5 Simple Grammar Mistakes That Even Smart Students Make
Incorrect: Mark Williams and me are going to see Southside Johnny at the Music Box
Correct: Mark Williams and I are going to see Southside Johnny at the Music Box.
Looking back, I don’t blame mom. No other aspect of cultural capital more readily marks an educated person than his or her ability to consistently speak and write grammatically correct English.
As the author of How To Talk American (Houghton Mifflin), I am all about spicing up one’s speaking and writing from a wide vernacular palette. However, if you say “we wuz” or “I be” without your learned tongue planted firmly in cheek, then you will struggle to maintain credibility in all but the most mercenary and low-brow circles.
For instance, as we head to the NCAA Basketball Final Four, it’s embarrassing that American television networks do not require, as a condition of employment, that their well-paid sports commentators – and, thus, linguistic role models – speak grammatically correct English. C’mon, gentlemen, “He played well.” He didn’t “play good.” Here’s a simple test employers can give on the use of “well” and “good.”
Such communication sloppiness carries over into all your affairs. Moreover, it’s not just about knowing when to write or say “affect” or “effect,” “its” or “it’s,” “lay” or “lie,” “who” or “whom” or “well” and “good.” Our grammatical sloppiness is even more basic than those common bugaboos.
I never majored in English. Moreover, I took only one college Journalism class (which I nearly failed). Therefore, I am hardly a grammar expert, even as I esteem it highly. I have had to learn it piecemeal, like most students before me, through arduous trial and egregious error. A quick perusal of even this post reveals that I am far from perfect.
This is why I want to make your life easier by listing five basic grammatical mistakes that students make not only in the classroom, but also – absent compassionate correction by a mindful mentor – in the work world as well.
Missing Comma after Introductory Element
This one is hard to remember for those of us who had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style drilled into our brains at a tender age. You see, Messieurs Strunk and White averred the overuse of commas. I, like others, have run scared of the comma ever since. As Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl) informed me via email, “The comma is the most versatile (and therefore confusing) mark in the English language.” Over many podcasts and blog posts on the subject, GG found that students get most tripped up by forgetting to use a comma after an “introductory element.”
Incorrect: During her tenure as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used her private email account to conduct government business.
Correct: During her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used her private email account to conduct government business.
Yes, Nikolai Lobachevsky upended dear old Euclid’s fifth postulate to prove that parallel lines do, in fact, converge (way out there past galaxy MACS0647-JD). Back here on earth, however, we act as if the fifth postulate is as valid as ever.
This is particularly true when it comes to lists. Make sure each one has proper parallel structure.
Not Parallel: Kids like singing, chatting, and obsessively check their phones.
Parallel: Kids like singing, chatting, and obsessively checking their phones.
“There Are” Sentences
Guilty as charged here. Fortunately, GG compassionately reassured me that “It’s not wrong to start sentences with ‘there are,’ but you can often do better by rewriting your sentence a different way.”
If you want to get wonky, sentences that begin with “There is” or “There are” are said to have “expletive construction.” Not because they are foul, but because they violate traditional subject-verb sentence structure, leaving the reader wondering what the actual subject is. Grammar Girl recommends substituting a subject.
Weak: There are many ways people find to misuse commas.
Better: People misuse commas in many ways.
Mechanical Problems with Quotations
In the U.S., periods go inside closing quotation marks. However, semicolons, dashes and colons go outside closing quotation marks. Does this make any sense? Not to my way of thinking. If a period goes inside, why not a semicolon too? Nevertheless, it’s how we roll over here. Period.
Incorrect: “The first time Jim Monk ran into Michael Monk was the beginning of a lifelong friendship”.
Correct: “The first time Jim Monk ran into Michael Monk was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”
As GG reminds her readers, spellchecking software often does not catch apostrophe errors. Therefore, if you’re penning that paper on Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology last minute in the middle of the night, you may want to edit it carefully come morning.
By James Marshall Crotty, posted on forbes.com