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Exam howlers wanted

Do your students know their vellum from their valium and their buffer zones from their buffet counterparts?

Hands taking food from buffet

Buffet zone: not what you might find in post-war Eastern Europe

If so, then you might as well stop reading now.

But if they don’t you could be a potential winner of Times Higher Education’s “exam howlers” competition.

Every year after exam marking season is over we ask lecturers to share their favourite mistakes, misunderstandings and malapropisms.

In 2012, Kevin Ruane, professor of modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, offered this winning entry from one of his undergraduate students: “In 1945, Stalin began to build a buffet zone in Eastern Europe.”

Meanwhile, David Ganz, emeritus professor in palaeography at King’s College London, was amused by one student’s insistence that in the Middle Ages “most books were written on valium” rather than vellum.

However, in some cases, the mistakes beg the question whether the students are aware of what they are doing.

Writing in an exam last year on the biology of sperm, one student described the 18th-century Italian naturalist Lazzaro Spallanzani as a “priest cum scientist”, according to David Hosken, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Exeter.

And in another lewd example from 2009, an academic was told about a film being made undercover “to draw attention to human rights abuses in the Best Wank and Gaza”.

Due to the annual event’s popularity, we have extended the deadline for this year’s entries until 12 July at 5pm.

For your chance to be crowned the winner of this competition – which comes with a magnum of champagne – please send examples of hilarious typos, unfortunate spoonerisms and daft misunderstandings to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • I have to say that I don't see that the entry submitted by Professor Hosken belongs here. It's not the student's fault if the good professor has a one-track mind.

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  • Yeah, "X cum Y" is an appropriate phrase. "Cum" is Latin for "with" and is a common enough idiom to use with something that combines two separate things into one. For instance, if your key chain has a bottle opener on it, then it's a key chain cum bottle opener, or you might say that Einstein was a patent clerk cum physicist.

    If anything, it's more tongue in cheek on the student's part to use that particular phrasing in a report on sperm biology.

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  • If any of my students misused the phrase 'begs the question', in the way it appears in this article, then I'd consider that a howler.

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  • Ben, I never see the term "to beg the question" used properly any more. John's in good company then; and since incorrect use of this popular phrase is rife everywhere, maybe us sticklers should just adapt?

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