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The Grammar Nazi

 

Grammar Diatribe

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This page is too long, by all current standards of "good" web page length. But what am I to do? Applicants keep making stupid grammar mistakes. So please learn to write, so I can shorten this section.

Year after year, January encroaches on my tranquility.  Every time I have to tear myself away from my beautiful Christmas tree, my holiday baking, and my music to read the substandard atrocities that pass for writing among the youth of America, blah, blah, blah...  And my gripe is not that some of you don't know these things. It's that people with grades above 3.5 don't know them.  Why, when I was in school, [more blah, blah, blah] ...

I've decided to vent my utter disgust by making a list of the things I hate the most.  All of you will benefit by reading this section.  My clients, however, will be required to adhere to it before sending ANYTHING to me, while the rest of you will be free to continue making the same mistakes that you're making now.  

So here is a list, in no particular order:

"Unique" means "one of a kind."  THE ONLY ONE IN THE WHOLE APPLICANT POOL.  It doesn't mean "kinda special."  Almost certainly, you're not unique. And if you are, wouldn't a little humility be nice?  

pinochle cards

"A deck of pinochle cards is unique in that no card is unique."

  • COMPARATIVES COMPARE.   Better, happier, more studious ... than what?  Balancing or juggling school work ... with what?  
  • The word "who" is a substitute for "that" when referring to people.  Many of you have never seen this word.  Try to learn it.  
  • The past tense of "choose" is "chose." 
  • "Loose" and "lose" are two different words. 
  • "Cite," "site," and "sight" are three different words.  The preceding sentence is punctuated properly.  
  • "Accept" and "except" are different words.  
  • "A lot" and "allot" are different words.  
  • "Apart" does not mean "a part"
  • "Due to the fact that...."  or "because"?  When writing an essay with a page limit, I'd go with the shorter one.

Commas, semicolons, colons, and periods are not interchangeable.  

Semicolons and periods separate independent clauses.  Commas and colons separate dependent clauses or phrases.  An easy way to remember this is that a semicolon has a period in it; if you couldn't use a period there, you can't use a semicolon.
She said that I should take a Criminal Justice semester; specifically all of the law oriented classes that were available.

Could you put a period there?  No.  Then the semicolon is wrong.  

And she was right, I knew within days that law was my future.

Could you put a period there?  Yes.  Then the comma is wrong; you need the mark with a period in it, the semicolon.

If you don't know what any of those words mean, get the Harbrace Handbook and look them up. Or just Google them; there's more grammar on the internet than you can imagine. 

The Purdue Owl has a great online writing lab; so does Grammarly-dot-com. Feel free to choose your own site, but only if it's at least this good.

Word Pyramids

In addition to grammar, sentence structure is one of my peeves. Law schools' essays are the opposite of college term papers in one way:  You're trying to make them shorter, not longer.  Thus, in the choice of

  • now,
  • right now
  • at this time,
  • at this particular time,
  • at this point in time,
  • at this particular point in time,

opt for "now."  [NOTE that the period goes inside the quotation mark.  I know it makes no sense; that's where it goes. I'm told that the British reverse the two.] For more on conciseness, try using Zinsser.

Apostrophes -- if you want to put one in that word, you need this lesson.  If you think I'm stupid to care, you need this lesson.  

Gerunds and Possessives -- don't even know what that means, huh?  You're sick of my telling you about these things?  If you think that "my" is a typo, click here.

When?

Every day.  That's two words.  Oh, yeah, sometimes it's one word, but not all the time.  

Every day I read essays, and every day I see errors in grammar; my frustration is thus an everyday experience.

When "day" is the object of a sentence and "every" modifies it, it's two words.  When "every" and "day" both modify some other word (like "experience" above), it's one word.  

If you have trouble with that, look up compound modifiers. Here's a good explanation.  

Any place and anyplace are both correct sometimes; neither is correct all the time.  ("Is" is correct in the preceding sentence.)  Two words are hyphenated or combined when used as a modifier, and separated when one functions as a noun.  

Here are examples from Grammarly's predecessor,Webstar:

  • A clear decision-making process was evident in their decision making.
  • The bluish grey was slowly disappearing from the bluish-grey sky.

Pronouns as Objects -- especially the pronoun "I."  "I" is never an object.  (I am never an object, either, but we'll save alienation in society for another day.)  My sister Ardell and I had dinner in Los Angeles; my client Paul met with my sister and me there.  If anything in that sentence looks wrong, click here.

Idioms

"You'd better tow the line, boy."  Ouch!  Tugboats tow lines; people toe them.  (That little mark after "lines" is called a semicolon.  It is not interchangeable with a comma; it's interchangeable with a period.  Don't know that rule? Click here.)

toetheline

Verbs— Impacted?

v. im·pact·ed, im·pact·ing, v. tr.

1. To pack firmly together.
2. To strike forcefully:

3. Usage Problem. Word usage does evolve:

In 2000: Eighty-four percent of the Usage Panel disapproves of the construction "to impact on"... ; fully 95 percent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb in the sentence,"Companies have used disposable techniques that have a potential for impacting our health."

In 2018: "The verb impact has developed the transitive sense “to have an impact or effect on” ( The structured reading program has done more to impact the elementary schools than any other single factor ) and the intransitive sense “to have an impact or effect” ( The work done at the computer center will impact on the economy of Illinois and the nation ). Although recent, the new uses are entirely standard and most likely to occur in formal speech and writing."

To Lead:

The past tense of "lead" is "led;"  the past tense of "mislead" is "misled"  The past tense of "read" is not "red."  "Lead" pronounced as "led" refers to a metal, or the stuff inside a pencil (which used to be lead, but is now carbon, since lead is toxic).

lead pencils 

Who-Whom-Whose?

"Who" is a subject pronoun; "whom" is an object.  The easy mnemonic is who = he, whom = him, whose = his. E.g. "Scores came out late enough that they left us all scrambling to review lists of schools to whose admissions officers we wanted to speak."  (That’s grammatically correct; if you thought it wasn’t, check here.) You can thank Sister John Regina, my 6th grade teacher, for that device.

[Sic]

That's the editing mark that means, "That error was the author's, not mine."  I've been using it a lot lately.  In fact, here are two errors that are really laughable:

"As a teenager, my father had to move in with his uncle, a dentist, because his parents (both deceased) could not afford to keep him in the house."  I guess not; being deceased does make it harder to earn a living.  

"While studying abroad in Italy second semester Junior year (a necessary relief from New York at 9/11), my 82 year old grandmother disappeared, likely due to her Alzheimer's, and was never seen since."  How awful!  But what a fabulous woman she was, studying abroad at 82!  

The moral of the story is, if you don't want people to laugh at your dear departed, don't write funny sentences about them.  I could also point out that the relief wasn't really "necessary," or all of Manhattan would have been evacuated.

Typo of the year:

"As a teenager, I studied marital arts extensively, often practicing twice a day."  

Do applicants to top schools really write like this?  Definitely.  And this isn't even the worst stuff, just the funniest.  The bad stuff is just plain bad.  

Run-on sentences

Run-on sentences are not just long sentences.  Long sentences can be grammatically correct, and perfectly wonderful.  Here are two examples:

Huge spools spun cellulose too fast to see while thousands of pristine white cigarettes flowed down tracks and were fed into veins that configured them in rows of 7-6-7 for soft packs and 6-7-7 for flip-top boxes before a plunger kicked them into a packet where they were wrapped in double-wide foil which was married to blanks that were labeled and glued on the sides and fed into big wheel drying drums and finished in cellophane and tear tape and marched single file into stacker towers where ten-packs were pushed into cartons that were carried by elevators up to exit stations with conveyor belts that eventually carried cases out of the building to awaiting trucks.

Patricia Cornwell, Southern Cross, pp. 107-8 (Berkley paperback edition).  

I love that sentence!  The total absence of punctuation perfectly captures the too-fast-to-follow, seamless, continuous process of making and packing cigarettes.   

cigarette factory

Now look at this completely different sentence:  

The first thing we did was to take an inventory of the county: availability of public utilities (water, sewer, natural gas) and the willingness of the county to spend money on extending those services if need be; transportation infrastructure such as interstate highways, US highways, state roads, etc., railroads, proximity to a commercial airport and sea port; any sort of zoning regulations or comprehensive plan that had to be considered, along with the quality of life for the residential community (nobody wants a factory in their backyard); environmental constraints on the land such as protected wetlands, endangered species, hydric soils (unsuitable for building), or the 100 year floodplain (all of which we had to catalogue and analyze); availability of large-acre tracts of land (and the people who owned them); and steps the county was prepared to take to finance the project (industrial revenue bonds, tax abatements, land grants/leases, special option local sales tax, etc.).

[From a client's essays.]  

Neither of those sentences is a run-on.

Each punctuation mark in that sentence does its job correctly. The colon tells you that everything from there to the period many lines later is a list of the elements of the inventory. Semicolons separate the items on the list, and commas and parentheses organize the various parts of each item.  

So what is a run-on sentence?  Run-on sentences are long sentences whose parts are not properly related and punctuated, often combining two different sentences.  Here's an example, provided courtesy of a client today:  

Failure on my stepfather's part to provide in-school support would have cost her the difference she needed to pay her tuition, and I assisted her by providing the necessary funds she is no longer my dependent but was from Sept. 2000 through graduation in May 2004.

Between "funds" and "she" the sentence ran on, instead of ending and starting anew.  There are other problems here, too:  the difference between what and what?  Whose graduation occurred in 2004, my client's or the sister's?  What is "in-school support"?  In fact, this is a great example of a bad sentence that's not funny, just bad.  

Misused Word of the week:

ca - reer – noun

  1. an occupation or profession, esp. one requiring special training, followed as one's lifework:
  2. a person's progress or general course of action through life or through a phase of life, as in some profession or undertaking:

"I recognize that a law degree would be beneficial in helping me to advance in my career."

If you already have a career, that sentence would be fine, but for someone with a string of temp jobs, it makes no sense.

"I began my collegiate career poorly."

I guess so, if it turned into a career. "Career" means life's work. If you've been in college fewer than ten years, it wasn't a career. And if you've been there that long, do you really want to brag about it?

"The highlight of my track career was my participation in the high school milers' event at the Penn Relays."

Really? Then it wasn't a career.

I've been teaching the LSAT for 37 years, and getting people into law school for 32. Those are careers. I've taken ceramics classes for two years, and have turned out some nice pieces. That is not a career.

 

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