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June 16, 2015

I’ve just emerged, pale and blinking, from having marked over sixty essays on children’s literature for the Open University. It’s interesting to see the same usages and mis-usages appear again and again, as though they’re floating in the air like an infection. I’ve blogged before about the mis-use of simplistic in place of simple – some students don’t seem to be aware that simplistic is a pejorative term, meaning inappropriately or excessively simple, and use it because it is thought to have a more scholarly ring to it than simple. A similar mistake is the use of within instead of in: so a student might write “Alcott subverts traditional notions of a woman’s role within Little Women”. This makes it sound as if the subversion is physically there, like a squashed fly between the pages.

I can also report that however is pretty much dead as an adverb now. I’d say at least three-quarters of students use it as a conjunction, a synonym for but. So they write things like “Fairy tales are among the earliest stories children listened to, however they were not written specifically for children at first.” This mistake has the same motivation behind it as the substitution of simplistic and within for plainer and more accurate words; however is just thought to sound more academic than but.

But the usage that annoys me the most at the moment is the patronising adverb cleverly, as in “Stevenson cleverly makes Long John Silver a morally ambiguous character”. My wife tells me that an English teacher at her old school used to admonish pupils “Don’t pat great writers on the head”; and I think that is very sound advice.

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