Learning Vocabulary by Hearing or Reading

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I read a lot of student papers and exam essays. I see a lot of repeat errors. It gets really annoying after a while, but one interesting fact about language acquisition becomes pretty clear after a number of instances of the same error. Some of these errors seem to be a result of people learning vocabulary by hearing without ever reading the term in question.

One common error I see (and I see it online quite a lot also) is referring to a transition between one subject and another as a segway. No, a segway is a two-wheeled device that moves around while you stand it. A transition between two subjects is a segue. But you don't have to be a non-reader to make this mistake. It took me until well into my undergraduate years to figure out that the word that I thought was pronounced "seeg" was the same word that people kept pronouncing "segway". I don't know how anyone ever does figure this out, in fact, including me.

But not every instance of what I have in mind is like that. For instance, I sometimes see people referring to the "rank-in-file", which is not a normal English expression at all. They meant to be talking about the rank-and-file. One of the most annoying is one I see extremely frequently in philosophy papers, especially on issues in metaphysics. Spiderman and Peter Parker are one and the same person. It's sort of an old-fashioned expression (which I sometimes see written as "old-fashion", a bothersome construction in itself). I would never use it. But if I were to use it, I'd get it right and not speak of Spidey and Peter being "one in the same".

I'm convinced that these mistakes result mostly from people who never read (or perhaps only read people writing on the internet who never read). There are certain mistakes that people who read would never or almost never make. These students are basically signaling to me that they hardly ever read anything when they do this sort of thing. Yet they have no idea that they're doing it, and they wouldn't be in a position to know that unless they read more.


I agree with you, and there are a number of other common mistakes that are very similar: "sorted" for "sordid," "for all intensive purposes" for "for all intents and purposes," and "supposably" for "supposedly." I could go on and on, but the trend is the same. I suspect this is because the construction of language happens mostly by oral communication rather than written; I also think this is an obstacle for teachers (especially K-12) because so many problems with writing occur as a result of students trying to make written communication emulate oral communication - the perfect example is the awful "should of". Certainly the vast majority of mechanical errors (especially commas) seem to fall under this category as well. To be perfectly frank, I think it's laziness to some degree for these latter errors because we use oral language so prominently that is simply the easiest form for us, and some of us try to make written language conform to oral rather than to the standards of writing.

A suggestion, though: It may not be that your students aren't reading but rather than they're not connecting what they read to what they think and hence write. This is probably especially with idiomatic phrases, where we give so little thought (generally) to the meaning of the phrases by their constituent parts. "One and the same" makes sense if you deconstruct it (even if it is a bit redundant), but because it is sometimes used almost out of impulse, it can become easy to see it simply as a phrase that signifies some sense of identity.

By the way, as a future teacher of English, I heartily support the idea of building vocabulary through reading and intend to do so in my classroom. It's a good thing to cultivate in students who will have to use written language for most of (if not all) their lives.

(P.S. My comments always get screwed up with spacing because the preview doesn't show them properly. It would be a great improvement to see the preview feature display comments exactly as they will appear upon submission. Otherwise, people like me who are anal about appearance will do stupid things like adding too many line breaks to separate paragraphs sufficiently.)

I've never seen "sorted" for "sordid". The other two are extremely common.

I've noticed that comma errors tend to be especially bad problems for some people or only occasional. Those who know how to use commas pretty well do occasionally use them wrongly. But those who don't will tend to have comma problems in almost every sentence.

The preview issue isn't going to get resolved anytime soon. Those who know how to do things like that don't know what the problem is, and I'm in no position to figure it out myself. If you just type your comment normally, it should look fine. If you're adding even one line break, then it's one too many. Line breaks appear automatically when you hit enter to move to a new paragraph. Other than HTML tags you enter, comments should look exactly like what you type them as.

The preview feature is a spam prevention device. I don't have it enabled as a preview feature. So it is accomplishing the only reason I have it enabled.

The repeat error that always drives me crazy (and since I'm very often teaching Descartes I get it constantly) is 'ideal' for 'idea'. Part of the problem with that one is that the adjectival 'ideal' is sometimes just fine; and students seem to have difficulty distinguishing it from the substantive 'ideal'.

I wonder how much of that is just from typos. People might be used to typing a certain combination of letters. It's hard for me to type certain normal words, because they involve combinations of letters that I'm used to seeing right before an additional letter that isn't in the normal word. I actually have trouble writing Proslogion too, because I'm so use to writing Prosblogion. (I in fact typed the latter as I was trying to type the former just now.)

The typo I see the most is 'causal' becoming 'casual'. It might sometimes be spellcheck fixing something the wrong way, but I think it's more often just student error.

A lot of it must be typos. I keep getting "defiantly" instead of "definitely", which makes for some amusing sentences.

Yes, that's a correction for "definately". I've seen it a lot, almost as much as "casual" for "causal". The casual argument for the existence of God is always interesting, as is the casual response to the problem of memories and pseudo-memories on the issue of personal identity. Both of these are examples of the Cupertino effect, whereby spellcheckers substitute a less likely alternative than they should.

How about people who don't know the difference between there, their, and they're? Or even hear and here? How about the use of the word loose instead of lose? I see these all the time, and it drives me crazy. This is the sort of thing I teach my fourth graders, and fully expect them to know.

Guilty as charged! I'm a compulsive reader of all types of literature, and a teacher of Latin, and to the best of my knowledge, I've never seen the word 'segue' in print. Had I seen it, I would have assumed it was pronounced to rhyme with 'league' and not as a homophone of Segway.

When the Segway was invented, I thought it was a marketing gimmick to name a transportation device after a word meaning "to smoothly transition." I just spent 5 minutes searching for the real definition of "Segway." It was to my horror that I discovered that I'd been pronouncing 'segue' correctly, but merely misspelling it.

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