By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

Considering how “professionals” make bad writing seem normal, is it any wonder teenagers struggle verbally?

We made the point in a recent article (When Grammar Takes a Nap: The 10 Most Common College App Essay Boo-Boos) that it’s not easy for high school students working on college admissions essays to write well if adults, including those who work in media organizations, can’t manage it. A few days ago, Yahoo News ran this jewel on its home page:

“A Taiwanese woman, known as the ‘Bikini Climber’, has tragically died after freezing to death following a fall…Wu’s cause of death has not yet been revealed.”

So she died twice, apparently, and it’s only the second demise that hasn’t been explained. Or maybe it’s just that the writer and editor are as dumb as a barge-load of toenail clippings. Make that two editors (and two barges) at least, because Yahoo picked up the article after it ran in People. And we won’t even get into the overt punctuation problems, or fulminate about the violation of the journalistic taboo against editorializing in a news story.

In The Big Chill, a 1983 film about former ‘60s radicals entering middle age in Reagan-era America, Jeff Goldblum portrays a character named Michael who feels that his literary tastes and aspirations are besmirched by his job as a writer for People. Though not an admirable character in some respects, Michael is highly articulate and obviously intelligent, People and all. That was perfectly plausible in 1983. Today he’d either have to be strikingly stupid or working elsewhere to seem believable.

Not that verbal adroitness would make him feel at home in most other media organizations or publishing houses anymore. Respectable media outlets, including some big names, are rapidly descending into the sort of buffoonery that characterized the scandal sheets only a few years ago. The only benefit is that those of us who can think, speak, and write in good English are afforded plenty of laughs.

Today we submit what is likely to be the first in a series of compilations of egregious English, and you will have to take our word for it that we have not made up any of these examples, nor have we pulled them from websites devoted to this sort of thing. We also ask you to pardon us for not divulging the names of the guilty, other than the much-deserved identification of Yahoo and People. We can’t stop you from Googling. Some of the examples appeared in print media or on signage, but most originated on the internet.


“High school football player amputated after injury.” Dang, the whole guy. Or maybe that’s just a new way of talking about substitutions. I remember last fall when the Redskins amputated Alex Smith and harvested Colt McCoy for a quarterback transplant. Then they had to amputate McCoy too. Subsequently they performed elective surgery, amputating Mark Sanchez. Luckily they found a donor and drew Josh Johnson from the limb bank. We have read this week that the team now has a “massive hole” at quarterback. We suppose that’s like the dense vacuum in the brains of people who write headlines.

In other news from the D.C. area, we’re sorry to hear that the distinguished magazine Washingtonian apparently has fallen on hard times. We deduce this from a placard in our local Five Guys telling us that the Five Guys chain is Washingtonian‘s “reader’s favorite pick.” Perhaps that reader is the same fellow a certain major daily referred to in a sub-head for a recent article about loutish men: “Most men don’t condemn other’s bad behavior.” Pick, pick, pick. We think it’s terrific that our turbulent society is down to just one toxic male, and maybe most guys (not just five) disapprove of him but don’t think it’s sporting to gang up on him.

Still, in nearby Virginia a certain disregard for chivalry is producing some very unfortunate consequences:

“Police identify man killed after workplace accident at Henrico car dealership.” That’s pretty rough. Apparently his supervisor overreacted a little bit. And it seems that some people in Minnesota also are not living by any code that we can endorse:

“Superior man killed after vehicle drives over viaduct.” We guess somebody was jealous and wanted to get to him while he was vulnerable after making a rare mistake. Or maybe it wasn’t even his vehicle or his accident, and the killer just used the car crash as a diversion. Yes, we realize that Superior is a place in Minnesota, but that made an inferior headline even more inferior. 

If anything, the tendency to kick a man when he’s down is even stronger on the West Coast:

“California town grieves dead soldier.” Lots of necromancers in Cali, some of ’em pretty unfriendly, apparently.

In what President Eisenhower called “troubulous times,” it pays to keep ourselves open to all sources of potentially valuable information. Hence we would be wise to heed any article titled “The non-verbal signs your dog is giving you.” As opposed to when your dog texts, emails, or strikes up a conversation. Please remind him that it’s not good manners to be engrossed in his smartphone when he’s supposed to be giving his full attention to another dog’s backside.

Despite the challenges of life today, folks continue to impress and inspire us with their resourcefulness and economy. In England, disused churches are being sold and converted into pubs, and apparently something similar is happening with derelict schools over here: We have seen a restaurant review with a headline reading “Burgers and fries, old school.” A place like that would have abundant restroom facilities, unlike Five Guys, which ought to rename itself One Guy.

We can also take encouragement from the fact that the niceties of grammar and mechanics still have their practical applications:

“Colonel Norton answered the door, wearing a pair of silk pants and a Japanese silk jacket, embroidered with chrysanthemums.” Yes, the lowly comma is so powerful, it can cause a full colonel in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps to be embroidered with chrysanthemums. Tattoo artists don’t appear to respect grammarians very much, but they certainly ought to.

Yes, let no one gainsay the power of punctuation:

“The two women stopped beside a small wooden building, made of scrap lumber.” First Adam’s rib, and now this. Big changes are coming for Lowe’s and The Home Depot.

But today’s Wooden Woman will need some well-oiled hinges to cope with the new dance craze we see on the horizon:

“The senator said he hoped the president would walk back his remarks going forward.” Move over, JFK: You only thought you were the one to “get this country moving again.” We recall a high school skit built around the idea of the president of the United States as a Travolta-esque disco phenom. Perhaps it was prescient, like all great art.

No more gazing into the crystal ball for us, but the mysteries of the universe never lose their allure for lovers:

“When they compared astrological signs, Cindy was a Cancer and Ron was a Feces.” Run, Ron. You don’t want to get mixed up with a girl who’s got more problems than you do.

OK, I fudged. That one was based on a conversation I overheard, not on something I saw published. But it’s a good lead-in to a snippet of conversation between Michael and Harold (Kevin Kline) in The Big Chill:

“I’m tired of having all my work read in the can.”

“People read Dostoevsky in the can.”

“Yes, but they can’t finish it.”

Little did we imagine, then, what lay ahead of us.

Egregious real-world examples notwithstanding, we don’t see much truly bad writing from our student-clients, and we have a lighthearted way of making boo-boos disappear via our Socratic essay-coaching program that’s based on the Oxford tutorial system–but that’s more fun. 

Our essay system is only one of many services devised to help our students get into and succeed at the right college—and pay for it. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photo Credits

Jeff Goldblum by CBS News

Dwight Eisenhower by Francis “Red” Grandy

Recommended Reading About College Admissions

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “Getting Serious About a Lighthearted Approach to the College Admissions Essay” on The College Light Bulb, audio podcast, The Coaching Educator, accessed 8 March 2019, http://tce.local/podcasts/

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “The Importance of Reading” on The College Light Bulb, audio podcast, The Coaching Educator, accessed 8 March 2019, http://tce.local/podcasts/

Culp, Paul. “Getting to Know You: the College Admissions Essay,” The Coaching Educator, 8 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/08/getting-to-know-you-the-college-admissions-essay/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2019/02/06/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 24 January 2019,   http://tce.local/2019/01/24/ugh-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh, 2: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 14 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/14/ugh-2-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh 3: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 12March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/12/ugh-3-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “When Grammar Takes a Nap: The 10 Most Common College App Essay Boo-boos,” The Coaching Educator, 1 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/01/when-grammar-takes-a-nap-the-10-most-common-college-app-essay-boo-boos/

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