Bad Grammar Makes Crabby That Way

Crabby insists that you write clearly.

Once upon a time Crabby was cheerful and optimistic about the future. He believed that the world could be brightened with a song or a poem. He was wrong. As time has passed, he has realized that the clear pools of elegant syntax and exquisite grammatical usage are being poisoned by the effluent of poor teaching, television, and a return to Elizabethan-era spell-as-you-hear orthography. It’s enough to make a college admission officer weep.

You should understand that he has no objection to non-standard usage when used in context. Slang has its place and can enrich the argot of its time. However, when one writes an essay for one’s presumptive college, one should handle the English language as one would a newborn baby, brought into the world with much the same effort. One is, after all, trying to impress the admission person with one’s ability to handle higher education, with the emphasis on “higher” and “education.”

Without further ado, let Crabby delineate a number of issues that can turn an essay into a minefield that ultimately blows its creator to bits. They are offered not as a comprehensive list but as a plea for careful thought and clarity in one’s writing. He will not even attempt to discuss more complex elements like the present perfect tense or passive voice.

The first rule is: Know what an apostrophe does and when it does it. Know the difference between “it’s” and “its,” for example. (This is the first commandment in Strunk & White.) “It’s” means “it is” and “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” “It’s going to rain!” “Its feet were under the table.” See? An apostrophe either replaces something (the “i” of “it is” or the “no” of “can’t” [cannot]) or indicates possession: “Arthur’s scalpel” and “the children’s toys.” Apostrophes are the gnats of writing, so they should appear only where they are required and not otherwise.

(The possessives “hers,” “ours,” and “theirs” DO NOT take the apostrophe. Nor is the apostrophe used to make a plural, so don’t write “The pencil’s were on the desk” or “The banana’s ripened on the vine.” Just the “s” will do. Crabby wonders why people place apostrophes where they shouldn’t and don’t where they should, but he has no answer.)

Next is homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently. For example: there/they’re/their. One simply has to remember which is which. “They’re” = “they are” (note the apostrophe!); “their” = plural possession (“Their hats were in the ring”) and “there” indicating a place a little distance away from where you are. When one writes about a “hoard of Mongols overrunning China” Crabby doesn’t really know what one means and must edit in his head so “hoard” becomes “horde.” Now he gets it, but that little hiccup ruined his enjoyment. Think carefully enough to know which one to use when.

As a rule, the word “there” should not be used as the subject of a sentence because it hides the real subject somewhere else: “There were many reasons why the boat exploded.” It’s not fair to make Crabby hunt for the subject. One could more clearly have said, “The boat exploded for many reasons.” It can also trick the writer into using the wrong verb: “There’s many reasons the boat exploded” or (as we hear all the time on TV) “There’s several suspects in the case,” “There’s a million reasons that happened.” There ARE a million reasons, or a number of potential murders. Just remember that–plural subjects take plural verbs and if one hides the actual subject one doesn’t know what the verb should be. Again, we are lazy, and it’s easier to say “there’s” than “there’re,” which would be proper but ugly and you’d have to make a gargling sound. So go with “there are” or change the sentence.

Is everyone following?

Crabby’s main reason to think we’re returning to being an oral rather than a written culture: The disappearance of the past participle as a modifier. Case in point: “ice tea.” It’s not made out of ice, it’s chilled by cubes and therefore should be “iced tea.” Same principle with “use furniture,” “butter toast,” “first come, first serve,” “condense milk,” and so on. We are all lazy so we tend not to hear, and therefore not to write, the final “d” in “used,” “buttered,” “served” and “condensed.”

Now Crabby knows you’re thinking he’s a pedant, a nit-picker, or worse at this point. But he hastens to point out that, while language is, yes, constantly evolving, it doesn’t have to do so in one’s very own essays. One tries to make things easy for readers, not drag them through the underbrush of one’s un-edited mind. Imagine that the college admission person is trying to picture the writer at his or her institution; he or she would like to be reassured that the author is capable of clear thought and careful presentation. Crabby is pleading for these things, not just obedience to rules for their own sake.

(Crabby feels fortunate that over the years of his own education he was compelled to write out the declensions of verbs and to diagram sentences as well as to pay attention to the underbrush that errors like the above comprise. He is thankful to have been taught that a writer is supposed to communicate something clearly.)

To continue…

Don’t use many words when a simple one or two will do: “at this point in time” means “now;” for example. Go for pith instead of bloat.

Don’t use stock phrases or business jargon that seems to have been invented by zombies. “At the end of the day,” “It is what it is,” and “Going forward,” etc. just make one sound lazy. Try for something original or simple. (By the way, when “or” is used to connect two things, the verb must match the second thing, as in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

For god’s sake, don’t write “three AM in the morning.” AM means “ante meridian,” which means before midday,” which means the MORNING. PM means “post meridian,” the meaning of which I’m sure one can guess. Writing something like this means one is not paying attention or gets one’s grammatical education from television. Piddling in the overall scheme of things, perhaps, but one must be responsible.

A particular sadness for Crabby comes in grocery stores when he sees the “Fifteen items or less” lane or on television, when he watches the channel advertising “More movie, less commercials.” The difference between “quantity” and amount” is as follows: In each of these examples, the actual word should be “fewer” because the phrases refer to things as individual items, while “less” refers to a mass of things. One can remember this rule by thinking of sugar: By emptying a sugar bowl, one has less sugar; by taking several sugar cubes, one has fewer cubes.

Try not to confuse words that seem to mean the same thing but don’t. Two of the most infamous pairs: “disinterested”/”uninterested” and “enormity”/”enormous.” “Disinterested” means impartial, so you would want a judge to be disinterested but not uninterested in your case. Otherwise, he might rule as he liked instead of with the evidence. “Enormity” refers to something so terrible it is hard to comprehend: “The enormity of his crime was too much for rational people to bear.” It doesn’t mean “huge” even though it sounds like it should. Good writers know distinctions like these, and one can stand out by using them properly.

Again, one may wonder why Crabby gets that way in these cases. One can say, “Well, he understood what I meant” and be correct, but one had to work that much harder to do so. It’s the writer who should have done that work.

One of the biggest differences between classical and modern art is that “meaning” was once located in the painting itself; now, the work of creating meaning has been transferred to the viewer. A DaVinci or Michelangelo contains symbolic figures, arrangements, even colors, whose meanings were apparent to their contemporaries. They presented them to tell a story or convey an idea. Modern artists like Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, working in non-figurative ways, make the viewer do all the work; there’s nothing there unless you put it there.

So it seems with much essay writing. Authors use words carelessly and assume readers will “get” what they say no matter what. But good writers take the trouble to make sure readers understand them. The mark of a bad writer is that he or she doesn’t really care if you do or not, assuming you’ll figure things out eventually. Whether one is writing for college admission or clemency from the governor, clarity makes a difference, Crabby insists.


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
This entry was posted in college counseling. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Bad Grammar Makes Crabby That Way

  1. Karen Ferretti says:

    Oh the joys of written English! I, too, have seen many a blunder this essay reading season, but nothing has bothered me as much as the misuse of “effect” and “affect”. If I read one more sentence about something “affecting the way I see the world” I am going to scream. Crabby, I feel your pain and wish you many days of better sentence structure and fewer random apostrophe edits 🙂


    • Kim Roman says:

      For some reason, this year’s college application essays have been really difficult to read. I am not an English teacher but frankly, some of these essays just make me want to scream. I don’t want to blame English teachers as I have come to realize that teaching writing is not an easy task. Last week, I was trying to help one student understand how an interesting first sentence is important when trying to catch the reader’s attention. So, I gave her several examples of interesting first sentences and sent her home to revise her essay. When she sent the essay back to me, the first sentence was, “Auschwitz blew my mind!” If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, I might have cried.

      Just one more thing: Karen, I am going to have to look up “effect” and “affect” again. I believe that in the sentence you used above, it should be “…affecting the way I see the world.” Effect is a noun, while affect is a verb. Crabby, will you shed some light on this?


      • Will Dix says:

        Crabby is happy to shine some light on this tricky pair. Kim, you are correct that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun in most cases. HOWEVER, psychologists use “affect” to mean evidence of one’s emotional state, as in, “My patient’s affect remained calm in spite of the trauma he had suffered.” (Emphasis here is on the first syllable– “AF-fect” as opposed to “af-FECT” as a verb..) And “effect” can be used as a verb when talking about “plans to effect” change.” These examples are not common in general writing, and Crabby guesses not at all in college essays.


  2. Ken Anselment says:

    As one who enjoyed diagramming sentences, I, too, take great joy in English well written, and great pain in its opposite. When I conduct essay-writing workshops, I exhort my audience to avoid long windups like, “The fact of the matter is that,” and “One can easily see that.” (If I am reading the latter statement, you can, as a writer, safely assume that I, your reader, do not suffer from a vision problem that prevents me from easily seeing what you are writing.) Cut those long windups, and you will lose nothing but the fat and word count.


  3. George Lynes says:

    While I agree that language, even the so-called Queen’s English, is a work in progress, i.e., it will evolve whether we like it or not, there is a relatively new rule that irks me: There is no noun that can not be verbed. Remember when “impact” hadn’t yet been “verbed?”


  4. Pingback: 2010 in review « College Counseling Culture

  5. Pingback: Wrong Word Usage-Homonyms 101 »

Comments are closed.