From time to time, a student will ask about a word or a phrase they have heard but didn’t understand.

One such instance I remember was when I was asked about a piece of school homework. The question was ‘To what extent is Macduff the antithesis of Macbeth?’. The student asked me what ‘antithesis’ means. The simple answer was ‘opposite’. The student was then happy to tackle his homework. 

But this issue led me to research material for an answer to the question I had never considered before. I won’t bore you with the Shakespeare (my blog readers know all too well it’s not my favourite topic) but I learnt a good deal from this – so much so that I have used it in sessions since with other students.

Tutoring a bright GCSE student on a read-through of A Christmas Carol, the student said, ‘I like the polysyndeton in this section’ (Collins 2013, page 69). I replied ‘Yes, what do you think that means?’.

I have to admit that I couldn’t remember what he had said, and I had never heard of the word before. The student replied, ‘Well, my very ‘geeky’ English teacher who has a PhD said it’s about the repetition of ‘and’.

‘Oh yes’, I said quickly, Googling on my phone. I pointed out that actually it refers to the repeated use of coordinating conjunctions in a list and that, in this section, ‘or’ is also featured. 

And again, I researched this word and found its opposite ‘asyndeton’ just as interesting and I now look for it in poems and texts and use it with all new students and especially A Christmas Carol students. Did you notice my attempt at the polysyndeton there?

Only last week, a student was telling me about ‘anathema’. He was quite convinced that anathema means repetition of words at the start of a new sentence. I asked him to repeat it. He said ‘anathema’ again. I realised he was speaking of ‘anaphora’. I discussed anaphora and gave him the correct spelling and my own pronunciation of it. From this interaction, I learnt that students don’t always hear things correctly – and that actually teachers might get things wrong too.

Some years ago, a student spoke of ‘hyperbole’ pronouncing it ‘hyper-boal’, if you can imagine that. It turned out this came from an unfortunate (she has all my sympathy) Geography teacher having to teach GCSE English.

The upshot of that little story is that I take more care now with pronunciation (my Yorkshire accent in Norfolk doesn’t help!).

I started drafting ideas for this blog sometime before Christmas. Just recently, I saw a quote on LinkedIn (thanks to Maryam Raeisy for sharing) – 

When one teaches, two learn’ – Robert Heinlein