Grammar Check: College Admissions Essay Help (page 4)
Understanding the word usage issues that can plague high school writers is the first step towards improving your essay. When you know which words to use, and why, you'll be able to tell your story more forcefully, and with greater clarity and precision. There are rules that govern the use of those words, so making sure that you're following them is important. Here, we'll look at the most common errors made by high school writers, and explain how to avoid them.
Grammar Check: A Warning
If you're thinking about skipping this chapter and just running a grammar check on your computer instead, here are a few words of caution: the program isn't foolproof. Grammar programs make mistakes, both by missing errors and by flagging things that are actually correct. They also suggest corrections that are themselves errors. Think your grammar check is better than most? A number of studies comparing the effectiveness of various programs found them to per form about the same (fair to poor).
The first problem, missing errors, is addressed in this chapter. You'll find explanations for the most common types of grammatical mistakes missed by grammar check programs, including comma and apostrophe use, verb tense shifts, vague pronoun references, incorrect pronoun agreement, run-on sentences, and fragments.
When grammar check does highlight an error, it may be a mistake. But if your knowledge of grammar is limited, you won't know whether to accept the correction. To further complicate matters, you may be offered more than one possible correction, and will be asked to choose between them. Unless you're familiar enough with the specific problem, this may be no more than a guess on your part.
While there have been improvements in computer grammar checking, nothing is more effective than a careful review of your writing after using the program. Our list of proofreading tips on page 84 offers a number of great suggestions.
Subject /Verb Agreement
Agreement refers to number—if you have a singular subject, you need a singular verb. Plural subjects take plural verbs. To achieve subject/verb agreement, first determine whether your subject is singular or plural, and then pair it with the correct verb form.
The following examples use the verb to be, which is irregular (I am, you are, he/she/it is, they are, I was, you were, he/she/it was, they were):
- Instead of: Tim and Fran is a great couple.
- Write: Tim and Fran are a great couple. (Tim and Fran is a plural subject that takes a plural verb.)
- Instead of: One of my friends are going to your school.
- Write: One of my friends is going to school. (One is a singular subject takes a singular verb.)
When it Gets Tricky
Agreement can be difficult to determine when sentences are complex, or when the subject is compound (made up of more than one noun). Common examples include sentences in which the subject follows the verb, and those beginning with there is and there are, and here is and here are. When editing your work, remember to first figure out whether your subject is singular or plural, and then match it to the correct verb.
- Instead of: There is too many meetings scheduled on Tuesday morning.
- Write: There are too many meetings scheduled on Tuesday morning.
- Instead of: Here are the report you asked me to write.
- Write: Here is the report you asked me to write.
When compound subjects are connected by and (pencils and pens) they are plural. When they're connected by or (World War I or World War II) they are singular. Confusion can set in when the nouns forming the compound subject are both singular and plural, and are connected by or. Here are two examples:
- Lee or his friends are driving too fast.
- Was it his friends or Lee who was driving too fast?
Both sentences are correct, because when you have a compound subject made up of at least one singular subject and one plural subject connected by or, the verb must agree with the subject that is closest to it. In the first case, friends is plural, so the plural verb are is correct. In the second, Lee is singular, so the singular was is correct.
Run-on Sentences and Fragments
College counselor Susan Goodkin names run-on sentences as one of the most common errors on the admissions essays that she reviews. Run-on sentences are formed by incorrectly joining two or more independent clauses, which are com plete sentences that could stand on their own. Take a look at the following sentence:
- I was on the soccer team, however I enjoy playing golf.
This sentence contains two independent clauses: / was on the soccer team and I enjoy playing golf. Because they can stand alone, they can't be joined with a comma. Run-on sentences can be corrected by breaking them into two or more complete sentences, by adding a conjunction (a connecting word such as and, but, yet, or so), or by changing the punctuation.
Here's a corrected version:
- I was on the soccer team, and I also enjoy playing golf.
Let's look at another example:
- When spring break is over, we will get back to work, there will be plenty of studying to do before finals.
The clause when spring break is over is correctly attached to we will get back to work with a comma. But the second independent clause, there will be plenty of studying to do before finals cannot be joined to the first with only a comma. It is a complete sentence that can stand alone, so if it remains part of the longer sentence, it must be connected with a period or semicolon.
Fragments are groups of words that are presented as sentences but lack a subject, a verb, or both. Consider the following:
- The well-dressed man
- Walked to school in the rain.
In the first fragment, the verb is missing. All we have is a subject. What did the well-dressed man do? In the second fragment, the subject is missing. Who walked in the rain? To correct sentence fragments, determine what is missing (subject or verb) and add it. Note that number of words has nothing to do with distinguish ing fragments from sentences—fragments can be long! Let's look at the following:
- Instead of: My older sister Ellen, who traveled to Japan.
- Write: My older sister Ellen traveled to Japan.
- Instead of: Taking a taxi when it is raining to keep her shoes from being ruined by the water.
- Write: Taking a taxi when it is raining keeps her shoes from being ruined by the water.
Apostrophes are used to form contractions, indicate possession or ownership, and form certain plurals. Eight rules cover all of the situations in which they may appear:
- Add '5 to form the singular possessive, even when the noun ends in s:
- The school's lunchroom needs to be cleaned.
- The drummer's solo received a standing ovation.
- Mr. Perkins's persuasive essay was very convincing.
- A few plurals, not ending in s, also form the possessive by adding 's:
- The children's toys were found in every room of the house.
- The line for the women's restroom was too long.
- Men's shirts come in a variety of neck sizes.
- Possessive plural nouns already ending in s need only the apostrophe added:
- The customers' access codes are confidential.
- The students' grades improved each semester.
- The flight attendants' uniforms were blue and white.
- Indefinite pronouns show ownership by the addition of's:
- Everyone's hearts were in the right place.
- Somebody's dog was barking all night.
- It was no one's fault that we lost the game.
- Possessive pronouns never have apostrophes, even though some may end ins:
- Our car is up for sale.
- Your garden is beautiful.
- His handwriting is difficult to read.
- Use an 's to form the plurals of letters, figures, and numbers used as words, as well as certain expressions of time and money:
- She has a hard time pronouncing s's.
- My street address contains three 5's.
- The project was the result of a year's worth of work.
- Show possession in the last word when using names of organizations and businesses, in hyphenated words, and in joint ownership:
- Sam and Janet's graduation was three months ago.
- I went to visit my great-grandfather's alma mater.
- The Future Farmers of America's meeting was moved to Monday.
- Apostrophes form contractions by taking the place of the missing letter or number.
- We're going out of town next week.
- She's going to write the next proposal.
- My supervisor was in the class of '89.
The number one apostrophe error occurs with the simple word it. The addition of 's to the word it doesn't form the possessive, but rather the contraction it's, meaning it is. The possessive form of the word (meaning belonging to it) has no apostrophe. If you're not sure which one to use, substitute it is-- if it works, you need the apostrophe.
Misplacing commas, or leaving them out when they're called for, can confuse meaning and create sloppy writing. The following six rules will guide you in the correct usage of commas.
- Use a comma to separate items in a series, including the last two items. This comma is known as the serial comma.
- Right: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
- Wrong: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
- Use a comma with the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, and yet. Remember the mnemonic FANBOY to join two independent clauses.
- He left for the Bahamas, but she went to Mexico.
- I am neither excited about the idea, nor am I even thinking about using it.
- Use a comma to separate adjectives when the word and makes sense between them
- That was the most depressing, poorly directed movie I've ever seen!
- Wrong: It was a bleak, November day.
- Wrong: He wore a bright, red tie.
- Use a comma after introductory phrases.
- Since she is leaving on vacation next Friday, she scheduled a replacement for her shift.
- As the group considered the effect of the gas tax, they asked many citizens to share their opinions.
- Use commas to set off words and phrases that are not an integral part of the sentence.
- Jill, Jack's wife, works at the bank.
- Henry's penchant for one-liners, while annoying to his family, delights his friends.
- Use commas to set off quotations, dates, and titles.
- Napoleon is said to have remarked, "The word 'impossible' is not in my dictionary."
- On July 4,1776, the United States of America declared its independence.
- Robert Zia, MD, is my general practitioner.
Shifts are movements from one form to another. In grammar, the three most common shifts involve verb tenses, pronouns, and the active/passive voice. When these movements are made accidentally, they can cause confusion. Shifts are also one of the College Board's favorite grammatical errors—expect to see a few examples in the SAT Writing section.
Verb tenses must be consistent within each sentence and paragraph. Because they represent time (past, present, and future), shifting them can cause confusion. Consider the following:
- If you make a mistake, your grade went down.
If you make a mistake refers to something that may happen in the future. But grade went down is in the past tense. We don't know if the speaker is referring to something that already happened, or something that may happen. The key to avoiding verb tense shifts is to be aware of the tense you're writing in, and use it consistently. Consider the following:
- Instead of: I had never been to London, but I will feel right at home there.
- Write: I had never been to London, but I felt right at home there.
- Instead of: Last year, the governor said he is campaigning for our candidate.
- Write: Last year, the governor said he would campaign for our candidate.
Pronouns take the place of nouns and may be masculine or feminine, singular or plural. Shifting pronoun types within a sentence is another way to confuse your reader. Consider the following:
- If they want to succeed, one should study diligently for tests.
The pronoun they is plural, but one is singular. The reader has to guess: is the author speaking about a group or an individual? Correcting shifts in pronouns means being aware of whether the subject you're replacing is singular or plural, masculine or feminine. The pronoun one is often at the root of the problem. It's often easiest to keep pronouns from shifting by replacing one or more of them with a more specific word. Here are a couple of examples:
- Instead of: If one is careful, they can avoid additional cable television fees.
- Write: If cable television subscribers are careful, they can avoid additional fees.
- Instead of: We asked about interest rates for our mortgage, and found out you could lock in at any time.
- Write: We asked about interest rates for our mortgage, and found out we could lock in at any time.
The third type of shift occurs when moving incorrectly from the active to passive voice, or vice versa. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action; in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Keep in mind that in most situations, the active voice is preferred. To correct the shift, change the passive part of the sentence to match the active one. Consider the following:
- Lea bought the sushi, and it was eaten by her children.
In this example, the first part of the sentence is written in the active voice; the subject (Lea) performs the action (bought). However, in the second part, the subject (it, or the sushi) receives the action (was eaten). To continue the active voice, the sentence should be corrected to read:
- Lea bought the sushi, and her children ate it.
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