Pet Peeves


As your teacher, I like to think of myself just a little bit like your mom.

I care for you, but I also have high expectations for you. Your mom has expectations that you will grow into a mature, responsible adult; I have expectations that you will develop into an articulate writer. (I also hope that you’ll become a responsible adult. But helping you get there is above my pay grade.)

And when you make silly mistakes that show you’re a long ways from becoming a responsible adult, like tracking mud through the house or eating half a pint of ice cream instead of a sandwich for supper, your mom gets annoyed. You tracking mud through the house is what we’d call her pet peeve.

Teachers are like moms. We have pet peeves. Mine are silly writing mistakes.

These are not mistakes which actually affect your grade. Papers which earn As have made all of these mistakes, though not usually all at the same time.

But these mistakes still make your paper a little silly. And they’re silly mistakes, not too hard to avoid. So I list them here, for your entertainment and edification.

8. Homophones. These are words that look the same but are spelled differently, and have different meanings. Their, they’re, and there is a classic example. And I get that these are hard. After all, since the words sound exactly alike, if you’re not a great speller, it can be tricky to keep track of which spelling is which.

But your confusing the words is hilarious. You often confuse “click” (a sharp, snapping noise) for “clique” (an exclusive group), and “roll” (a delicious bread product) for “role” (a performance, or expectations about behaviour). That confusion results in sentences like this (and yes, I have seen sentences like this in actual papers): “Clicks in high school are a big problem.” or “Gender rolls are an important part of a society’s culture.”

Please doublecheck your spellings, and pass the gender rolls.

7. Referring to writers by their first names. Maybe I’m just old-school, but using someone’s first name means you’re pretty close to them. I’m cool with you using my first name, but that’s because I hope you’re comfortable with me as a person. But you don’t call our school president “Phil”. You don’t call your teacher ed prof “Susie” or  your business prof “Kim.” So it’s weird to suddenly refer to the sources in your paper “John” and “Kara”. Unless you’re secretly hanging out with these scientists, professional, and journalists who’ve written your papers in your free time on the weekends, use their last names.

6. Using Calibri font. Okay, this is not altogether your fault. Calibri font is the default in Word. Why it is the default font is beyond me. It is hands down the ugliest font I have ever seen. Papers are traditionally written in Times New Roman; papers written in Perpetua or Georgia are correlated with higher grades. But really, anything but Calibri is fine. Or Wingdings. Please don’t start using Wingdings.

5. Using more than one font. Frequently, I see the whole paper turned in in a gorgeous Times New Roman font. Except the heading: the heading is still in Calibri. This is the English Composition equivalent of heading out the door with a tennis shoe on one foot and a nice loafer on the other: not a disaster per se, but still a ridiculous fashion choice. When you change your font to Times New Roman, be sure you change the whole paper to Times New Roman.

4. Misspelling obvious words. My name is clearly written in your syllabus, and it’s not “Vanburgun.” If you don’t know how to spell my name, just admit it. Check the syllabus. Not knowing doesn’t make your paper look silly. Not doublechecking your work does.

I get my name is really hard to spell, though. So what drives me even more nuts is when your paper misspells easy, everyday words: a recent paper wrote “prison”, “prision”. When you make that kind of mistake, my psychic powers tell me that you didn’t run Spellcheck. Not running Spellcheck is like not looking at yourself in the mirror before you go on a hot date. You might miss a huge zit, and even if you hit it off with your date, all night long she’ll be looking at that zit.

3. Folding the lefthand corner of a paper together. I get it, you forgot to paperclip or staple the pages together. That’s okay, we all forget things. But go to the library, literally a hundred feet from our classroom, and staple your pages together. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to hold the paper together by folding the pages over each other. This never actually works. The pages fall apart anyway, and then they never lie flat again. I go to grade them, and they keep popping up off the desk or book. Writing notes on your paper is like trying to write notes on a pop-up book.

2. Putting an article title in quote marks. Like with fonts, this is not your fault. I’ve tried for a long time to come up an easy way to help you remember that quote marks are for article titles; italics, for book and magazine titles. But I haven’t come up with anything that’s not cheesy and more difficult to remember than the actual rule. So just memorize it: When you refer to an article title or a poem title, use quote marks. Italics are for long works: books, magazines, and newspapers. If you start using italics for all the articles you quote in your paper, you’re telling your reader you’ve read a heckuva lot of books in researching this three-page paper.

And my top pet peeve . . . 

1. Lowercasing the word “Bible”. This is especially frustrating when I catch this error in Christian students’ papers, who should know better. Did you not grow up seeing that word written in church bulletins and Sunday school material? And was it ever, ever lowercased? No. So why would you possibly lower case it now, when you’ve never seen that done? That’s like suddenly wearing socks on your ears, even though all your life you’ve seen people putting them on their feet.

But honestly, lowercasing “Bible” doesn’t even make sense from a secular standpoint. The word Koran is capitalized. So is Bhagavad Gita. The Bible is the religious book for Christianity; thus, like the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, it gets capitalized.

And in conclusion:

Look, when I read your papers, I’m way more interested in whether you have good ideas and whether you express those ideas clearly and in detail than whether or not you capitalize the word “Bible”. But you making some of the changes I’ve described on this page will help your paper look more mature, more professional.

And who doesn’t want to look more mature?

You’ll make your mom, and your teacher, proud.


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