Bad English: 33 Grammar Lessons to Help Students Write Better
Dr. Dean Chavers
We ask students that apply to Catching the Dream for a scholarship to send us their essays early in their senior year so we can critique them. In 28 years we have gotten exactly one A+ essay and one A level essay out of about 1,800 total applications. I want one more A+ before I die, but may not get it. Most of our first-draft essays are in the C range, from C- to C+, with an occasional D+ thrown in.
It’s obvious that our schools are not teaching students how to write. It is painfully obvious when we get an essay that is the first writing a student has ever done. As a person who has been writing for over 60 years, I know how hard it is to get a thought out of my head, to my fingers, to a keyboard, and onto a computer screen. It takes lots of practice.
One way I can tell a first writing is that students will hit “enter” at what they think is the end of a line. They should only hit “enter” at the end of a paragraph. Most of them will say “my mother” and not give her name, tribe, occupation, location, and so on. This leaves the reader wondering: “Who is your mother and what has she done to help you get ready for college?”
They also use a lot of incorrect English words and phrases, many of which can be found all over the place. One is aggravate, which means “to make worse.” Most of the time, the user really means “irritate.” My mother told me a thousand times, “You little aggravator.” What she really meant was “You little irritator.”
Anyways is not a word. It is anyway.
Apart is a word that has a two-word partner. The student who writes, “I want to be apart of something great” really means “I want to be a part of something great.” To be apart from it would mean to have no association with it, which is not what the writer meant.
Appraise, apprise. The first one means to estimate the value of something. Apprise means to tell somebody something. They are entirely different words. But people often say, “I appraised him about what was happening.” They mean apprised.
Cite, site, sight. Cite means to refer to something previously written or said, as in a footnote. A site is a location. A sight is a look at something. The most common error may be to use sight for site.
Disburse, disperse. Disburse means to pay out money; disperse means to scatter. Someone would be foolish to disperse the money, but they are perhaps wise to disburse it.
Ensure, insure. Ensure means to make sure of something, while insure means to buy insurance. They are not interchangeable.
Few and less. Few means countable objects, while less refers to uncountable. The sign in the grocery store that says, “15 items or less” should say “15 items or fewer. This mistake seems to be universal.
He don’t is often used orally, but not often in writing. The correct is “He doesn’t.”
It is me is bad English, which apparently only a few people know. The correct sentence is “It is I.” These days even college graduates can be heard saying, “It’s me.”
Its, it’s. Rules go out the window on this one. The only seeming possessive in the English language without an apostrophe is its. The problem is that “it’s” is not a possessive; it is a contraction of “it is.” So to say “It’s my party” is correct, but “Its meaning has been lost” is also correct. Don’t use an apostrophe with the word unless it is the contraction of “it is.”
Light complected. The non-word complected is not found in any dictionary. The right phrase is light complexioned.
Like and as. The Winston cigarette people got raked over the coals in the 1950s when they put out ads saying, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” The English critics jumped on them immediately. Like is a preposition; the usage, connecting two complete sentences, demands a conjunction, as. One of my friends constantly says, “Like I said.” Uhhh.
Loose, lose. Loose means not tied down and is pronounced “loos.” Lose means lost and is pronounced “looz.” If you have misplaced something, you lose it, not loose it. You can loose a horse if you want to turn him out into a pasture.
Oral, verbal. Oral means with spoken words. Verbal means with words. People often say, “We had a verbal agreement” when they meant they had an oral agreement—not written down, not notarized, but with spoken words only. All agreements are verbal, whether they are written or oral.
Past, passed. Something past happened in history, either yesterday or years ago. Something passed because it was a car going faster than another car, or a bill was approved by a legislature, or a student got promoted from one grade to the next.
Peak, peek, pique. Peak means a mountaintop. Peek means to look furtively. Pique means to stimulate one’s interest, or excite.
Principal, principle. The first is either the lead teacher at a school or the main ingredient of something. The second is a law or rule.
Seen it. This verb is often misused in Indian country, both written and spoken. He didn’t seen it; he saw it.
Supposably is not a word. It is supposedly.
Suppose to is incorrect. It is supposed to. Don’t forget the d, similar to use and used.
Their, there, they’re. Their is a possessive pronoun, there is an adjective specifying place, and they’re is a contraction of “they are.” They are not interchangeable. Thus “Their over there” is very mangled English.
Then instead of than. Students will write “I would rather be in college then out working” when they should have said than. No doubt this is caused by the way people hear the word pronounced.
There is many types of cars is incorrect. It should be “There are many types of cars,” since the words types and cars are both plural.
Treasure, treasurer. Treasure is something valuable. A treasurer is someone who takes care of the money. So you cannot run for the office of treasure, but you can run for the office of treasurer.
Two, to, too. Two is the second number, after one. The word “to” is a preposition, as in “to catch” or “to run.” The word “too” means “in excess” or “also.” The three are not interchangeable.
To Jim and I. The word “to” is a preposition, which always takes the second voice of a noun. To say, “He gave the money to Jim and I” is simply bad English. He gave the money to Tom and me. No one would say “He gave the money to I.” So to determine the correct voice, eliminate the first object of the verb, which almost everyone will realize requires “me” instead of “I.”
Towards is not a word. The correct word is toward.
Most unique is horrible English. Unique means one of a kind, so it cannot be modified. So rather unique, quite unique, and very unique are all bad English. It’s just unique.
Use and used. The most common mistake with these words is people writing, “I use to go to school every day.” The correct sentence is “I used to go to school every day.” We forget the “d” because most of us, when talking, leave it off.
Where’s it at. Uhhh. Don’t use a preposition to end a sentence. Make the sentence say “Where is it?” and you’ll be correct.
Who is a subject pronoun and whom is an object pronoun. Never say “To who are you speaking?” It’s “To whom are you speaking?”
Who’s and whose. Who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has.” “Whose” is a pronoun or interrogatory. Thus it is incorrect to say “Who’s house is this?” It should be “Whose house is this?”
Your and you’re. The first is a possessive pronoun, meaning something that belongs to you. The second is a contraction of “you are.” Thus “Your my girl” is incorrect.