Writing Pet Peeves

In a sense, it isn’t right to call the following errors “pet peeves,” since they are, well, errors. It’s not like they’re idiosyncratic to me; it’s not like they’re pets that I nurture, little annoyances I nurse for the pleasure of hating something. It’s just that these are the writing errors that I’m tired of pointing out. I’d like to move on to getting upset about other mistakes you make, to believe that your sins are unique to you instead of stamped out at some kind of demonic factory.

Since I’m posting them here, I’d like to say make any one of these errors in a paper you turn in for me and you automatically fail. I mean, forewarned is forearmed, right? But I’m not really saying that. I’m just saying knock it off.

I’m tempted to list plagiarism here at the outset because it’s the most disconcerting, but plagiarism isn’t really a pet peeve; it’s a crime. It’s a subcategory of fraud, actually, since it involves a writer trying to gain access to a degree that confers benefits (incl. subsidized loans rates etc.) under false pretenses. Stay as far away as you can.

Referring to anyone by his or her first name who is not your roommate

Students do it all the time, especially to women. Here’s the rule: when talking about historical personages you get to write a first name once: the first time you write it. Every time after, it’s just the last name. So, “Dickinson says,” not “Emily says.”

Misusing the conditional tense

This one is so ubiquitous and so new that I think it must be the fault of some sarcastic movie I didn’t see. I can just imagine some character sneering in response to a parent who asks “what’s this” something like “that would be a tattoo” meaning of course, “that is a tattoo.” Anyway, it leaked into the language. About five years ago, students started writing “would be” instead of “is.” I get papers that say things like “John Keats would be the best Romantic poet,” and I think to myself, "Would be” if what? If Shelley hadn’t lived? Before that, no one ever misused the conditional, which, as the name implies, suggests conditions. Don’t say “would” unless you’re prepared to answer them.

Dropped Quotes

Every sentence you write has to have your words in it; you don't get to pop a quote into a paper, let us awe at its majesty and then watch you stand back and say things about it. You don't spoon spaghetti into someone's open palm, do you? Same here. Get a plate and serve up the quote like a good host.

Citation Errors

These bother me only because they’re so easy to get right. The differences between MLA APA and Chicago citation styles can be daunting, sure, but no one is asking you to memorize them. You should write academic papers with a style guide right in front of you. The other thing that’s weird about them is that people usually do extra work to make the error. MLA requires, for example, just the page number after a citation, as in “Whitman writes ‘Oh me’ (43),” yet I frequently get (Page 43), which is 4 extra keystrokes, or (P. 43) or (Pg. 43) or some other fantastic variation.


It may seem to you that these don’t matter much, and perhaps once they didn’t, but in a digitized academy, command-inputs and metadata matter more than ever. Put a } instead of a] in a line of code and the program will not work. It may only mean that the little jumping man in a video game glitches for a second, but then again, it may mean that someone’s heart medicine isn't dispensed into the IV bag. Be careful in small things. Learning to take care is one of the things you’re here to master after all, and if it isn’t, it should be.

Other things come up all the time: grammar perversions, punctuation whimsy, topic sentences exhibiting irresponsible leadership, but those things I take in stride. Not so the above. The proverbial stride, the whole gait and carriage is hobbled hereby and, like any wounded animal, I start snarling.