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College Essays: Eight Grammatical Blunders to Avoid

“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.” – Michel de Montaigne.

krisatcomputerAs a college consultant, I have suggested edits for thousands of essays. I am in awe of the imagination and honesty of American teenagers;  I never grow tired of reading their essays. In our post-Latin and post-sentence diagramming world, however, there are common grammatical and spelling errors (or simply examples of poor style) that I repeatedly see. In this post, I would like to make you and your high school student aware of eight blunders to avoid, aided by our old pals, Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style, and Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. 

205px-Winston_Churchill_1941_photo_by_Yousuf_Karsh1. Dangling Prepositions. Sir Winston Churchill famously responded to a priggish civil servant’s memo objecting to ending sentences with prepositions by writing, “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!”  A preposition is a word describing where, when or how.  Strunk and White warn against using the “dreaded” dangling preposition. Say, “Rebecca is the girl with whom I want to go,” instead of saying, “Rebecca is the girl whom I want to go with.” However, colloquial culture dangles prepositions so routinely that correcting this practice in a college essay may sound forced and unnatural (or a direct give-away that one has worked with an essay coach). If so, create a different sentence altogether, such as, “I want to go with Rebecca,” that avoids the dangling preposition but does not sound affected, inauthentic or from a distant century.

whos_on_first2.  Who’s on First? Students often become confused about when to use who, and when to use whom. Who is a subject pronoun, and whom is an object pronoun, or the object of a verb or preposition.  For example, one should say, “Michael Phelps is the Olympic swimmer who [subject] we think will win in Rio,” but one should say, “Michael Phelps is the Olympic swimming whom [object] we want to see in Rio.” Using whom when you should be using who sounds especially silly, so when in doubt, avoid a sentence construction that raises the question of whether to use who or whom.

3. Using Subject Pronouns as Objects of a Preposition. As the daughter of an English teacher, I wince when someone says, “between he and I.” This error was probably originated by a person who was not taught diagramming as we were in the olden days, who honestly did not know that a preposition must be followed by an object pronoun. (Subject/object pronouns are: I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, who/whom.)  Not knowing which form to use, this person chose the pronouns that sounded more proper, “he and I.” Others heard this erroneous construction; since they were not trained in diagramming either, it sounded good to them, so they started using it, and it spread like wildfire. When I explain this nails-on-a-chalkboard error to applicants seeking essay help, they tenaciously defend its correctness, because it is simply what they have always heard.  I beg them to trust me. Please write, “between him and me,” no matter how wrong it sounds in your ear. It is correct!

COMPUTERINDIANMOM4. When To Use Italics versus Quotation Marks for Titles. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s the whole thing, use italics, and if it is a part of the whole thing, use quotation marks. For example, a book title should be in italics, but the chapter of a book should be in quotations. It is the same for a newspaper or magazine article; the title of the publication itself should be in italics, but the title of the individual article should be in quotation marks. Take the extra time to do this correctly, since you are applying to an institution of higher learning, and they will not be impressed if you are careless about proper form when citing a source. You will write many research papers in college, and the admissions people would like to be able to assume you already possess some expertise in this area.

5. It’s versus Its. Yes! High school writers make mistakes with these two words all the time. Here’s the deal: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” and “its” is a possessive pronoun. I believe the confusion stems from the fact that a possessive noun uses an apostrophe followed by an s (i.e., “Joe’s place”). It is just the opposite with the possessive pronoun its. English is a tricky language, filled with exceptions and contradictions, which makes it so much fun.

marktwain6. “Very” Much Use of “Very”.  They say that great creative writers use one powerful, accurately descriptive adjective rather than intensify a ho-hum adjective with an adverb like “very”. For example, rather than saying, “very brave,” you might say, “intrepid.”  One such creative writer, Mark Twain, despised the use of the word very. He once wittily remarked, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write, ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

7. Too Much Poetic License. As a blogger and author, I take occasional poetic license to create dramatic effect. Judgment must be applied, however, when deciding whether to use poetic license in a college essay. Should a sentence fragment be used to dramatize the story being told? If the student is a superb writer, as evidenced by a beautiful, sophisticated, and otherwise grammatically correct essay, the student “earns the right” to take poetic license to create an effect, because the admissions reader will understand that it is intentional. If the writer also has straight As in AP English and high verbal SAT scores, the admissions reader “gets it.” However, for most students, especially those for whom English is not their strong suit, I suggest avoiding poetic license and sticking to the letter of the law in college essays.

What have I done!?8. Over-reliance on Spellcheck. I am a self-avowed word-loving nutcase, who used to read the dictionary as a child, because I loved word etymology, nuances in meaning between synonyms, and determination of alternate spellings and usage. I was bursting with pride years ago when my niece went to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. I was horrified, however, when the angelic middle school spellers were accosted by protesters from the American Literacy Council. My first thought was, “How can people be against spelling?” (This protest group seeks more simplified, phonetically-based English spelling, abandoning the sometimes archaic, but rich, eclectic patchwork quilt of histories that makes up our language.) Yes, English is a tricky language. It is so easy, when writing an essay in Microsoft Word, to simply accept the standards of the spellcheck tool, which operates robotically regardless of context. But how can a spellchecker tell a writer when to use affect versus effect, in all their multiple, subtle meanings as nouns and verbs? Turn off the computer once in a while, trust your knowledge of words and meanings. Use the Force, Luke.

I close this post with a few beloved lines from “Why Can’t the English?” a song from Lerner and Lowe’s comedic masterpiece, My Fair Lady. Phoneticist Henry Higgins, immortalized by British actor Rex Harrison, could have been commenting on college application essays when he laments the fact that so many cannot speak properly:

Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? 
This verbal class distinction by now should be antique. 
If you spoke as she does, sir, Instead of the way you do, 
Why, you might be selling flowers, too!