Two weeks ago, the anguished letter below was posted in the Personal Messages box of Jose Carillo’s English Forum. I am presenting it here in full with very minor editing, but I have withheld the name of the letter-writer and of the English teacher involved to protect their privacy. It has taken me this long to act on the letter because I wanted to avoid judging or moralizing on a matter that’s not entirely the province of English grammar and usage, but in the end, I thought it would be for the public good to just share the letter as a cautionary tale about the perils of asserting what’s good or bad English.
Here’s the letter:
February 6, 2016
Dear Sir Carillo,
Something terrible happened to me last Tuesday. My instructress in Earth and Environmental Science publicly confronted me because I corrected her grammatical mistake on her examination paper.
When I was answering the midterm exam, I found what I believed was a grammatical error in this sentence: “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet.” I encircled the preposition “in” and replaced it with “on.”
In the afternoon, my teacher called me and confronted me in public. She told me how insensitive and offensive my actuation was, and how I had shown her practically no respect. She emphatically declared, “You are not greater than your teacher!”, then told me that I do not have the right to rectify her mistake.
Despite her immature behavior and apparent hysteria, I remained composed and just listened, although I have to admit that the confrontation made me feel really sick. If Mrs. ________ did that same thing to a student with low self-esteem, that student might have experienced depressive episodes or committed suicide at worst.
What can you say, Sir? I felt so offended and insulted by the behavior of my teacher. Was my act of silently correcting her English appropriate? Was my grammatical correction correct in the first place? Why are there people like that Mrs. ________? What can I do as a student to address that problem?
Prudence on the part of the student and better anger management on the part of the teacher could have avoided that very unpleasant confrontation. It’s neither here nor there now though. As to the grammar issue involved, however, I need to say this:
In the test sentence “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet,” the use of the preposition “in” rather than “on” is grammatically correct. Recall that the general rule for establishing relationships in space is to use “in” for an enclosed space, “on” for a surface, and “at” for a point (http://tinyurl.com/clvn9tw). In the case of the word “planet” though, this question arises: Isn’t it a surface rather than an enclosed space?
From the standpoint of its land area alone, Earth can indeed be considered a surface. This is why it is grammatically correct to say “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth” and, to be didactic about the usage, also to say “The Philippines with its 7,100 islands is an archipelago that has the second biggest number of islands on Earth, next only to Indonesia with its 18,307 islands.”
From a planetary standpoint, however, Earth is an enclosed space. This is because its land surface is actually surrounded by an atmosphere with six thin (but still material) layers of diminishing density: the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere. Grammatically, this warrants the use of “in” for establishing the position of a volcano and all other objects within this enclosed space.
Clearly then, since the teacher used the word “planet” in the context of an enclosed space, her choice of the preposition “in” in the sentence “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet” is grammatically correct.
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