More Student Quotes

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I finally finished grading for the semester, and after sleeping only three hours I haven't wanted to expend the effort to write anything I have to think much about. I do have two more student quotes from the last batch of exams and papers. One student in my Issues in Ethics class presented me with the following gem:

Democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society in which the upper class rule the lower class.

Read that sentence over again, and think about what it says. First off, it's ambiguous. On one reading (the more natural one, I would say), democratic socialism (a) calls for the abolition of a classless society and (b) has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is a consistent definition but wrong on both counts. On the other reading, democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society, and the classless society has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is the more natural reading, but it's also wrong on both counts and even has the additional problem of being flat-out contradictory!

I have another one from a dialogue. I believe it was actually Barack Obama's mouth that this was supposed to be coming out of (in a discussion between Obama and McCain):

I believe that there are three factors to determine the justness of war and terrorism. One would be that bad consequences are not intended. Next, the action should be a side-effect rather than a blunt end. The action can't be justifiable to victims.

The final sentence says the opposite of what it's supposed to say, but that's not what's especially funny about this quote. The second factor is an attempt to say that the bad consequence should be (a) a side-effect, as opposed to either (b) the goal of the action (i.e. the end) or (c) a means to that end. How did the idea of an end as in a goal or purpose somehow get turned into a blunt end, presumably of a weapon? And how is that a contrast to a side-effect? Is there some way to read this that I'm missing?


I read the first quote in the contradictory way, since the final phrase ("in which...") seems to modify "classless society" based on its placement in the sentence. It's hard to find a charitable interpretation of that one, in my opinion.

My first impression of the second quote was that "blunt end" was an attempt to say something along the lines of "mere end," but that seems to detract from the force of the statement. It seems to me that "blunt" is a bad word choice for some other word meant to indicate that the end is the focus, but I honestly can't think of any adjective that really does the job (perhaps "direct"?). The prudent move for the student would have been to omit that adjective altogether and simply leave it at "an end." I do think that it's mildly amusing that the student used "blunt end" outside its normal usage but still within the context of war.

Off-topic, but these posts make me cringe, particularly since I'm going into teaching (English) at the secondary level (6-12), and I know I'm going to see plenty of things like these in my students' papers. I just hope that I can help them work out these problems of confused language and lack of clarity before they get to classrooms like yours.

Is there some way to read this that I'm missing?


Christian Cynic: I think you're right that the second is more natural. I must have rewritten that sentence and reordered it without moving the words around properly. I was approaching bedtime after three hours of sleep the previous night. I had read it as the contradiction the first time too, so I did take that to be the natural reading. I have seen people who are educated write sentences that are supposed to mean the other meaning with the form used in this sentence. That's why I think it's ambiguous. A comma might have helped if this sentence weren't already beyond hope for other reasons.

I'm not posting the sentences that are just bad. I'm posting ones that are especially interesting in how bad they are, usually because of philosophical confusion or illogic. I get many that are just bad and not at all interesting. I do hope you can prevent some of this. Someone needs to.

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