In marking my students’ coursework, I’ve come across a phenomenon that surprises me: the use of proceed to mean follow—that is, as the opposite of precede. I’ve found this in work by more than one student and in more than one year; other tutors have also found it. Obviously it’s a mistake and, at least in origin, it almost certainly began with someone incorrectly interpreting what proceed is normally used to mean. But then there are four possibilities as to what kind of mistake it is, which fall into two categories:
- It’s someone else’s fault:
- This is now a feature of some dialect that these students have acquired. Their mistake in this case is applying the forms of this colloquial dialect to an essay, where standard academic style is required. It’s equivalent, in other words, to using Scots words in an essay that non-Scots readers are unlikely to understand.
- This is not a feature of their dialect, but it’s something they’ve been taught is a feature of standard academic English. The mistake, therefore, lies in someone else’s mischaracterisation of standard academic English usage with respect to this word. The students’ only mistake is not realising that their source of information is faulty.
- It’s these students’ fault:
- The students have all come up with this on their own, and have been using proceed like this for a while without realising that this isn’t how most people use it.
- The word is not one these students normally use, except in writing essays, and they’ve guessed what other people mean by it.
There’s technically also a fifth possibility (which is too unlikely to include): that the students are aware that other people don’t use the word this way, but have decided to use it differently from everyone else on a whim.
Why should this be interesting? Well, apart from the question of there being different kinds of mistake (which I find slightly interesting), then it probably isn’t: I suspect that option 2.2 is the most likely, given the relative formality of the word, so there’s not much else to be said. However, if it’s one of the other cases, then that’s a bit more interesting, and I’d be intrigued if anyone reading has heard people use the word in this way. Who knows? Maybe it has a distinguished history somewhere (though it hasn’t made it into the OED if so).