I was drawn to the phrase “I was the admission mistake” in the following passage in the article of the Washington Post (May 2) titled, “As Ben Carson bashes Obama, many blacks see a hero’s legacy fade”.

After the speech (at Yale University), H. Wesley Phillips, 27, followed (Ben) Carson’s path and began to study neurosurgery.

“I had come from a public school in Tulsa and came from a single-parent household and thought I was the admissions mistake,” said Phillips. “But he gave me the comfort to know that if I did struggle — and I thought I would — that I wouldn’t have been the first, and there are ways to handle it. The message he gave was this backup artillery when times were hard.”

From the Washington Post.

I don’t have a problem with “I’m a dropout,” but I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the expression, “I was the admissions mistake.” A person makes a mistake, but can a person be the (admissions) mistake? Is it grammatically right?

By the way, does “the” (not "an") mean “of Yale” here? If the admissions represents for the Yale's department responsible for admission, why is it "the admissions mistake" with admission in plural form? Isn't it "the admission's mistake"?

  • 2
    You're right that this is worded awkwardly, but it's not so bad as you think. Here, "Admissions" (note the plural: it is significant) is being used as a proper noun: the dept of the university responsible for deciding which applicants to admit (i.e. allow to enroll). There is still a problem though: I would strongly prefer an to the: "an Admissions mistake" makes a lot more sense than "the Admissions mistake", unless a mistake by Admissions had been previously mentioned or introduced.
    – Dan Bron
    May 3, 2015 at 19:16
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    @Dan: or else there is a quota for Admissions mistakes! Like "the charity child". Even so, I had no difficulty parsing the lower-case "the admission mistake" in the text. The title as displayed in the main-page menu was harder, though.
    – David Pugh
    May 3, 2015 at 19:43
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    @Dan Bron I once had a boss who, whenever he issued an important report, would gather his staff around, hand them all a copy and challenge them to find the deliberate mistake. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the admissions mistake. Perhaps the Admissions Chief always let through one under-performing candidate as a challenge to the teaching staff to find him or her.
    – WS2
    May 3, 2015 at 19:44
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    Other than, perhaps, the use of "the" rather than "an", the sentence makes perfect sense, so long as you understand that "admission mistake" is used with a sense of sarcasm to mean someone who was admitted in spite of presumed rules that would have prevented it.
    – Hot Licks
    May 3, 2015 at 21:08
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    @Dan - Far-fetched or not, I think it's a bit pedantic to call that a "usage error." I can think of similar usages of the definite article, like: Jared was the problem child of the class, Dan was the class clown, and Damita was the teacher's pet (even though classes don't always have one and only one problem child, funny guy, or teacher's pet). The use of the definite article isn't limited to cases where the noun has been "previously mentioned or introduced;" we can say, "Bob plays the violin, the lion is king of the jungle, and my favorite poem is the sonnet."
    – J.R.
    May 3, 2015 at 23:29

1 Answer 1


If you Google "You were not a mistake" you will find that this usage is very common.

Logically, it should certainly be "You are not [just] the result of a mistake", but this device (a form of metonymy) is common and often carries impact because of its jarringness (though it can be carried to ridiculous extremes):

It was a proud day for her parents.

He sauntered to the local and had a quiet pint.

I was the admissions mistake [for I had only been accepted into Yale because someone in admissions had made a great blunder].

(Here, the first two examples are so institutionalised that they lack punchiness; this is appropriate for the second sentence. When an adjective (an epithet) grammatically qualifies a noun other than the person or thing it is actually describing, as in the first two examples, it is known as a transferred epithet {or hypallage}.)

  • 4
    In the days when I was a school governor I was once talking among a group of parents about the injustices of the old 11+ system, which like me you MAY remember, and the way that it tended to reject children from less than literate families. One of the parents piped up with I was that child. You are right about it being a form of metonymy.
    – WS2
    May 3, 2015 at 19:53

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