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(Choozing) Choosing the (Rite) Right Word

After you teach school for a while, you realize that all kinds of kids cross your little academic threshold, and all they want is a teacher who cares and wants to teach them and maybe occasionally leaves them alone, so they can sleep or talk in class. But we do remember our students’ idiosyncrasies and personalities, and sometimes what they write helps to make them indelible.

It doesn’t matter who you are – choosing the right word in writing has always been a problem. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between a lightning bug and a bolt of lightning.” Many people think; what is there to be taught in this age of autocorrect, Spell Check and electronic synonyms? Everything is done electronically. And then you realize the hard way that you’ve sent a text message or email that you haven’t carefully checked only to find out your message said something other than what you meant. Hopefully, the message wasn’t too embarrassing. For example, one of my students wrote in a handwritten essay about having chicken pops. Even if he had used a computer, he didn’t know the disease is chicken pox and not chicken pops, so Spell Check would not have caught the error because neither chicken or pop was misspelled. He didn’t know the right word. Mark Twain’s reflection is still relevant today. Sometimes our words are not the right words even with the help of technology.

My story starts with some of the rules of grammar and mnemonics kids learn in elementary school to help them remember the rules because these rules made a student feel that I was approachable. One of my students was reading out loud and having trouble pronouncing a word. He paused, knowing that what he’d said hadn’t made sense in the sentence he read. I said to him, “short e.” He studied the word for a minute and then pronounced the word correctly. Of course, I realize that phonics is not taught in every school, but it sure helps when it is. Another example of a reason to applaud elementary school teachers is when my students continually misspelled receive and believe, and one day I said aloud to the class, “i before e and some of the kids joined in and said except after c and they finished the spelling mnemonic.

That day after class, one of my students, Jim, walked up to my desk, hat in hand, and said to me, “Miss” – I was always Miss to some of my kids and Miss B to others. He said, “Miss, I don’t know those rules you’re always talking about. I didn’t learn them in elementary school. Will you help me with them?” I assured him that I would help him, and I did. As days went by Jim sought extra information, as did other students, which I gladly provided, and Jim became quite comfortable with the class and me.

You see, Jim was a stereotypical country farm boy. He came to class everyday in jeans and starched and ironed shirts, neatly tucked into his pants. He always wore a wide belt with a country themed belt buckle, and everyday his boots were clean and shining. And a hat! Jim always had a wide brim cowboy hat, which he never wore in the building because that was not proper. He was a tall, blond, tan country boy, with a deep country drawl, and in the back of my mind, I just knew he drove a pickup truck, or rode to school on horseback. Jim and I got along just fine, as he struggled with 11th grade English.

Jim always had a wide brim cowboy hat, which he never wore in the building because that was not proper. Jim and I got along just fine, as he struggled with 11th grade English.
Jim always had a wide brim cowboy hat, which he never wore in the building because that was not proper. Jim and I got along just fine, as he struggled with 11th grade English.

I’d like to make note in this time of racial trouble that most kids don’t care about race, they just want a teacher who wants to teach them. I really didn’t think about this until one day I saw one of my former high school football players at a restaurant, and he walked up and hugged me and said, “You were the only one who cared.” Caring doesn’t mean being mushy. I was anything but mushy. I was strict and all business in class, and that was what he needed.

Anyway, back to Jim. One day Jim didn’t come to school, and I wondered what was going on with him because he never missed school. That evening on the news, I found out why he wasn’t at school. A bunch of steers had broken out of their enclosure and had gotten into the street, stopping traffic, and there was my student, Jim! On the evening news! On horseback, roping a steer! I was so excited! I yelled to my husband, “That’s my student!”

Some of the other kids in my class had seen the news too, and he was quite a celebrity in my class the next day. It was like having Clint Eastwood in my classroom, quiet, meaning business, only younger but not with guns! Just a nice, polite cowboy.

All this back information will become important when I tell you about the first composition Jim wrote for me. Whenever I returned graded papers, I took the entire class to the library to work on an assignment, while I talked to each of the students individually about their essays.

When it was Jim’s time to come into the little conference room in the library, he came in quietly, with his hat in his hand, and sat down next to me so that we could both look at his paper. He placed his hat on the table, and we talked. It was an interactive conversation though Jim was a kid of very few words. It was my habit to discuss both good points and suggestions about the essays and offer ways of making corrections. However, I made sure the conversation wasn’t one way. I gave feedback but my discussions helped them to voice ways they could make their papers better as well.

I began, “Jim, this is a very good descriptive essay. You describe your girlfriend very well, and I can tell that she’s very pretty, with long brown hair and that she looks good in her jeans, but you can’t say that she has a nice ass.”

He looked at me innocently with the big blue eyes of a child cowboy, and said, “but, Miss, she does have a nice ass. You told me to describe her. That’s a description.”

“Well, yes, I did, Jim, but what must you do in a descriptive essay?” He looked at me puzzled for a minute.  “Look at the handout I gave you on writing a descriptive essay.”

I gave him a few minutes to open his notebook. He read, “you have to use words that make the reader see, feel, touch, taste, or hear the thing you’re describing.” He looked up at me. “I did that. I said she had a nice ass. That’s descriptive.”

“No, that triggers none of my senses,” I replied. Actually, I wanted to burst into laughter, but he was earnest and sincere. I maintained my teacher façade.

“Not, you, but another guy would know what I’m talking about. I don’t know how else to say it. Everybody knows what that means.”

“No, they don’t,” I replied. I really, really didn’t want to talk about his girlfriend’s ass anymore, but I knew that this was a subject he thought he could write about, and I didn’t want to discourage him. Who knows? Shakespeare might have started this way.  I continued. “Jim, I really like potato chips. They’re good. Did I describe potato chips to you?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “You said they were good. You appealed to my sense of taste.”

I continued. “I really like ice cream, Jim. It’s good. Did I appeal to your sense of taste?”


“But do potato chips and ice cream taste the same?”


“What’s the difference?”

“One’s salty and crunchy and come in flavors like onion and jalapeno.”

“And the other?”

“The other’s sweet and cold.” His light bulb suddenly came on. “I get it. I didn’t tell you why her ass is nice.”

“Right, right.” I replied. “Now let’s think about her father for a moment.”

“Her father?” He was puzzled.

“Do you really think he’d want you talking about his daughter like this?”

He picked his hat up off the table and fingered the brim as he thought. “I guess not,” he said finally.

“Now can you describe her without using that word?”

“Her bottom,” he replied, showing me his large, blue innocent eyes. He could rope a steer but he was struggling with writing this descriptive essay. “Maybe I should write about something else for the final draft.”

“No, we can figure this out. When we talk about women, don’t we talk about their overall appearance in their clothes. Something her dad would approve?”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it. She looks really good in her jeans especially when she walks away.”

“Okay, now go on without using the word ‘ass’.”

“She’s little and her jeans are tight and they fit her real good.”

“Okay, we’ve got the word little. What do you mean they fit real good?”

“They look like they were painted on her, and they were her skin, only they’re blue instead of white.”

“Do you see that you’ve given the reader words to help the reader see what you see? I still think you might tone it down for her dad. Make your corrections with her dad in mind.”

“Yeah, I get it now. I gave you words to see her hair, and I gave you words to hear the sound of her voice and you know about her pretty face; she’s got freckles but not too many. Her dad wouldn’t mind that. I get it.” Boy! Was I glad that conversation ended!

Jim corrected his paper, and he did a good job. Jim and I got along just fine in class. I helped him with the mnemonics that he didn’t learn in elementary school, and he was one of my best students. I heard that Jim went on to be one of the top bull riders at the rodeo, and his girl’s ass gave me a lesson in helping a student without losing him.

Well, that wasn’t the last time I had an experience with a young man who was trying to describe his girlfriend. This time it was a typed essay, and I assume he didn’t know how to spell assets. One of his sentences read; “My girlfriend has many asses.” I wrote on his paper “how many asses does she have?” When I returned the paper, he burst into uncontrollable laughter. It was one of those Spell Check typos that slipped by. It seems to me that guys have a hard time describing their girlfriends, but they want to and they try.

It was one of those Spell Check typos that slipped by. It seems to me that guys have a hard time describing their girlfriends, but they want to and they try.
It was one of those Spell Check typos that slipped by. It seems to me that guys have a hard time describing their girlfriends, but they want to and they try.

My next adventure of fun with spelling with seniors in high school belongs to a female student, who wrote an essay about the prompt “a funny thing happened on the way to school.”

I was sitting at home grading papers, as usually, when I burst into laughter. My husband asked, “What’s so funny?”

I said listen to this, “A funny thing happened to me on my way to school one day. I drove to school and I picked up two of my girlfriends on the way. It was raining and the streets were messy. I drove into a big long ditch.” Only she misspelled ditch. I’ll let you figure out how she spelled it. Let your imagination run wild.

I read on replacing what should have been “ditch” with what she’d actually written, “My girlfriends and I struggled all morning to get out of the ditch and it was hard. The rain kept coming down, and we were all wet. The ditch started getting full of water and slippery. It took some time, but after an hour we got out. It took rocking and pushing the car to get out of the ditch. I never worked so hard in my life. I didn’t want to call my dad for help because he wouldn’t have understood, and he would have been really, really mad at me and not let me have the car again if he knew that I drove it in a ditch. Thankfully, we got to school wet, and tired, and my dad never knew.”

My husband said, “It doesn’t say that.” I showed him the paper, and we laughed hysterically.

If she had written the paper at home and used her computer, spell check wouldn’t have worked for her because she spelled the wrong word correctly, and evidently, she didn’t know what the right word looked like. It was a chicken pops moment gone bad. I gave her the correct spelling of ditch. I don’t know whether she ever figured it out, but I helped her learn how to use the electronic dictionary and synonyms in Word.

Well, let’s progress to a typed, spell checked episode. My class wrote essays about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and one young man wrote about one of the knights. You know knight is a hard word to spell, if you haven’t seen the correct spelling, but that wasn’t his problem. He knew how to spell knight. One of his sentences read, The knight whore a tunic.

When I spoke with him, he didn’t understand the difference between whore and wore. For some reason, he couldn’t differentiate the “wh” sound from the “w” sound.  I showed him the definition of the word he used, and he turned beet red.

The final paper I’m going to discuss with you is again an adventure in choosing the wrong word from spell check options. The student wrote, “The man had many bourbons, and he was not happy.” I wrote on his paper, “Maybe he would have been happier with scotch or tequila.” As soon as she came into the room to go over her paper, she started laughing.

Modern technology is all well and good, but it can be a catastroph catastrophe in the hands of someone who is given too many choices, and they’re their there knowledge of words is limited, and they don’t use a dictionary to make sure they have the word they won’t want. Sometimes spell chek cheek, check, chefchewchic offers you many choices, and you can easily choose the wrong word.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Sharon Ballentine
I am retired from Lone Star College, Professor at North Harris College and later adjunct professor at CyFair College. I have taught high school and college in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, California and Texas. Author of “A Look Behind Lightning.”

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