Saturday, January 30, 2016

Slime trails, sluggish writers

How often do I confront two unique and startling experiences before 9 a.m. on a Saturday? I guess today is my lucky day, because within a 10-minute time span I discovered the spelling "sort've" in a student paper and a trail of slug-slime on my nearly-new living-room throw rug. I don't know which one is worse.

I know the presence of slug-slime in the house sounds horrible, but it has an entirely innocent explanation: when the resident plant maniac brings in a bunch of potted plants in the late fall so they'll survive the winter, sometimes little critters come along for the ride. The banana trees downstairs often host spiders that soon make themselves visible by weaving webs, which makes them easier to remove. Sometimes we see a beetle or two or other kinds of creepy-crawlies, but never before have we seen signs of a slug. (Which doesn't mean they're not there.)

If this slug rode in on a plant last fall, then it's been cruising around that dense clot of plant pots all winter without showing its face, such as it is. What drove the slug to explore more distant terrain? Slugs need moist places, which the new rug definitely isn't. The glittery slime trail suggests that the slug blundered about on the rug for a while and then returned to the plants, although it's impossible to say which one. 

What harm can one slug do? Once years ago we came back from a picnic not knowing that a great big nasty spotted slug had hitched a ride on the bottom of the hamburger-bun bag, exactly where you would grab the bag if you were the one unpacking the picnic basket, which I was. The last thing you want to grab onto while reaching for food is a slug, and the unexpected slimy sensation may have resulted in a sharp vocal response and some violent throwing of buns.

If I were to walk out to the living room in the middle of the night and step on a slug in my bare feet, I suppose I might jump up in alarm and break a leg, but on the other hand, it's no worse than some other things I've stepped on in the dark. (If you've ever had an incontinent cat, you know what I'm saying.)

So I'm feeling fairly sanguine about the slug. I don't want to see it or step on it or look it in the face, but I take comfort in knowing that it doesn't want to see me either. Eventually it will shrivel up and die and we'll forget that we ever had a slug in the house, as long as I clean up the slime trail on the rug.

The spelling, on the other hand, is a different kind of problem entirely. I've never before seen "sort of" spelled "sort've" and I'm not quite sure how to handle it. Every semester I have to deal with students who have been told in high school never to use contractions in their writing but they're not aware of the derivations of "should've" and "could've," so I get a lot of "should of" and "could of" on student papers, as we all do. 

I fight this but I fear it's a losing battle. I may persuade a student to write "should have" in a paper for my class, but he'll go right back to "should of" in the next paper or the next class. We pronounce "should've" as if it were "should of," so it's really hard to persuade students who have been saying "should of" all their lives that they need to write "should have." Sometimes I have to let it slide so the student can focus on more serious issues, like the lack of thesis or insufficient evidence or plagiarism. In fact, if a student who consistently writes "should of" suddenly produces a paper full of "should have," plagiarism is the first thing I suspect. 

Now comes "sort've." If I'm drilling into students the need to change "should of" to "should have," then how do I prevent this student from overgeneralizing and producing "sort have"? Habits like this are really hard to break and getting a sluggish writer to attend to two different patterns simultaneously will take some effort: sort of, should have--the pronunciation is similar but the spelling is oh, so different. I suspect that I'll have an easier time eliminating the slug.

***Update: The slug has been found and removed from the premises. The spelling problem remains.

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