Exam howlers

John Smith writes:

My father Eric Smith was an English master at High Pavement Grammar School in Nottingham. For many years he also served as an examiner with the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which is responsible for the exams sat by tens of thousands of 16- and 18-year-olds, not just in the U.K. but worldwide. His particular area was the English essay, which in the 1960s formed one half of the English Language exam for 16-year-olds (part of the then O/Level Examination, referred to in some parts of the world as School Certificate). Though he marked both British and Overseas scripts, he came to focus most on the latter, and his expertise took him out to West Africa as Chief Examiner on several occasions as part of the process of establishing proper examining procedures and standards there.

After his death in 1987 a small grey-green notebook he had kept came into my possession. In it he had been in the habit of noting down “howlers” or amusing turns of phrase from scripts he marked. Many of these come from Overseas candidates, which often adds an extra dimension to them. Apart from a few pencil marks by particular entries, which I think indicated his personal favourites, the following is an exact transcription of that notebook. (The final section headed “General” starts from the end of the book.)

From the O/L Eng. Lang. 1

E. W. N. Smith

Caribbean O/L 1964

  1. The great composers like Bach, Handel and Mantovani.
  2. (A sign on a board) “Vacant man wanted.”
  3. Shirley is a pink-coloured skin girl, a strong-going church member, & my closet friend.
  4. My girl friend & I are very thrusting with each other.
  5. Pandemonium not only reigned, it poured.
  6. We spent the day rumping on the sands.
  7. Big flies were hoovering all round the room.
  8. He had a special cabaret built in his room to house all his 200 models.
  9. They were God's phropets & epistles.
  10. “The primary aim of education should be to equip a man to earn his own living. This is so important that it should be repeated. The primary aim of education should be to equip a man to earn his own living. Indeed, it cannot be said too often that the primary aim of education should be to equip a man to earn his own living.”
  11. (From a character study of a friend): He was noble, kind, sympathetic, calm, thoughtful, modest, spiritual, honest, brave, loving, straightforward, energetic, sensible, humorous, lively, dexterous, handsome, dignified, punctual, determined, reliable.

Caribbean O/L 1965

West Africa SC 1965

  1. All walks and no play makes Jack a doll boy.
  2. I was unexpectedly delivered of a Vono bed I had won in a riffle.
  3. The government should try to be lending out eggs from agricultural hens.
  4. Some of the patients were plastered, & some were hanging from the ceiling.
  5. Pails & bowels were flung all over the plaice.
  6. Lateron the doctor gave him piles to relief him his pain.
  7. Swollen dead bodies were taken to the doctor for cross-examination.
  8. Both his legs were cut off, & both his hands, & most of his brains were hanging through the side of his head; & he was lying on his bed — crying.
  9. In table-tennising a white ball, inform of an egg, is kicked between the two players.
  10. Table-tennising is controlled by an Empirer. The two parsons toss the tennis ball to each other, & stroke it when they are chanced.
  11. Two coloured & carved scale planks with red, green or blue rubber is used; they are flat, and are in the shape of a gourd when looked at upside down.
  12. All dances have no use of force, no sweat every steps in the dance systematic.
  13. The bell knolled a knell, and all partakers came to a stand still.
  14. It was time for us to dismiss, as we have resumed soon.
  15. Shouts of goats, sheep, cows were heard.
  16. A health mind is that which has an exercise body.
  17. She had vital stastics — I did like them.
  18. A footballing team has eleven players on each of the two sides; there is gall-kipper, 2 backmen, 3 half back-men, a left out & a left in, a centre forward-man, a right in & right out. These five centre forwardmen pass the balls to themselves.
  19. Pidgin English, West Africa: Aeroplanes = dem breeze lorries for up.
  20. A Nigerian examiner's comment: “A good essay, full of minor gross errors.”

From the Award, 1966

    From “The Only Survivor”
  1. She lay there semi-naked, semi-conscious, and semi-hopeful.
  2. She took me indoors & called her husband; he was very practical and gave me a nightdress & some hot soup, & told me to lie down in his bed.
  3. He closed his eyes in a gesture of despair; he contorted his face, praying for strength, & then lifted his leg, aiming towards the horizon.
  4. These peace-loving animals start their life as small, furry balls, & they grow up and with any luck will find a mate, & have small, furry balls themselves.
  5. I think that men & boys prefer science fiction to women & girls, as they have strong desires to explore & delve into the unknown.
  6. My aunt has been unduly disturbed of late, having two small children through the utter carelessness of the local dustman.
  7. Death is one thing that does not affect people till several days later.
  8. The dream in every newly-wed couple's head is to marry.
  9. The octopus wrapped his testicles round the diver & strangled him.
  10. Sharks were infesting the area, & one of them was a non-swimmer.
  11. Walking along the country lane, with my feet in the stirrups.
  12. The airoplain took a deep breath, caughed twice, & hearled itself along the runway.
  13. He was a man of about 35 years of age, looked twenty and was forty.
  14. I was exported for thieving.
  15. About this time of my life I hope to be about 25 years old, & I expect my parents to have grown old at the same rate.
  16. People were carrying on in the quiet way to which they had been accustomed since time immoral.
  17. As he walked through the room he heard the sound of heavy breeding.
  18. (Phone-call to the Police): Please come at once: there has been an attempted sexual orgy, and five people are dead.
  19. I used to leave my class & walk all over the school interfering with the children of the higher forms. Sometimes when I was not in school they came to see me.
  20. I secretly entered the boat with a feeling of suspiciousness. I hid myself under the bed of a woman. Doing all this without the consent of the woman, I managed to overcome my nervousness by introducing myself to her in the dark, & gained full advantage of it.

O/L 1967

  1. What a wonderful sensation it is, with the power of 600 cubic centimetres between my legs.
  2. I was given a blanket and some coffee, but I could not drink them.
  3. We were trapped in a blazing car, but luckily enough a river was passing by.
  4. When a girl puts on a mini-skirt she will show her complex.
  5. Some of these boys dress to look very feminate, but underneath it they are as masculine as the next man.
  6. Many of the girls wear highly-coloured dresses, but underneath they are just ordinary girls.

S.C. Dec 1967

  1. Her appearance is made more beautiful by her wasp waist which protrudes outwards on the hips and breast.
  2. There are 4 kinds of food — tined, jared, caned & raped.

O/Level 1968

  1. Many protesters have tried Gandhi's method of non-active activity.
  2. I glanced at the grandfather clock in my waistcoat pocket.
  3. “His heart rose into his chest but plunged down when he saw the boys motioning to the girls to go into the ladies. What could it mean?”
  4. They lent him money so that he could do drinking & thus relieve himself.
  5. I was nervous, but at last I gathered up my guts & spoke to him.
  6. Upstairs, on the front of the house, is the bathroom. This comprises of one bath, sink unit & toilet with enough room to tuck one's toes in.
  7. Clowns tie their trousers with string which, when it is pulled, shows a hair-raising scene.
  8. I took out a book & settled down to read, but soon put it down because I couldn't read.
    [The following unnumbered paragraph is in a different handwriting which I do not recognise, and I do not know why it is included — J.D.S.]
    I personally think that in this day of hustle & bustle, a person needs to set time aside to partake in some form of recreation. Bearing this in mind, I strongly agree with the powers that be that sport is a must as part of our routine.
  9. A wife should be understanding & loving & bare with her husband.
  10. Television gives me something to do without my having to do anything.
  11. After several years his business began to flush.
  12. When the amplifiers are turned up full-blast, everybody in the village almost evacuates.
  13. People were running all over the place, the boys in shorts & the girls in hysterics.


  1. A script from W. Africa in gibberish — 7 pages, & not one recognisable word. The boy had been told by a witchdoctor (on payment of a fee) that his words would be mysteriously translated for the examiner.
  2. Pidgin for Aeroplane — dat breeze lorry for up.
  3. An astronut.
  4. Examiner's comment (W. Africa) on a script: A good essay, full of minor gross errors.
  5. A fly-proof
  6. The couple wanted their son baptised, & both insisted that his name should be Gooy. (Pronounced goo-ey). When finally persuaded to write it by a doubtful priest, they wrote GUY.

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