By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
Once upon a time, right here in the U.S. of A., people were ashamed to express themselves poorly. Today they are defiant about it. The few who still know and care how the English language is supposed to work are often called “grammar Nazis” by people who apparently know as much about 20th century history as they know about English, and who seemingly care that much about the untold millions of victims whose suffering is trivialized along with the word “Nazi.” To classify Strunk and White with Hitler and Goebbels even in jest is jejune and in bad taste. In other words, it’s right in tune with the times.
Standards are in free fall, and bad writing on the internet (in other words, most writing on the internet), does as much damage in hours as gross error formerly could achieve only in years. The reasons for the erosion lie beyond the scope of this article, but today’s English and communications departments must bear much of the responsibility—along with companies that persist in the quaint belief that hiring English and communications majors means they’re hiring competent writers and editors. We discovered, in researching another article, the wisdom of the ancient saying that a dead fish rots from the head—for according to the Department of Education, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality.”
Yes, in our strife-torn nation’s capital, even subjects and verbs can no longer agree.
So this means we can relax just a bit when writing an essay for college admissions or financial aid, right?
For one thing, there are few if any situations in which sub-standard writing is helpful. Many people who write poorly are complacent about it on the grounds that their ineptitude makes them seem like “just folks” and therefore has broad appeal. In fact the only people who might be reassured or charmed by bad writing are too ignorant to know it’s bad, so it doesn’t win them over—while it does alienate readers who know the difference. Despite the fact that standards are everywhere in decline, it’s best to assume that college admissions officers belong to the latter group—even though we often see grammatical errors in essay prompts.
We recommend our own article, Getting to Know You: the College Admissions Essay (June 8, 2018) for general guidelines, for an aerial view, as it were. In the present post we’ll bring things down to ground level with an examination of the types of errors we encounter most frequently in helping students with their writing.
Everything we will discuss is rather basic. I grew up in a small town in the Appalachian foothills, in a state that was never ranked higher than 48th in education, and these are mostly things we learned about in my ramshackle, malodorous, predominantly blue-collar elementary school, so y’all can all put the “I’m being oppressed by an elitist snob” card back in the deck.
We hope this article will be free of typos. We can promise the absence of typo’s.
Ten years ago, I shared an office with my department chairman, who was notorious for two things: his outrageous sense of humor and his insistence on giving a failing mark to any essay that contained a comma splice. He was immensely popular and was the principal’s right-hand man, but that was then. Today he’d be abominated on social media, and somebody’s parents would alert the local television station, which would dispatch a reporter to stand in front of the school with a microphone and a suitably grave expression, editorializing with her eyebrows. A comma splice should never happen, but nowadays it’s like somebody opened a can of them.
So what is a comma splice? Well, an independent clause has a subject and verb and can stand alone as a sentence, and a comma splice is what happens when you try to use a comma to put two independent clauses together. It’s what we’d have if I hadn’t put a conjunction after the comma in the middle of that sentence.
Incorrect: I hate turnip greens, they’re so stringy.
Correct: I hate turnip greens. They’re so stringy.
Correct: I hate turnip greens; they’re so stringy.
Correct: I hate turnip greens because they’re so stringy.
However, the most common of comma splices, in our experience, involves the word “however”:
Incorrect: Bucky loves the Steelers, however he’s cheering for Cleveland today.
Correct: Bucky loves the Steelers; however, he’s cheering for Cleveland today.
Correct: Bucky loves the Steelers. However, he’s cheering for Cleveland today.
Spare a thought for Bucky.
Other comma problems
“Paul I have the perfect gift for you.”
“We haven’t seen you in so long Paul.”
Now, class, how can we fix those? I know we’ve all heard about “Let’s eat Grandma.” I first heard about it in 1986, which is why I haven’t laughed on most of the 127,382 occasions it’s been shared with me since then. I tend to prefer the more recent “Patient will not eat diarrhea.”
Even outside the fascinating realm of gastronomy, a comma or lack thereof can alter the meaning of a sentence considerably:
“We went into the house where George Washington was born.”
“We went into the house, where George Washington was born.”
The second one almost sounds like you were there at the time, if not before.
Today I received an email offering me the opportunity to purchase “radiant, cultured pearls.” The alternative presumably would be glum pearls that are uncouth and poorly educated.
“Everyone got sick creating chaos.”
“Everyone got sick, creating chaos.”
Did they become ill while causing disorder, or did disorder result from their illness?
Then there was the sad case of Norris:
“The cat woke up when Norris went upstairs and started purring.” Please give generously: Your pennies will provide a comma after “upstairs” and return Norris to normal.
This is where we’ve witnessed the sharpest deterioration in recent years. It’s not easy for high school students to get this right if their teachers and The Associated Press can’t.
The most common error in this ballgame is “it’s” instead of “its.” An apostrophe should appear only in a contraction for “it is,” as in “It’s only fair that Tommy’s Little League team lost its first-place ranking after the pay-for-play scandal.”
And now for the really painful ones. Let’s not bother with subtlety:
AN APOSTROPHE IS NOT EMPLOYED TO FORM A PLURAL (except in the very rare cases we’ll get to shortly). Multiple porcine creatures are pigs, not pig’s. Multiple equine creatures are horses, not horse’s. If a noun ends in a vowel, it still doesn’t take an apostrophe, though it may undergo other changes. Thus we have potatoes and tomatoes, not potato’s and tomato’s. We continue to have pintos and limas, not pinto’s and lima’s.
The rules do not change for proper names. Richard Petty and his family are the Pettys, not the Petty’s. They also are not the Petties. I once knew some people named Robbins, and they thought they were the Robbins at times and the Robbins’ at others. In fact they were the Robbinses at all times.
It was indeed distressing, a few weeks ago, to watch people who claim to be professional writers try to provide an account of events at which the Obamas and the Bushes were present. The Obama’s and the Bush’s were big news.
Bushes and Bush’s: Know the difference!
Does anyone else remember Ricks College in Idaho, now known as BYU-Idaho? It was named after Thomas E. Ricks, but I used to see it written as Rick’s College, which put it on the same plane as Warren’s Barber Shop, where I used to get my hair cut when I was in third grade and learning this stuff.
None of this is hard. I rejoice that I have yet to see any reference, anywhere, to the Jone’s or the Jones’, but I’m sure my time is coming. The safe bet is on Yahoo News being the first to break the Jone’s Barrier.
There are a few exceptions to the rule about plurals, or variations on it anyway. Some style guides recommend using an apostrophe with numbers in certain circumstances, such as “1980’s.” We don’t see this as necessary, because the expression is clear without it. (Please note that it’s correct to write about the ‘80s but not the 80’s.) An apostrophe can also be helpful in pluralizing initials: “Clifford had sixty-seven IOU’s outstanding when Vito and Rocco arrived and invited him to go for a ride.”
Possessives are sometimes tricky, but not usually. If we’re writing about the tires on one car, they’re the car’s tires. If more than one car is involved, they’re the cars’ tires. If the car belongs to Mr. Robbins, it’s Mr. Robbins’ car. Some style guides would condone “Mr. Robbins’s car.” If it belongs to both Robbinses, it’s the Robbinses’ car. We can’t resist an image of Marty pursuing a hobby that certainly made perfect sense for a man with a serious heart condition.
“Hoyt was a no good slob from way back.” No. He was a no-good slob from way back. He was no good.
“No iron chinos!” a popular clothier trumpets in its catalog. I agree. I do not hanker after metallic trousers. “Abolish them forthwith!” is the cry chez Culp. Some all-cotton no-iron chinos would be most welcome, however. I don’t want to end up like Hoyt.
Often the matter of hyphenation depends on what part of speech a particular expression is. For example, “front row” can be used as a noun or adjectivally:
“Duffy sat in the front row at the early service,” but “Duffy had a front-row seat for the tomato fight.” No tomato’s were thrown. You’ll be wanting the second service for that sort of thing.
If you say, “I really respect that college and its first class president, P.U. Whitehead,” are you telling us that P.U. Whitehead was the first individual to hold the office of class president or that P.U. Whitehead was the chief executive of the institution and did an exemplary job?
Hyphens can help avert wounded feelings: “Sixty-odd students wrote essays” sounds so much less pejorative than “Sixty odd students wrote essays.”
A few minutes ago I saw a headline about a “model train club.” As written, it appears to be about a railroad club for all other railroad clubs to emulate. Model-train clubs presumably could learn a thing or two from it also, albeit on a smaller scale.
“Delbert is one of our better known alumni.” That’s why we’ve chosen him to place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Alumnus.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a “high ranking diplomat” is in the news. If they offer you brownies at an embassy reception, just say no.
Now let’s consider the choices I was offered yesterday on the website of an insurance company:
It made me want to get set up with a whole different setup, and to put a period on the entire experience.
Similarly, “login” seems to be used incorrectly more often than correctly nowadays.
Incorrect: “Login here to access your application.” As a verb, “log in” should be two words.
Correct: “Theron gave Trudy his login information so she could help him log in.” When used adjectivally, “log in” becomes one word or a hyphenate.
How nice it would be for our students if the colleges themselves would get this right, especially the pricey ones that claim to take only the most literate applicants.
I’m going to take a break here and have a quick lunch of “wild caught tuna.” I once tried to eat a wild tuna that hadn’t been caught yet, and it wasn’t an experience I’d care to repeat.
Misplaced or dangling modifiers
A misplaced modifier is just that, and a word-order adjustment usually will resolve the problem. A dangling modifier is one that is grammatically associated with a word other than the one the writer intends, or maybe with nothing in particular. Of all grammatical miscues, maladroit modifiers are the most likely to be amusing or indecent or both.
“We have a white girl’s sweater that somebody left at the concession stand.” Unless it has a Ku Klux Klan logo on it, don’t be too sure of that.
“I like to wear my lavender corduroy cowboy hat with the feather that bobs up and down in the fall.” Maybe it’s trying to fly south for the winter. If you love it, let it go. That might be best for everyone concerned.
“The next room was occupied by a man with a protruding chin named Davenport.” At least it wasn’t named Edna or Francine. That would be weird.
“While sailing through the air, Woody’s family was foremost in his mind.” He always wanted to join the family trapeze act but could only watch longingly from the sidelines as the Dangling Modifiers achieved immortality.
“Based off of,” “based out of,” and misuse of “based on”
I lived overseas from mid-2003 to mid-2006, and when I returned I found that a great many people had stopped saying “based on.” Apparently it didn’t sound important enough. The new trend was for “based off of,” which makes absolutely no sense, though of course it has the obvious advantage of making anyone sound like a backwater sportscaster who left college without his basket-weaving degree. Here’s an illustration I used to show my students:
The house on the left is based on its foundation. The house on the right is based off of it.
Then there’s “based out of.” If you tell me the Warner Wiener Company is based out of Milwaukee, I’m going to have to ask you where it is based, since it obviously isn’t in Brew City.
An almost universal error nowadays is the use of “based on” when “on the basis of” would be correct. “Based on” should be used to refer to a noun, while “on the basis of” refers to an action.
Correct: “Wendell’s error was based on his belief that Santa was real.” In this case, “based on” refers to “error.”
Incorrect: “Wendell erred based on his belief that Santa was real.” We could correct this by saying that “Wendell erred on the basis of his belief that Santa was real.” He had a devil of a time paying for college. As Stevie Wonder said, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.”
“Everyday” for “every day.”
“Every day” when used adverbially is two words. When used adjectivally it’s one word. When I was a news editor, we had among our writers a recent Harvard graduate who drove the editors to distraction with this. He never learned. Almost every day, he wrote “everyday” instead of “every day.” It was an everyday occurrence.
Dwight D. Eisenhower once observed that “you can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” Whether this is universally true, I do not know, but my experience was about the same as Ike’s.
There are actually rules about this. I know because I learned them in the early elementary grades. Proper nouns require capitalization. Common nouns do not, even if they are important, nor do other parts of speech. Your Uncle Otis might be a big-time football coach, but he is not a Football Coach or a football Coach. It might be that he sometimes works with troubled youth, but he doesn’t work with Troubled Youth or troubled Youth or Troubled youth. We hope his Program is not on Probation, but some times the ncaa does this to big time coach’s.
Educational institutions differ from one another in how they treat the names of subjects and departments, but generally it’s incorrect to capitalize those. Your cerebral Aunt Eula is a physicist, not a Physicist; her field is physics, not Physics. (Note our use of the semicolon to avoid a comma splice.) Depending on where she teaches, it might be in the Physics Department, but probably it’s in the physics department.
However, the name of a subject or department is capitalized if it involves a proper noun. I have been surprised to encounter students who don’t realize that “English” and “French” require capitalization. So do the personal pronoun “I” and the first word in a sentence. More and more students reach the latter stages of high school without knowing these things. i see it all most everyday
Vague pronoun references
“When the villagers came upon the horses, they ran down the slope toward the woods, where Bad Brad and his henchmen lay in wait.” To whom or what does “they” refer? Did the villagers run? The horses? Villagers and horses?
The pronoun is supposed to refer to something that came before, the antecedent. Which is the antecedent here, “villagers” or “horses”? The sentence needs a rewrite to make the meaning clear.
Bad Brad became very confused and retired to a monastery. The end.
We see vague pronoun references a lot. Not alot. And definitely not everyday.
And on a related point:
“As such” misused
“As such” is a mighty fine expression. We like it, when it’s used correctly. It seldom is. The “such” in “as such” is a pronoun and thus is supposed to have an antecedent. It should refer to something the writer or speaker has already mentioned, but not just any old something.
Correct: “I am a Taoist. As such, I believe Taoism explains the mystery of the universe.” The “such” refers to “Taoist.”
Incorrect: “Taoism explains the mystery of the universe. As such, I am a Taoist.” The “such” refers to nothing—unless you mean to say that you are the mystery of the universe. Honestly, it’s time to get over the big ideas your mother used to whisper in your ear late at night during hard times. Or maybe the “such” refers to Taoism, in which case you’ve stated that inasmuch as you are Taoism, you’re a Taoist. As Mama used to say, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.
“As such” is not a synonym for “therefore” or “hence” or “that being the case,” but its common usage as such (see how I did that?) probably stems from the tendency of the popular media to be simultaneously self-important and inept.
Considering the egregious example being set by adults in positions of verbal responsibility, it’s easy to see how the young are easily misled, if not mislead. The results often are unintentionally funny and occasionally obscene. We have seen this occur with some of our students and would like to think that we have saved them considerable trouble by addressing the problem. Apparently there’s more to grammatical expertise than genocide, global war, and police-state terror. I even gave away my jackboots to a television reporter who didn’t have any.
Applying for college usually involves multiple essays, with the financial aid process adding to the load. Essays offer students a chance to distinguish themselves, and we at The Coaching Educator are proud of our essay coaching program based on (not off of, around, or out of) the Oxford tutorial system. It’s just one component of our wide range of services that help students target the right college, navigate the application process, secure the financial aid they need, and achieve academic success. We also offer additional services to help athletes and performing artists showcase their talents. To learn more about what we can do for you, please read our blog regularly, follow us on Facebook, and book a free consultation with us today.
Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level. He has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.
Still life by Paul Culp, Richard Petty by WTOP, Marty Robbins by Columbia Records and Thetruthaboutcars, George and Barbara Bush by AP/Eric Gay, Bush’s Beans by Bush’s Beans, Eisenhower by Francis “Red” Grandy, and Harvard by Time.
Culp, Paul. “Getting to Know You: the College Admissions Essay,” The Coaching Educator, 8 June 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/06/08/getting-to-know-you-the-college-admissions-essay/
Culp, Paul. “The Prez, the Prov, the Profs, the Veep, and the Redge: Who’s Who on Campus,” The Coaching Educator, 17 December 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/12/17/the-prez-the-prov-the-profs-the-veeps-and-the-redge-whos-who-on-campus/
Culp, Paul. “What Accreditation Is and Why It Counts,” The Coaching Educator, 10 October 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/10/16/what-accreditation-is-and-why-it-counts/
“15 Common Grammar Mistakes that Kill Your Writing Credibility,” Authority Pub, https://authority.pub/common-grammar-mistakes/, accessed 29 December 2018.
“When ‘as such’ isn’t such a good idea.” Grammarphobia, 17 September 2010, https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/09/as-such.html