Bad analysis

What does really bad analysis look like? What do bad individual orals, Paper-1 responses and essays have in common? Let's talk about the pitfalls to avoid and the phrases that drive examiners crazy. Textual analysis is the core skill of English A: Language and Literature. Once you spot the difference between bad analysis and model analysis, you can develop your analytical thinking- and writing skills more effectively. 

Print a copy of the worksheet below. Read the poem 'Down the streams the swans all glide' by Spike Milligan and the bad analysis of it by Phil Harrington (also known as Stew Dent). What kinds of errors does Stew Dent make in his unbelievably bad analysis of a rather horrible poem? Annotate Stew's work and identify what he does poorly. Make a list of cardinal sins of textual analysis. Compare your list to the one provided below.  

Worksheet: Bad analysis

Down the stream the swans all glide

By Spike Milligan

Down the stream the swans all glide;
It's quite the cheapest way to ride.
Their legs get wet,
Their tummies wetter:
I think after all
The bus is better

Bad analysis

This is the most greatest unique poem ever written. It appeals to pathos. And it appeals to logos. This poem uses lots of literary terms. This is to help its reader understand its meaning and he/she wants to understand.

The poem starts with a title. This is important because most poems have titles. This title is interesting because it is also the same line as the first line of the poem. It appeals to pathos and logos. This repetition is to get the attention of the reader as now he/she/they will want to read on.

Now into the poem. At this point the reader is full of anticipation. Will it be a good poem, or a sad one? Happy or miserable? Now the reader can hardly stand the tension and he/she/they/it is keen to read on to find out what is going to happen. Upon reading the first word “down” the reader immediately feels a sense of foreboding. It appeals to Argos. Down can have many negative connotations, not in the least that it contrasts ‘up’ and can also suggest “downishness”. Next they encounter “the stream”. This suggests water and is a biblical illusion to Moses and the Ark, especially as we know what is going to happen next which is dramatic irony as there is going to a be a swan. This makes the reader happy, as the Ark is a positive idea. Moses is also important because he led people through the flood at the wedding feast of Canine and so this is also an illusion to the bible which was written by Jesus.

The use of the words “the Swan” is now introduced. The reader now sees the alliteration and the sibilance of the ‘s’ sound in ‘stream’ and ‘swans’. The ‘s’ sound makes the reader worried as the ‘s’ sound can be quite threatening. The effect of this is to help the reader to understand what is going on. This makes the reader very happy, as he/she/it/they likes to understand what is happening.

Then we have the words “all glide” which is a metaphor for flight. This helps the reader to understand what is going on because it really appeals to pathos. At this point the reader feels light and almost as if he/she/it/they/other were floating.

The next line says “the cheapest way to ride” which is zoomorphic personification as it makes the swan seem human as only humans ride on buses whilst animals live in zoos. Another example of personification is “cheapest” as only humans have money. This makes the reader worried because the swan is not a human, yet has human qualities. This helps the reader to understand what is going on.

The next two lines use enjambment which is where two lines are put together using Caesar. This appeals to pathos, logos and argos. This helps the reader to really understand what is going on. Now the reader feels very positive because of the humorous use of language with the word ‘tummies,’ which is short for stomach.

Finally, the last two lines use juxtaposition by comparing buses to swan. This makes the reader feel calm and relaxed. They are now able not only to understand the poem, but to really understand the poem. He/she/it/they/other/(s)he/s’he/hse is very happy to have read the poem.

By Stew Dent

Note: This list is not exhaustive. So much is wrong with Stew Dent's response to the poem. Perhaps you have noticed an issue that's not mentioned below. What's more, these issues are all related to each other and difficult to define separately. Hopefully your list includes these points (and more):

  • Informal writing style, such as starting sentences with 'And' or 'This' and using 'lots of' as a quantifier.
  • Line-by-line analysis: Rather than analysing the text from top to bottom, make claims about style and purpose, and draw examples from different parts of the text.
  • Lack of logic: How exactly does comparing a bus to a swan make the reader "calm"? Good analysis makes a logical connection between the author's intent, the author's choices and the reader's response.  
  • Inaccurate literary terms: It's not apparent, from this analysis, if the student understands 'juxtaposition', 'enjambment' or 'allusion' (written as 'illusion'). Argos was a city is ancient Greece. Zoomorphic personification is not a thing. Do not drop terms into your analysis to sound smart. Not all literary terms need to be defined for the examiner, if the argument and examples are coherent. 
  • Sweeping generalisations/evaluations: Avoid statements such as 'This is the most, greatest poem ever written'. Instead, comment on why the text is effective in achieving its purpose. 
  • Underwhelming 'purpose' statements: Writers do not write to just "capture the reader's attentions" or "make the reader understand the text." Instead write about how the writer and the writer's stylistic choices are effective in achieving a more detailed, topic-specific purpose. It's OK to say that the text makes the reader laugh. However, such comments begin to analyse the text. They do not evaluate the text's effectiveness.
  • Ill-defined audience: Whom does the text target? "He/she/they/it" is not a defined audience. Avoid bland statements such as "people who like poetry"
  • Inaccurate, airdropped quotations: "Downishness" is not a word nor does it appear in the poem. So why give it quotation marks? Make sure that your quotes are relevant to the point that you're making. Integrating quotes into your argument is best. 


Analysis is at the heart of English A: Language and Literature. It's good to know the language of analysis. It's OK to have a few go-to sentence structures. Be careful, though, to not over-apply them or use them inaccurately. See the language of analysis page on this site. 


The IB's approaches to teaching and learning highlight the importance of thinking skills. This bad analysis lacks critical thinking and does not have an argument. It helps to think of textual analysis as persuasive. Your job is to convince the examiner/teacher that your interpretation of a text is most insightful. For this, you will require critical thinking. What does critical thinking look like? See this page on model analysis

A special thanks to Phil Harrington for his contribution to this page. To make a contribution to this site, send your idea to Brad Philpot, 

Last modified: Monday, 18 March 2024, 5:09 PM