Been working with some of our seniors on their college essays. Although my own school teachers did their best to dutifully cram Warriner’s Grammar and English Composition (1946) into my indifferent teenaged head, I pretty much went rogue once I was on the other side of the desk. (Today, I do keep a copy of Elements of Style – 1920 within arm’s reach.)
As the years went by, I kept noticing the same errors and flaws in my students’ papers. However, I could not always tell whether these were committed due to carelessness or lack of grammatical understanding. So, I came up with a three-part plan:
- Make a list of 18 (my lucky number) simple, straight-forward rules.
- Take whatever time necessary to ensure that all the students understand them.
- Enforce, enforce, enforce. (I got to the point with corrections where my red pen would simply put the rule number — e.g., #5… or #11 — next to the error.)
Once “lack of understanding” was eliminated as an excuse, it all came down to caring enough to do it right. The goal was not to turn out Pulitzer Prize winners so much as to establish a solid baseline starting point. Here they are.
1) and / but / or / so – Do not begin sentences with conjunctions. (It can be done. And — Oops! — once you’ve internalized these rules, we’ll show you how.)
2) their / there / they’re – They’re taking their sister to the store over there.
3) to / two / too – The two of them are too much to take.
4) Make sure singular and plural agree – e.g., Government or Society is an “it” not a “they.”
5) Phillips head – Use the right tool (i.e., word) for the job. Instead of vague words like bad, good, nice, thing… Use words like devious, thoughtful, kind, and aspect.
6) Dogs get “mad” – People get “angry”
7) then & than – Than is only used in comparisons. “Ah, but I was so much younger then… I’m older than that now.” – Bob Dylan, by way of The Byrds)
8) Less is best – Say it don’t spray it. Try the least number of words to make your point.
9) N.A.S. (not a sentence) – Even though you may have placed a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end, what you have written in between does not a sentence make.
10) Show possession properly – Understand apostrophes.
11) Don’t refer to yourself – Don’t refer to me (i.e., the reader).
12) its v. it’s can be tricky. (Use it’s only for “it is” – i.e., not to show possession)
13) where v. were – Get it right.
14) Avoid ending sentences w/ prepositions (“This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” – Winston Churchill)
15) Avoid slang: Putin totally blew off Obama.… Obama’s speech was off the hook.
16) Contrary to what your middle school English teacher told you, DON’T write as you speak. (Although we must speak in real time, we have time to think before we write. Therefore, we should always write better than we speak!)
17) Huh? (Translation: I, the reader, have no idea what you’re talking about. Do you?)
18) Check your hyperbole: “These verdicts are made by over-bearing, self-righteous, nosy elitist, super-sensitive morons.” (Actual sentence from a student’s paper)
Onward, Malcolm Gauld