There was a cute "Things Kids Write" piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago (James Courter, "Teaching Taco Bell's Canon", 7/9/2012), with the subhead "Today's students don't read. As a result, they have sometimes hilarious notions of how the written language represents what they hear."
Is it true that college students today are unprepared and unmotivated? That generalization does injustice to the numerous bright exceptions I saw in my 25 years of teaching composition to university freshmen. But in other cases the characterization is all too accurate.
One big problem is that so few students are readers. As an unfortunate result, they have erroneous, and sometimes hilarious, notions of how the written language represents what they hear. What emerged in their papers and emails was a sort of literary subgenre that I've come to think of as stream of unconsciousness.
There was the expected flurry of "o tempora o mores" comments:
Maybe e-readers will bring us a hope of saving literacy. Something needs to!
Today kids don't have a clue – and not only for spoken grammar.
Folks, life isn't fair and the dumbing-down of society hasn't helped matters. It all starts at the school house and after graduation in high school, when some of these students expect that life is free, everybody owes them and "equality" infers that success is bad.
Sadly, I found many similar examples in notes some of my children's teachers sent home with them. I finally started correcting the notes for malapropisms, spelling and grammar and sending them back to the teachers.
Since the schools have decided to discontinue the teaching of spelling, punctuation and grammar, this sad situation will probably only get worse.
As you'd expect, many of the cited examples are already in the Eggcorn Database. Among those that aren't, some seem more like attempted puns than plausible errors:
A female student, in describing an argument over her roommate's smelling up their room with cheap perfume, referred to getting in her "two scents' worth."
Some of the plausible additions were nice ones:
After several weeks at school, one coed returned to her childhood house only to find life there "homedrum."
But it's not clear how much of this stuff is specific to students in the present time, or indeed to the present time at all.
Errrors of this general kind include misspellings that suggest a sporadic lexical re-analysis, for which Geoff Pullum has coined the term "eggcorns", as well as the contextually absurd substitutions of words with similar sound and form, which are traditionally called "malapropisms". Under whatever name, such mistakes have been noted and mocked for decades and even centuries. Thus in 1920, "A desk-book of errors in English, including notes on colloquialisms and slang to be avoided in conversation" warns us against things like
On the cars was a he-lookin female, with a green-cotton umbreller in one hand and a handful of Reform tracks in the other. She sed every woman should have a Spear. Them as didn't demand their Spears, didn't know what was good for them. "What is my Spear?" she axed, addressing the people in the cars. "Is it to stay at home & darn stockins & be the ser-LAVE of a domineerin man? Or is it my Spear to vote & speak & show myself the ekal of a man? Is there a sister in these keers that has her proper Spear?" Sayin which the eccentric female whirled her umbreller round several times, & finally jabbed me in the weskit with it.
"I hav no objecshuns to your goin into the Spear bizness," sez I, "but you'll please remember I ain't a pickeril. Don't Spear me agin, if you please." She sot down.
Or this re-analyzed mention of the biblical "mess of pottage":
Feller Sitterzens, the Union's in danger. The black devil Disunion is trooly here, starein us all squarely in the face! We must drive him back. Shall we make a 2nd Mexico of ourselves? Shall we sell our birthrite for a mess of potash? Shall one brother put the knife to the throat of anuther brother? Shall we mix our whisky with each other's blud? Shall the star spangled Banner be cut up into dishcloths? Standin here in this here Skoolhouse, upon my nativ shor so to speak, I anser—Nary!
Going back another century, there's the eponymous Mrs. Malaprop,
MRS. MALAPROP: There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate Simpleton, who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling!
LYDIA: Madam, I thought you once–
MRS. MALAPROP: You thought, Miss! — I don't know any business you have to think at all — thought does not become a young woman; the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow — to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory. . . .
And a few decades earlier, there's Henry Fielding's Mrs. Slipslop:
Joseph, who did not understand a word she said, answered, "Yes, madam."—"Yes, madam!" replied Mrs. Slipslop with some warmth, "Do you intend to result my passion? Is it not enough, ungrateful as you are, to make no return to all the favours I have done you; but you must treat me with ironing? Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?" "Madam," answered Joseph, "I don't understand your hard words; but I am certain you have no occasion to call me ungrateful, for, so far from intending you any wrong, I have always loved you as well as if you had been my own mother." "How, sirrah!" says Mrs. Slipslop in a rage; "your own mother? Do you assinuate that I am old enough to be your mother? I don't know what a stripling may think, but I believe a man would refer me to any green-sickness silly girl whatsomdever: but I ought to despise you rather than be angry with you, for referring the conversation of girls to that of a woman of sense."
Or another century back, the passage in The Merry Wives of Windsor where Shakespeare takes comedic advantage of the similarity of "direction" and "erection":
MISTRESS QUICKLY Marry, sir, I come to your worship from Mistress Ford.
FALSTAFF Mistress Ford! I have had ford enough; I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford. MISTRESS QUICKLY Alas the day! good heart, that was not her fault: she does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection.
FALSTAFF So did I mine, to build upon a foolish woman's promise.
MISTRESS QUICKLY Well, she laments, sir, for it, that it would yearn your heart to see it. Her husband goes this morning a-birding; she desires you once more to come to her between eight and nine: I must carry her word quickly: she'll make you amends, I warrant you.
And indeed such "distortions and malapropisms" were a characteristic feature of the Dottore character in the Commedia dell'Arte:
The Dottore spoke Bolognese, a dialect which Italians from elsewhere tend to find amusing in its own right. To this accent he added streams of bad Latin (for the educated), or better still (for the uneducated, or for everybody) an endless flow of distortions and malapropisms which became a comic code in its own right, and was reputed in the mouths of the best performers to make audiences literally sick with laughter. A 'Gratianesque Dictionary' compiled in manuscript for the help of aspiring performers gives a list of the distortions to which certain words should always be subject, most of them untranslatable in any literal sense. Parer ('opinion') should become sparvier ('sparrow-hawk'); Capitano become Decapidan (a non-word from decapitare, 'to behead'); ordinar ('to arrange') becomes, naturally, orinar ('to urinate'); letto ('bed') becomes letame ('manure'); and we know from earlier written texts including Ruzante that the academic discipline Medicina was regularly twisted to Merdesina (based on merda, 'shit'), and Latino to variants of latrina.
And leaving fiction behind, the documented folk etymologies of historical linguistics suggest that things of this general kind have been happening since the beginnings of spoken language. In modern times, some such shifts do reflect a lack of reading experience; but similar things happen among illiterate people, or even in languages with no writing system at all.
It's probably true in principle that literacy tends to slow the these processes down — though as far as know, there's no concrete evidence for that plausible hypothesis. But going forward, it would be nice to have some concrete idea of what kinds of people make what sorts of substitutions how often, and whether there's any effect of teaching methods, amount of reading, and so on. That's one of the many sorts of "open assessment" that you'd be able to do, if a large-scale corpus of student writing were available.
Update — In the comments, Rod Johnson writes:
I have to call bullshit on the WSJ writer. "Taco Bell's Canon" is a common joke, and I have trouble believing that any university student, no matter how naive, would see or intend that as anything but a joke. Similarly with "Doggy-dog world" and "taken for granite." I've taught writing for many years and seen many errors, but the sheer density of eggcorns and malapropisms this guy claims to have personally seen that come straight out of chain emails make me doubt his honesty. I don't doubt that someone, somewhere, sometime, has made such errors, but I don't believe they all happened in this one person's class.
It's very common in emails of this sort to claim that "this happened to *me*" or "in my town" or to a specific person, when in fact it's a lightly edited story that has been circulating for years in other guises. I haven't seen anyone succeed in getting such a confabulation printed in the WSJ before, though, so score one for the confabulators, I guess.
This could well be right — I had some similar thoughts. Again, if we had an open collection of genuine student writing, we could be confident that the examples are not borrowed or invented or both. And more important, we could have some idea of how often different sorts of students make these or other errors. My own prediction is that eggcorns and malapropisms certainly do occur, but at a rate of a few per million words, such that there might be (say) one in tens to hundreds of submitted papers.