09/28/2011 01:26 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2011

Paging the 'On-Buzz Man': Students' Creative Spelling Screw-Ups

I got a kick out of my fellow Lingua Franca blogger Lucy Ferriss's observations on how a spell-check error--a word that is approved or offered up by a word-processing program, but is very much the wrong word--can produce a sort of verbal serendipity. She writes:

Relying on spell check and its sibling autocorrect, my fiction students have staged countless scenes of family quarrel in the dinning room. Ignoring how a college student can have failed to learn the spelling of "dining," let's consider: the dinning room, where families din at one another every evening. Or there's the scene with the boyfriend who keeps starring at his new girlfriend, amazed by his luck. I love that--I see his eyes full of stars, blinking off and on like supernovas, much more interesting than simply staring.

A colleague and I have collected this sort of mistake for years and, like Lucy, have sometimes encountered errors that add a poetic frisson. I will always treasure a student's article about a Board of Education meeting that referred to "the Super Attendant of Schools"--an oddly apt designation. The student who wrote, "The eminent arrival of spring marks a time for flip-flops, volleyball and compost," and the one who said, "People will say we are America and we can not let our hollowed education system be mocked," after the Virginia Tech shootings, made felicitous plays on words that may even have been intentional (probably not). Yet another student wrote, "In 1996, former President Bill Clinton singed the Defense of Marriage Act." No comment.

Another that's almost too good to be true:

"The funding for the grant came from the American Medical Association and the Robert Wood Johnson foundation to create a program called, 'A Matter of Degree: The National Effort to Reduce High-Rish Drinking Among College Students.'"


Most of the time, however, the only redeeming social value these errors have is that they're funny. You may be laughing to keep from howling with despair, but at least you're laughing.

The spell-check programs have nearly eliminated the typos like teh and aslo, but reliance on them has ushered in a proliferation of homophone errors. Ones like you're instead of your, tow the line instead of toe the line, and lead-as-past-tense-of-to-lead are legion, but my collection sports quite a few more piquant howlers. I once got an assignment with the line, "You can get a descent car for $2000," which seems about right for a vehicle that can only go downhill. This nicely complemented another essay with the sentence, "The narrative voice was undeniably a black man in his late thirties or early forties, educated, and possibly of middle class decent."

And then there were these:

  • "Deaths and break ups are the events that have fallowed this pattern most in my life."
  • "Senator Joseph Biden, Delaware's senior center and democratic vice-presidential candidate. ... "
  • "'I had to forge for my own food this summer,' says the fair skinned, dirty-blonde haired, blue-eyed girl."
  • "I'll be honest that it's cheaper to travel by your self. You can backpack, stay in hostiles, and do things spur of the moment."
  • The [apartment] complex will provide living areas that are both ascetically pleasing to the landscape, and provides living space for both university students and single families."
  • "A self described loaner, he wasn't given to hanging out and the male bonding."
  • "For a land labeled as the 'graveyard of empires,' Afghanistan's importance in world events is often elapsed by its obscurity."
  • From a review of "The Help": "Their memories and dairy-like monologues deliver both humor and grief to the text, and make it hard to put down."

Sometimes I amuse myself by concocting snarky New Yorker-style comments on the mistakes. (Admittedly, I'm easily amused.) To wit:


"He also uses the specific event to segway into his broader and more general findings, a common and effective journalistic approach."


" ... the 199-unit low-income housing district is a teething hotbed for drug deals and violent crime. ... "


"At 74 years odd, a weathered, contemplative Eastwood portrays this inner-struggle perfectly, naturally."


"The opening of the meeting was similar to past meetings with mediation and the Pledge of Allegiance."

Try it yourself, it's fun!


"Her gentile nature shines through her songs, which focus on love, growing up and moving on."


"These zoning codes might restrict a person from building a mote around her house."

But wait, there's more. A student once referred to someone with a drug problem as "a heroine attic." Others have made reference to the environmental group the "National Autobahn Society," to "Linda B. Johnson," to "an ex-Green Burette," and to the punk rocker "Sid Viscous." I always thought he was an oily guy.

Sometimes you have to think before you realize what was meant, as in references to a newspaper's ethics policy being determined by its "On-Buzz Man" and to the writer's fondness for going out on the town wearing a "sequence-covered dress." Only after searching for context clues and employing the process of elimination did I realize that that a "supped up hers" was supposed to be "souped-up hearse."

I once got an assignment that referred to a student-athlete who had to miss a couple of games because of a bad case of phenomena. See how long it takes you to figure out what he meant. If you get it in less than ten seconds, you've read too many student papers.

-- Ben Yagoda
Blogger, Lingua Franca
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. His Web site is