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From the
Other Side
Grammar Hell
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2003 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
 Thanks to Phil Geusz for the title! 

If your wondering. Theres a true story behind the title above. If youd like want to here it just keep reading.

Sadly, there is no humor in Mudville today -- or in this column. For the last year and a half, I've been in grammar hell. I've been working as an adjunct at a local college -- which will remain unnamed -- and while some of my students are an absolute joy, I have a healthy minority with surprisingly poor grammatical skills. I've always felt that anyone using words had a responsibility to do it right, or at least "give it the old college try". If I were trying to be humorous, I might say something like, "I guess that phrase refers to some other college", but that's not really fair either. The real crime here is that some of my students have been poorly prepared by their public school systems. In a few cases, they have been so poorly prepared that they honestly don't even know that there is a problem. Unfortunately, I teach "Introduction to Psychology" rather than "English Composition" and there is no way that I'm going to be able to do that and teach them everything else they need to know, which is frustrating. It's hard not to feel like I'm failing them.

As I said, I've been doing this for about a year and a half. During that time, I've begun to see a pattern form, which I've demonstrated in the first paragraph. I've come to the opinion that there are actually a limited number of very common mistakes that, if fixed, would greatly improve the overall writing skills of my students. When I've been able to get one of my students to seriously consider these few issues, it's clearly improved their writing skills. If it can improve theirs, it can improve yours. The remainder of this column describes the four most common mistakes, mistakes that are surprisingly easy to avoid and which could make a significant difference in the quality of writing of my students -- or you.

1. "There" vs. "Their" vs. "They're"

I don't know why, but not recognizing the difference between these three words seems to be the single most common cluster of mistakes.




There 1. Identifies a place 1. There [on the mantle] is a clock.
2. In the matter of 2. There is a good point to what you say.
3. To or toward a place (and away from the speaker). 3. Go there around midnight.
Their The possessive form of "they".

NOTE: Remember to keep track of number. "Their" refers to more than one, so "he" or "she" does not go with "their".

Their store is nice.

WRONG -- "It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their characters as 'cutouts'."
RIGHT -- "It is fatal for anyone who writes to think about his or her characters as 'cutouts'."
DEBATABLE -- More and more people are using "their" in place of "his" or "hers" in such sentences as "Jack and Jill took their pail up the hill." Actually, they are flip-flopping back and forth between singular and plural pronouns. It's being done, and I guess it's acceptable in dialogue, but please not in the narrative portion of a story.

They're Contraction of "they are". They're all going to the movies.

2. "You're" vs. "Your"




You're Contraction of "you are". You're right,. i.e., the person you are talking to is correct.
Your Possessive form of "you". Belonging to you. Your right, not mine, i.e., the right side of the person to whom you are speaking.

3. "Like"

The problem here is not that people misunderstand the use of the word, but that they use it in a form it was not intended to be used. Instead of using it to discuss a preference, they use it as slang, as a 'filler' word. For example:

Right: I like chocolate cake.

Wrong: I, like, think he's cool.

I guess I should qualify this a bit, because my students are supposed to be writing professional quality, fact-based papers; in that context, it's easy for me to say that "like" should only be used to describe a preference. If you're writing fiction, you can get away with using "like" as the slang term, but only as part of dialog -- never as part of your descriptive writing.

4. Sentence Fragments

A basic sentence has three parts: A noun (or pronoun), a verb, and an object. The noun is a person, place or thing (e.g., George, Paris, Meteors, He). The verb is an action (come, go, sit, think). The object is another noun or pronoun that is affected by the verb. For example:

Right: The cat sat in the hat.

Noun Verb Object
cat sat hat

Wrong: The cat in the hat.

Noun Verb Object
cat (none) hat

Wrong: He went.

Noun Verb Object
he went (none)
Note: In this case, the noun -- "he" -- is actually a pronoun, but who's counting? There are a few instances where a sentence doesn't actually need an object -- TSAT's editors even suggested one, "Jesus wept." -- but there are few and far between, so it's much safer to just make sure your sentences actually have an object.

Wrong (usually): Do it.

Noun Verb Object
(none) do it
Note: In a forceful statement (i.e., a command) like this, the noun is generally presumed to be the person or thing to whom the command is directed. Even so, don't try this often -- it's easy to slip up.

I ask my students to watch for these problems, but not all of them listen. Hopefully, you writers will. I spend enough time in grammar hell reading homework assignments; please don't make me live there when I read for enjoyment too!

Definitions, and some examples, compliments of Dictionary.com.

Jeffrey M. Mahr
Senior Editor, Infinite Imagination eBooks

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