouser may eventually cause some rubble to exist, "rubble-rouser" is a nifty invention.

What makes all of those coinages eggcorns is their logic, poetic or otherwise. As Pullum has said on Language Log: "It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known. One could say that people should look things up in dictionaries, but what should they look up? If you look up eggcorn, you'll find it isn't there. Now what? . . . You're an intelligent native speaker; you have a right to just trust your ears and your brain sometimes. And sometimes, in consequence, an eggcorn is born."

Of course, no matter how amusing eggcorns may be, they are still mistakes. Students shouldn't be encouraged to create eggcorns, but the glee with which professional and amateur linguists hunt for eggcorns provides a powerful model that teachers can emulate and encourage.

Just as members of Language Log and of the American Dialect Society's online discussion group never stop finding, discussing, and debating eggcorns, eggcorn-hunting in the college classroom could lend itself to one-time exercises as well as long-range activities, particularly in text-focused subjects such as composition and literature.

For me, one of the hardest aspects of teaching writing is getting students to look beyond content and pay attention to the actual nuts and bolts of language: sentences, phrases, words, letters, and punctuation. Students tend to be wizards at explaining what they meant and muggles at noticing what they actually wrote.

But if students become eggcorn hunters, they would have to pay attention to not only what's being said but how it is articulated. They would have to question expressions that may seem perfectly acceptable and consult the dictionary to see whether "throws of passion" or "throes of passion" is correct. They would have to make fine distinctions, like the difference between an eggcorn and other kinds of mistakes, or between an eggcorn and a writer deliberately being clever. Surely such activities would exercise the reading and thinking muscles.

Also, the topic of eggcorns could be a natural segue to a discussion of linguistics, a science that is all but unknown to most students and many professors, even in English departments. The fact that there are social scientists who study -- and often delight in -- how language is actually spoken and written could be a revelation to students used to unyielding commandments of the "never use I" variety.

Linguistics-based conversations about standard language, dialect, slang, jargon, prescriptivism, descriptivism, and other topics could help students develop a more sophisticated attitude toward language. The recently published Far From the Madding Gerund -- which collects Pullum and Liberman's posts from the Language Log blog -- is a good place to start for teachers who would like to learn more about the field. A little linguistics could be very useful in reminding students (and ourselves) that language does change, mistakes are rarely unique, and today's error-prone student isn't some context-free feral learner scrawling and scratching in the woods.

Too often, when I respond to student writing in traditional ways, the only message I convey is that the student is as dumb as a box of rocks and I'm as mean as a rabid skunk. So maybe the way to free students from the mundane world of proofreading is to introduce them to the Monday world of eggcorns. Anything that could make talking about goofs goofier and less stressful might be worth a try.

Mark Peters is a part-time instructor who teaches writing and literature at Capella University and at Empire State College. He is also a freelance writer.