The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter—it is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. — Mark Twain
Among the many tasks you must tackle on a given day is reviewing your students' application essays and writing letters of recommendation on their behalf. But even if you're a natural-born wordsmith, it can be challenging to spot all the errors and weaknesses in yet another essay or to find the perfect phrasing for a succinct but convincing letter of recommendation.
Words are my thing, and as an editor and writer, I get to spend my days knee-deep in them. I also studied English and journalism in college, and over the years, there are certain writing tips and grammar rules that have burned into my mind. Following is a sampling of a few that you may find useful as you critique your students' writing and work to perfect your own:
- Don’t start with the word “the.” My eighth grade English teacher encouraged my class to avoid using the word “the” to begin an essay or story. Searching for a better word forces you to think and write more creatively.
- Don’t start a sentence with the word “this” without specifying what it is referring to. This can be very confusing. This problem is easily corrected.
- Avoid common word choice mistakes. The English language is rife with misused parlance. Some of the biggest offenders:
- Use toward, not towards.
- Irregardless is not a word. Just use regardless.
- Between should almost always be used only when referring to two things. Otherwise, use among.
- Ensure means “to secure or guarantee; make sure or certain.” Insure means “to guarantee against loss or harm; to issue or procure an insurance policy on or for.”
- Weary means “exhausted.” Leery means “wary or suspicious.” Wary means “watchful; being on one’s guard against danger.”
- Watch for the use of impact as a verb in place of affect and as a noun in place of effect. One of my college professors pointed out that impact really means “to pack in or to collide with” as a verb and “collision” as a noun, and I’ve never been able to get that out of my head. In recent years it has become grammatically and journalistically acceptable to use this word in place of affect, effect, and their various synonyms. So I will concede that, no, it is not technically incorrect to use impact in their place. But, at least in my opinion, it sounds terrible.
- Watch for proper use of apostrophes. A few rules to bear in mind:
- Don’t use an apostrophe in a plural name (the Smiths, not the Smiths’). Do use an apostrophe to make a plural name possessive (Buddy is the Smiths’ Great Dane).
- When speaking about two things or people, only use an apostrophe and "s" after the second item or person’s name (Emma and Elizabeth’s apartment).
- Don’t use an apostrophe to pluralize capital letters or numbers (the 1960s, not the 1960’s).
- It only gets an apostrophe when it’s a contraction.
- Standardize the font type and size and the document’s spacing. Double-spaced, 12 point, Times New Roman is the only way to go, if you ask me.
- Avoid split infinitives. I learned this from my Victorian Literature professor. He was a stern and brilliant gentleman who would hand us back our papers and offer his assessments out loud for the whole class to hear. This particular chastisement has stayed with me, and though it is not a hard-and-fast grammatical rule (“To go boldly where no man has gone before” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), I do try to adhere to it whenever possible.
- Watch for proper punctuation around however. Improper punctuation will scramble the meaning of a sentence. However should be:
- Followed by a comma when it introduces a sentence (However, I was unable to attend because I was sick.)
- Set off with commas in the middle of a sentence (I was not able to attend, however, and missed out on a wonderful evening.)
- Preceded by a semi-colon and followed by a comma when it joins two independent clauses (I was not able to attend; however, I hope to make it next time.)
- Watch for repetitive words. When proofing my own writing, I try to vary my words as much as possible. Using the same word or words too often or too closely together produces a lackluster result.
- Avoid excessive adverbs and/or adjectives. When it comes to adverbs and adjectives, it’s best to defer to Papa Hemingway and his terse prose. Less is more. Used in moderation, descriptive words can turn sentences into perfectly conveyed ideas, but too many of them will blur the writer’s meaning and confound or irritate the reader.
- Show, don't tell. It’s easy to describe someone as “very smart” or “incredibly kind,” but that doesn’t paint a vivid picture. Go a little deeper by briefly describing his or her impressive grasp of Russian or volunteer work at a children’s hospital.
- Use serial/Oxford commas. I dream of the day when the AP Stylebook will adopt the practice of placing a comma before the final element in a series. Serial commas help you avoid confusion, ambiguity, and irritability (irritability among editors, at least).
- Avoid clichés. There’s nothing interesting about tired words and platitudes. Encourage your students to find more inventive and personal ways to express themselves, and strive to do the same in your own writing.
- Avoid using passive voice. It almost always befuddles sentences and makes them too wordy. “I read the book” sounds infinitely better than “the book was read by me.”
- Make sure pronouns agree with their respective nouns. This rule can get tricky, but it’s an important one. In particular, plurals and genders can be problematic, but in most cases, there are easy fixes. A few examples:
- A student should thoroughly proofread his essay.
Students should thoroughly proofread their essays.
- Every student should thoroughly proofread their essay.
Every student should thoroughly proofread his or her essay.
- I.e. or e.g.? I always get these confused, which is why I’m including them here. The abbreviation i.e. is Latin for id est, meaning “that is.” Think of it as a stand-in for “in essence” or “in other words.” The abbreviation e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia, meaning “for example.” They may not show up often in an application essay or letter of recommendation, but if they do, it’s good to know the difference.
What are some of your best grammar tips and tricks? Share and discuss in the comments.