Carte des Merdes
by Professor John Bugge, English
- Agreement between subject and verb in number. A singular subject must take a singular verb, a plural subject, a plural verb. Simple enough. What makes for mistakes is intervening material:
"This description of flowers conjure up images. . . ." The subject is, of course, description, and it's singular. Or sometimes people forget they have a plural subject:
"The beautiful flowers of this world and the majesty of heaven emerges. . . ." Verb mistakenly singular by attraction to majesty.
- Agreement in number--pronouns. The noun and the pronoun that refers to it have to be of the same "number," either both singular or both plural. It's only logic, after all. You can't write stuff like, "Imagery allows the reader to immerse themselves completely in the world of the poem" without seeming badly brought up. People do this to avoid specifying gender, i.e. writing himself or herself all the time--which is a worthy reason, no doubt. It's a lot easier to use the plural: ". . . allows readers to immerse themselves. . . ."
- a lot. You mean a lot, an adverbial phrase. What you wrote is not a word (try looking it up in the dictionary!).
- alright. This is not a word. The proper form is two words: all right. No exceptions.
- And/or. Avoid this, for it's essentially a visual device, typographic shorthand. The problem? Good prose reads well, with a rhythmical flow, and this construction can't be read well, for it intentionally ruptures the syntax.
- Apostrophe missing. The possessive case (the genitive) requires the use of this punctuation mark. Obviously you don't "hear" it in spoken English, but in written or printed English it's an essential marker for the genitive case (it's not optional!).
- Apostrophe misplaced. Learn the rules on where to put the apostrophe for both singular and plural possessives. This is wrong here.
- Apostrophe not needed. The plural of almost all nouns in English is formed without an apostrophe. The apostrophe is used mostly for the possessive case (and signals it).
- begs the question. Avoid using this phrase to mean simply "raises the question." The phrase has a technical (and very useful) meaning in logic: it means to assume as true what you are trying to prove, a logical fallacy. The phrase is a translation of the Latin petitio principi.
- blatant / blatantly. You do wrong to use this word as a synonym for "openly" or "overtly." It has negative, even scandalous, overtones; it is properly used of high crimes and misdemeanors committed without any sense of shame.
- Brackets. Use brackets -- [ ] -- to indicate your alteration of a direct quotation. A parenthesis in a quotation will signify to your reader that the author made this change.
- center around. Write "center on," which is more logical. This is a fine point, admittedly, but people often get judged by small mistakes they make. The logical things to write would be "to center on," but to "circle around."
- Colon to precede long quotation. You need a colon here to introduce a quotation of the length of this one. This is the conventional way of punctuating before a long quote.
- Colon to introduce a series of elements in apposition. The semicolon is like a period here, indicating the end of an independent clause and signalling the start of another. The problem here is that what follows the semicolon is not an independent clause.
- Comma splice. This is a SERIOUS mistake! You have "spliced" together two independent clauses with a comma, and in the absence of a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, nor, yet, for). (Note that however is simply not a coordinating conjunction, so don't try to start the second clause with a comma + however.)
- No comma after "But" or "Yet" or "Perhaps" at START OF A CLAUSE. Delete this. There is no reason for a comma here, certainly no pause.
- No commas needed around brief appositives. A very brief appositiveóone word or a short phrase--does not much impede the flow, does not cause you to pause. Hence no commas.
- No comma needed for RESTRICTIVE MODIFIER.
- No comma between adjective and the noun(s) it modifies.
- No comma between SUBJECT AND VERB. People often put a comma in here when the subject of the sentence is a long way from the verb--often separated from it by a clause.
- No comma after INTRODUCTORY PHRASE THAT MODIFIES THE VERB. What you are doing is separating an adverb (the adverbial phrase) from what it modifies, which you don't want.
- Comma needed between TWO INDEPENDENT CLAUSES. You must use a comma between two independent clauses if you also have a coordinating conjunction between them (and, or, but, nor, for, so, yet).
- Comma needed to set off FOLLOWING SUBORDINATE CLAUSE. Usually a good idea if the subordinate clause is relatively long. Insert the comma where you would pause slightly if you read this aloud.
- Comma needed at both ends of a medial SUBORDINATE CLAUSE.
- Comma needed after INTRODUCTORY SUBORDINATE CLAUSE. Listen when you read the sentence aloud: you pause at the end of the introductory clause. Put the comma there.
- Comma needed after INTRODUCTORY SENTENCE MODIFIER. When you start a clause or sentence with a word like however or instead (or a phrase like if anything), constructions that signal (e.g.) an adversative sense coming, you need a comma. It's just a convention, but one based on the fact that when reading aloud, your voice would pause here.
- Commas needed to set off words or phrases in APPOSITION. You need a comma both before and after such appositives.
- Commas needed at both ends of an ADVERSATIVE or PARENTHETICAL REMARK.
- Commas needed in a SERIES OF ADJECTIVES. When you have a series of adjectives (big, fat, white, and dirty), you need commas after all but the last--and that means one before the and.
- Comparison is faulty. You are unwittingly comparing the two boxed items, at least according to the logic of your syntax here. Correct by making the construction parallel.
- The verb contrast. This verb is intransitive, meaning it cannot take a direct object. So x cannot "contrast" y; it must "contrast with" y. Such, anyway, is the accepted idiom.
- criteria misused as singular. The singular is criterion. Words ending in -on are the singular forms of Greek second-declension nouns, whose plural forms were made with the ending -a. Phenomenon (sg.), phenomena (pl.) is another example. English has a few others, too.
- Dangling modifier. The underlined modifier has no logical antecedent; it doesn't modify anything; it "dangles" out there in space. It is often the sign of a writer who's not paying close attention to what he or she is saying.
- Dashes. You make a dash with two hyphens and no spaces at all. Dashes are used when you want to break your syntax abruptly: two dashes for a parenthetical comment in the middle of a sentence (one at the start, another at the end); one dash when your remark finishes the sentence.
- dichotomy. Beware of this word, which has a technical sense in logic, but which is often used too loosely to mean simply "opposition" or even just "difference."
- disinterest(ed). This word still means "objectivity"/"objective." To be "disinterested" in something means having no ax to grind, no bias, no partisanship; it's the quality we want in judges. You want "lack of interest" or "uninterested" here, meaning "unconcern" or "apathetic."
- Double quotes. Use double quotation marks, not single, except for the one case in which you have a quotation within a quotation. British usage calls for single quotes for simple quotation; American usage has double. When in Rome, Georgia. . . .
- due to. You see this used a lot for "because of," but it is better to reserve it for statements implying a sense of right or privilege, or obligation: "The money was due to him." Admittedly, this is a subtlety that will be lost on most readers, but not the most discriminating.
- due to the fact that. Avoid this circumlocution for because for stylistic reasons.
- -ed endings. Increasingly, we are not hearing the -ed endings, the dental preterit (so-called) of regular verbs. This is a result of sloppy speech--dropping the endings--and too little reading. Make sure you put this ending in where it's needed.
- effect / affect. Don't confuse these. Each can be either a noun or a verb. Check a dictionary if you are unsure of the meaning of each as a different part of speech.
- Ellipsis. This is the name for the (note) spaced dots that indicate something has been left out of a quotation. Student writers are entirely too fond of this device, and usually they misuse it. You only need ellipsis in the middle of a quote, not at the beginning or end. The only exception to this rule is if the quotation leaves your sentence (which includes the quote) unfinished and incomplete: He said, "If only. . . ." (Note that here you have a regular period--note its placement--followed by three spaced dots.)
- Fragment. A fragment looks like a sentence, but isn't (read it aloud and you will usually discover that it doesn't sound like a full sentence). Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate; usually a fragment will lack the predicate. Using a fragment makes you look bad if there's any indication (as there is here!) that you don't know you are using one.
- he/she. Don't use this; it's a beast with two backs. It has to be pronounced "heeshi," which is no English word at all (sounds a bit Japanese, in fact). Your intention, to avoid exclusively male-gendered speech, is admirable, but the result degrades your style. Rather, keep your references plural and use they, them.
- humanistic. This is the wrong word if you want to be precise: humanistic is the adjective for "humanism"; you want simply human.
- Hyphens. Whenever you have a compound adjective used in front of (before) the noun it modifies, you must hyphenate the combination. An example is: full-time job. The words full and time here both function as adjectives, making a compound. The reason for the hyphen is clarity. Take the following: "Physician assisted suicide." Your reaction might be, "She did?" But the writer probably was just announcing a topic: "Physician-assisted suicide." Also, many compound nouns are hyphenated; quite often you will need to check a dictionary to be sure which.
- Idiom. This simply means that English is not written this way; it doesn't mean it couldn't be, only that it isn't. The use of prepositions after verbs, for example, is highly idiomatic in English. We don't say a thing "contrasts something," we say "it contrasts with something."
- Indenting quoted poetry. When you have more than three lines of poetry to quote, you indent them spaces and double space them; you don't use quotation marks. You add a parenthesis with the line reference after the last line. But if you quote three or fewer lines from a poem, you put them in your text separated by virgules (/), with quotation marks at the start and finish, and followed by a parenthesis containing the line reference.
- Italics for quoting. Use italics when you quote individual words or short phrases from the work you are writing about, that is, when you are making reference to the words as words in the poem or story. When you quote as much as a whole line (or more) of poetry, it's customary to use quotation marks, not italics.
- Italics for titles. You should use italics for titles of longer works (like novels or epics or films), and quotation marks for titles of short works (like short poems, short stories, etc.).
- it's / its. Shame! Don't confuse these. The first is a contraction of it is, the second the possessive of it. It is a mark of a literate person to know the possessive of it has no apostrophe. Together, let's hold up standards.
- lead / led. The past tense of lead is led.
- lie / lay. These two verbs (here in the present form) mean two very different things: 1) to recline, intransitive; 2) to place, transitive. The "principal parts" of the first are lie, lay, lain; of the second, lay, laid, laid. Distinguish!
- like / as. In all writing and in more formal conversation, too, like is a preposition: "He is like Mike." Like is not a conjunction (as is the conjunction you need to introduce a subordinate clause: "He is as he should be" [clause underlined here]). Don't write: "It occurs like in the description that follows."
- Line references for quotes in your text. Make the reference by placing the inclusive line numbers within a parenthesis. Don't use "lines" or "ln," just the numbers. Put the ending quotation mark right after the last word in the quote, but before the parenthesis. Any punctuation comes after the parenthesis.
- Mass noun v. count noun. There are two classes of nouns, those names of things you can count or enumerate, and those names of things you don't (or can't) count. An example of a count-noun is dog; and example of a so-called "mass" noun is sincerity. You can pluralize dog, but you don't speak--idiomatically--of sincerities. So you don't write "an amount of dogs," nor do you write "a number of sincerities."
- Misplaced modifier. The underlined modifier does not logically refer to the circled antecedent.
- none with a plural verb. Usually none is singular; it's a contraction of "no one."
- Non-restrictive modifiers. You need a comma before non-restrictive modifiers. Note the difference:
"I gave candy to the boys who were sitting on the bench."
"I gave candy to the boys, who were sitting on the bench."
In the first sentence the clause starting with who manages to restrict the meaning of whom I gave candy to, only those boys who were, in fact, sitting on the bench (not the others). The second sentence's who-clause does not restrict the meaning of boys; it just says that they happened to be sitting on the bench.
- one. The pronoun one is used when you don't want to specify gender. But be careful: if you use one once, you must use it again. This is a bad mistake: "When one thinks of a baby, they can almost feel its soft skin." If you tried to use he for they, you would still be wrong (although at least you'd have agreement in number). No. "When one thinks of a baby, one. . . ."
- one of the [plural noun] that [plural verb]. (E.g., "one of the ties that bind.") You have a problem of agreement here. The relative pronoun refers to the plural noun, not to one, so you need a plural verb. Parallel construction needed here.
- Parenthetical citation. When you cite a line reference after a quote, here's how you end it: last word of quotation + quotation mark + parenthesis (containing line or page numbers) + end punctuation (usually a period).
- Period (or comma) after parenthetical line reference. Put the period (or comma) after the second half of the parenthesis, not after the last word of the quotation.
- phenomena. This is a plural noun, so you need a plural verb. The singular? It's phenomenon. Educated people know and observe the difference, so listen for it.
- Possessive with gerund. A gerund is a verbal noun, that is, a noun formed from the verb. In English the gerund ends in -ing (and so, confusing the issue, does the participle, which is a verbal adjective--an adjective formed from the noun). Since a gerund is a noun, it can and should be modified by the possessive: "I thought his departing was a mistake," but "I saw him departing." The first departing is a gerund, the second a participle.
- Quotation marks and commas, periods. In American usage, commas and periods go inside the latter quotation mark; semicolons and colons go outside. This usage is exactly the reverse in British usage, so this might in some cases be the source of students' confusing these rules. When in the U.S.A., please follow local rules.
- Quoting text. When quoting a word or phrase from a poem (or other work), you must use quotation marks around it. When quoting single words, italics may also be used.
- reason . . . is because. Avoid this, for it's redundant: "reason" implies causality already. Say: "the reason . . . is that.
- Redundant. One of these will suffice, for they both mean the same thing.
- Run-on sentence. You need some punctuation at this point! You have an independent clause ending just here, and another beginning. If you don't connect these clauses with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, nor, for), you must separate them, with either a semicolon or a periodóthere are no other options. (Run-on sentences are BIG mistakes: they tend to lower readers' estimate of a writer's intelligence.)
- Semicolon. Don't use the semicolon as if it were some kind of comma; it has the force of a period. It is mainly used between two independent clauses when you don't have (and don't want) a coordinating conjunction--because you want those clauses to be energetically balanced against each other: "I went; she stayed home."
- simplistic for simple. The former word is highly pejorative, a bad thing to call anything (or anyone!). Don't write the longer word simply because you feel it sounds better.
- Slash marks. Also called "virgules," these slash-marks must be used to showline breaks when poetry is quoted in your text (i.e. when it is not indented and reproduced exactly as on the page in your original). Be sure to leave a space on each side of the slash!
- Spacing between sentences. You should hit the space bar twice after a period (or any other punctuation) ending a sentence. This is the convention in all typewritten work.
- Split infinitive. Most people don't even bother to flag these any more, so ommon are they becoming. But elegant usage avoids them, even if there is no good historical basis in the history of grammar for not splitting them. An infinitive is "split" when a word (or more than one) intrudes between the to and the finite form of the verb. The most famous split infinitive of modern times is that howler from StarTrek: "to boldly go where. . . .
- Tenses. When writing about what happens within a literary work, it is the convention to refer to those actions in the present tense throughout your account of them: "Patroclus decides to lead an attack," or "Huck Finn goes off with Jim." And be sure not to mix tenses.
- there for their. Pay attention to what you are writing!
- Title missing. I didn't get more than a few lines into your paper before I noticed that it has no title, for I found myself wondering what on earth you were writing about. You see what a title does? From a vertitable universe of possibilities, it focuses the reader's mind on just one--your subject. Every essay needs a title.
- Titles of papers. You never underline (or italicize) your own title. You neverput your own title in quotation marks. You don't need to boldface it. You capitalize only the first word and all subsequent important words.
- Titles of works. Longer works get italicized (or underlined, if your machine won't do italics); shorter works get put in quotation marks. A longer work is a novel, a play, a long poem; a shorter work is a short story, an essay, or a short poem.
- Transitive v. intransitive verbs. Idiomatically, some verbs in English are only transitive (i.e., must have a direct object), and some are only intransitive (may not take a direct object). And many verbs are either. Any good dictionary will tell you, using "Tristan." and "intr." Here, your verb is only
- try and. This construction is wrong; it should be try to. In other words, try here takes the infinitive, which in English uses to plus the verb.
- unique used comparatively. Strictly speaking -- and logically ? you can't use unique in the comparative ("more unique," "rather unique," "somewhat unique"). It's sort of like being "somewhat pregnant": it's an absolute; a thing is either one-of-a-kind or it's not.
- Vague pronoun referent. Your pronoun here does not seem to refer to any noun. Sometimes the noun is just too far away in the text. In some cases, a ronoun could apparently refer to either of two or more nouns, in which case it is vague and ambiguous.
- were. In the present tense of the subjunctive mood--used to talk about conditions contrary to fact or hypothetical--you need were, not was, which is in the indicative mood: "If I were going to Timbuktu . . . ," not "If I was going. . . ."
- which / that. There's a difference between these two relative pronouns (they are not interchangeable). Basically, that is for starting a restrictive relative clause, and which for a non-restrictive one. And what does that mean? Consider these two sentences:
"I gave peanuts to the monkeys that were sitting on the bench."
In the first sentence the clause starting with that actually restricts the universe of monkeys that received peanuts -- that is, to only those that were, in fact, sitting on the bench (not the other monkeys, many of whom were hanging from trees). The second sentence's which-clause (notice it is separated from the main clause by a comma), does not restrict the meaning of monkeys; it just says that those receiving peanuts from you happened to be sitting on the bench.
"I gave peanuts to the monkeys, which were sitting on the bench."
- whose and who's. Don't confuse these. One's a relative adjective, the other a contraction.
- woman / women. The first is singular, the second plural. Don't confuse. Cf. man / men.
To be successful in your life's work, whatever that will be, you will need to write well. Conversely, writing poorly -- making a lot of grammatical and mechanical errors, spelling or punctuation mistakes can unfortunately give the impression, however erroneous, of a second-rate mind. If you want to improve your writing skills, and it is clearly in your best interest to do so, now is the time to do it: you are not likely to get this kind of close attention to your style and presentation ever again. In effect, this is your last dress rehearsal.
We in the English Department believe that writing well is extremely important. To a person, and to their credit, faculty in other departments of this university think so as well, but they don't always feel that it's their responsibility to teach writing skills along with the subject matter of their courses. Thus, you are only likely to get an ongoing critique of your writing in English courses like this one. You should regard this as a valuable service, as it were, an essential part of the training you are getting here for whatever career you choose after college. Out there, in the world of work, standards are high for those with ambitions to be really successful; the ability to write well can and will set you apart from the herd.