Passing momentum

There are occasions when a completely explicable linguistic slip unfortunately creates an image that overpowers everything around it. Here’s a specimen from the latest batch of Newtonian mechanics assignments to land on my desk:

Due to the momentum of conservation…

My immediate mental picture was of a railway wagon, loaded to the brim with the great and the good of the WWF, the RSPB, the SWT and the committee of every Village Green Preservation Society in the land, and thundering down a steep track towards the camera at an unstoppable rate of knots. A little more thought suggested, rather, that “the momentum of conservation” is the great hobgoblin of property developers and precious metal miners: the irrational but irresistible force that threatens to sweep away their dreams of profitable avenues of stockbroker tudor or streams glistening with cyanide. What I’m having great difficulty doing is reading it as a simple transposition of “conservation of momentum”, which is what the poor student certainly meant, and I’m fighting a dreadful temptation to give him or her a bonus mark for momentarily brightening my weekend.

Reading the travails of those who have to mark Freshman Comp, I sometimes wish my students would come up with more horrors that were entertaining rather than just infuriating. Given how easily I seem to be distracted on the rare occasions that they do so, I ought to be more careful what I wish for.

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