Friday, October 14, 2016


"Defiant Souls Prevail"
by Frank Hebbert
Licensed under CC BY 2.0

I suppose it's human nature that, when a group of people we can categorize as similar makes the same mistake over and over again, our go-to is that they are lazy, sloppy, stupid, or a combination of all three. There are some problems with this assumption, and they go by the names of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and privilege, just to name a few.

Let me give you, my small audience, an example. The group being targeted in this case was "first-year college students."

There was a period of time in the not-so-distant past when students in our first-year courses suddenly started using "defiantly" in place of "definitely." This seeming epidemic became so widespread as to become the subject of many hallway grousing sessions among my colleagues. For me, with my slight case of synesthesia, the frustration I could hear people talking about looked like black smoke darting from office to office.

And "frustration" is the emotion I most want to avoid, and I DEFINITELY don't like talking about it because I just become more frustrated in my frustration. In fact, I've had conversations with teachers in which they've frustrated themselves talking about their frustrations to such a degree, I had a panic attack for them.

And that ain't cool.

"Defiantly." I turned the problem around in my mind.

"Defiantly" is not a word many people carry around in their personal writing dictionaries and is even more scarce in a person's speaking dictionary. Sure, people can read it and understand it, but it's not common usage, especially among 18-year-old adults.

So why were my first-year students typing "defiantly" instead of the word they meant?

I came up with the answer.

Knowing I was going to college, I took a semester-long typing class (fun fact: the year-long class was for students on the path to becoming "secretaries," as it was explained to us back in the day) in eighth grade. Two things mattered to my teacher: speed and "error-free" text.

Students today take a keyboarding class. The focus is the same: speed and "error-free" text.

Now, if you, dear audience, were a keyboarding teacher during a not-so-distant era, you probably taught your students to use auto-suggest and hit the "Return/Enter" key because that would increase your students' speed (important, no matter their track). There's only one problem with that strategy: "defiantly" comes before "definitely" in the global English dictionary. Stopping to check the suggestion slows one down, so the natural inclination would be to accept whatever the word processor suggested, thus, "defiantly" over "definitely." My guess is that keyboarding teachers probably looked for the obvious typos, not at actual content, not at ensuring the sentences made sense, only that they were exact copies of the text to be typed. "Defiantly," being an actual word, would register in the teacher's brain as "definitely," simply because that was what the brain was expecting and it looked "right." Given these criteria and being as busy as public school teachers are, I would have missed it, too, in their situation.

So my students were making this mistake, not because they were lazy, sloppy, stupid, or a combination of all three. They were making it because they had been taught to use a word processor as efficiently as possible but NOT as effectively as possible.

I'm going to be honest: If they gave a Nobel Prize for laziness, I would win it. Seriously, I would go down in history as being the winner above all other winners. But I don't think laziness is some sort of malignancy. I'm lazy because I detest doing the same thing twice. In my mind, I should've washed the dishes one time and said, "Okay, I did that! On to something new!" And I'm not the only one: "Laziness" is the mother of invention, not "necessity," as the saying goes. Laziness is the reason we have dishwashing machines. Someone said to herself, "My time would be better spent on something else. Let's come up with a solution that doesn't involve me running hot water for the dishes, soaking the dishes, scrubbing the dishes, rinsing the dishes, putting the dishes in a dish drainer, drying the dishes for the next batch, and putting the dishes away." (It turns out, the repetition of the dishwashing machine I bought was more onerous than washing the dishes by hand, so I got rid of it. Irony.)

Because I understood the cause of the problem my students were having, I was able to address it. First, I taught them the simple act of going to "Edit"—> "Find"—> "Replace." Thus, they had learned a skill to replace a single mistake made throughout a document quickly and easily.

But then I asked them a question: Why are you using -ly words in your writing?

Invariably, the response was "because I want to show the importance of what I'm saying."

Well, you can do that with "defiantly," but guess what? You can't do it with "definitely," "really," "very," "truly," "actually," and (sadly, from my perspective), "literally." Overused words, especially adverbs, weaken your prose. Concentrate on more nuanced words instead.

So, during the next class, we spent time exploring the thesaurus, discussing the word "nuance," and choosing more powerful words for a boring, meaningless, and vague paragraph I wrote for the purpose of the lesson.

The moral of this story is this: If you find yourself complaining about people you lump into one group (students, faculty, people of color, Europeans, older adults), the problem you're complaining about might be yours to solve. Also, put your magnifying glass away because you're missing the bigger picture.

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