Butchering grammar 8: Back to school

As school begins for most students over the next few weeks, I am reminding myself of those common errors many students make on their homework. So here are a few, not in any particular order. They all make me twitch madly.

Lead/led. Did you know that “led” is the past tense of the verb “lead”? Neither do many of your fellow students. Some of them might include the following phrase in their homework: “He felt lead to talk to the judge.” Well,  I get stumped. He felt lead? Does it mean he felt like lead, thus making it hard to walk? Or perhaps he reached out and rubbed some lead, which then inspired him to go talk to a judge (who probably should have tossed him out of court for going around feeling lead).

Him/her, he/she. I know many college professors will contradict what I say here. When referring to a generic person in their writing, students may feel led (!) to say “him/her” instead of just “him.” This caves in to that politically correct rubbish that wants to give equal treatment to men and women in all forms of communication. First, please remember that as a woman, NOT politically correct, I will never take offense at someone who uses “he” instead of “he/she.” Second, remember that the generic person about whom we write is a human, part of the human race, and “he” used in place of “he/she” suffices to cover all of humanity. So does “she,” if you must. I do, however, warn my students that when they get to university, they will have to follow the directions of their (usually politically correct) professors. But when writing for me, use one pronoun: either he or she, but not both.

Very, really. Boring, unspecific writing can cause even the most dedicated reader’s mind to wander. Don’t just tell me that the man was very mad or really mad. Tell me HOW mad; tell me how that looked or sounded. In very cold weather, tell me how cold. What does that feel like, look like? If  you really, really want to communicate degree of pain or cold or desire, then leave off the very and the really and use more descriptive words. Really.

Be-verbs–also known as the joy-killer. Once told that they cannot use more than one be-verb per paragraph, they begin longing for it, begging for it, using it more often, losing major points for it. Be-verbs (am, is, was, were, are, be, been, sometimes being) are more passive than others. Can you figure out a way to say it without using those be-verbs? “He was running for President” could change to simply “He ran for President.” Easy! 

I had a student once who had the formula figured out. He would replace every be-verb with maintain, exist as, subsist as, and a few others. Trouble was, those verbs then became his crutch, and he overused them. The poor guy was banned from using those replacement verbs for the duration of the school year, on top of only one be-verb per paragraph. He thought he might die, but he graduated and even went on to do well in college. He became an engineer, figuring out formulas for doing things easily and well. And people can understand his writing, too.


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Filed under Grammar

One response to “Butchering grammar 8: Back to school

  1. Pingback: Butchering Grammar 9: don’t let me catch you doing this | Writing Rhetorically

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