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Five Grammatical Errors That Make You Look Dumb

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 Follies in English Writing

by Brian Clark

Here are five mistakes to avoid :

1. Your vs. You’re

This one drives me insane, and it’s become extremely common among bloggers. All it takes to avoid this error is to take a second and think about what you’re trying to say.

“Your” is a possessive pronoun, as in “your car” or “your blog.” “You’re” is a contraction for “you are,” as in “you’re screwing up your writing by using your when you really mean you are.”

2. It’s vs. Its

This is another common mistake. It’s also easily avoided by thinking through what you’re trying to say.

“It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun, as in “this blog has lost its mojo.” Here’s an easy rule of thumb—repeat your sentence out loud using “it is” instead. If that sounds goofy, “its” is likely the correct choice.

3. There vs. Their

This one seems to trip up everyone occasionally, often as a pure typo. Make sure to watch for it when you proofread.

“There” is used many ways, including as a reference to a place (“let’s go there”) or as a pronoun (“there is no hope”). “Their” is a plural possessive pronoun, as in “their bags” or “their opinions.” Always do the “that’s ours!” test—are you talking about more than one person and something that they possess? If so, “their” will get you there.

4. Affect vs. Effect

To this day I have to pause and mentally sort this one out in order to get it right. As with any of the other common mistakes people make when writing, it’s taking that moment to get it right that makes the difference.

“Affect” is a verb, as in “Your ability to communicate clearly will affect your income immensely.” “Effect” is a noun, as in “The effect of a parent’s low income on a child’s future is well documented.” By thinking in terms of “the effect,” you can usually sort out which is which, because you can’t stick a “the” in front of a verb. While some people do use “effect” as a verb (“a strategy to effect a settlement”), they are usually lawyers, and you should therefore ignore them if you want to write like a human.

5. The Dangling Participle

The dangling participle may be the most egregious of the most common writing mistakes. Not only will this error damage the flow of your writing, it can also make it impossible for someone to understand what you’re trying to say.

Check out these two examples from Tom Sant’s book Persuasive Business Proposals:

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.

Uhh… keep your decomposing brother away from me!

Featuring plug-in circuit boards, we can strongly endorse this server’s flexibility and growth potential.

Hmmm… robotic copy written by people embedded with circuit boards. Makes sense.

The problem with both of the above is that the participial phrase that begins the sentence is not intended to modify what follows next in the sentence. However, readers mentally expect it to work that way, so your opening phrase should always modify what immediately follows. If it doesn’t, you’ve left the participle dangling, as well as your readers.

P.S. You may find it amusing to know that I, like David Ogilvy, have never learned the formal rules of grammar. I learned to write by reading obsessively at an early age, but when it came time to learn the “rules,” I tuned out. If you show me an incorrect sentence, I can fix it, but if I need to know the technical reason why it was wrong in the first place, I go ask my wife

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Rankings of Different Programs

(To properly view the table click the header)

* NRC, * US News, * Gourman

Name of University Physics Chemistry Economics General Psychology General English Language & Literature
MIT 4, *, 5 5, *, 4 3, *, 2 *, *, * *, *, *
Stanford 9, *, 7 4, *, 6 4, *, 5 *, *, 1 6, *, 7
Univ of CA-Berkeley 4, *, 6 1, *, 2 7, *, 7 *, *, 7 2, *, 2
UIUC 8, *, 9 8, *, 7 28, *, 28 *, *, 8 28, *, 27
GTECH 62, *, * 64, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of MI- Ann Arbor 19, *, 14 35, *, 36 13, *, 13 *, *, 4 16, *, 16
CALTECH 5, *, 2 2, *, 3 19, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
USC 50, *, * 40, *, * 40, *, 40 *, *, 37 25, *, *
Purdue-West Lafayette 31, *, 30 24, *, 22 51, *, * *, *, 28 57, *,
Austin 11, *, 16 13, *, 15 31, *, 31 *, *, 19 21, *, 21
Carnegie Mellon Univ 28, *, 29 74, *, * *, *, * *, *, 12 52, *, *
Cornell Univ 6, *, 3 6, *, 10 18, *, 17 *, *, 21 7, *, 6
Univ of CA-San Diego 16, *, 18 19, *, 19 16, *, 19 *, *, 11 37, *, 36
TAMU 48, *, * 15, *, 18 34, *, 33 *, *, * 56, *, *
Univ of WI- Madison 21, *, 22 10, *, 11 15, *, 16 *, *, 16 22, *, 22
Univ of MD- College Park 18, *, 19 53, *, * 20, *, 20 *, *, * 41, *, *
Harvard 1, *, 1 4, *, 1 2, *, 3 *, *, 6 2, *, 3
Princeton 2, *, 4 20, *, 13 5, *, 4 *, *, 15 13, *, 12
Northwestern 37, *, 35 14, *, 12 9, *, 9 *, *, 25 29, *, 28
UCLA 15, *, 15 10, *, 8 11, *, 11 *, *, 9 12, *, 13
Penn State 55, *, * 19, *, 21 45, *, * *, *, 24 42, *, *
JHU 29, *, 27 27, *, * 32, *, 32 *, *, 26 11, *, 11
Univ of MN- Twin Cities 23, *, 24 21, *, 23 10, *, * *, *, 5 36, *, 35
Ohio State 24, *, 28 22, *, 17 34, *, 35 *, *, 27 33, *, 33
Univ of CA- Santa Barbara 10, *, 12 33, *, 35 49, *, * *, *, * 35, *, 34
Columbia Univ (Fu Foundation) 12, *, 10 7, *, 5 12, *, 12 *, *, 14 9, *, 8
Univ of Fl *, *, 38 30, *, 29 41, *, 39 *, *, 40 39, *, *
VTech 71, *, * 67, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Pennsylvania 17, *, 13 25, *, 25 8, *, 8 *, *, 3 9, *, 9
Univ of Washington 14, *, 17 29, *, 30 26, *, 27 *, *, 20 23, *, 23
Rice 43, *, 41 29, *, 28 *, *, * *, *, * 53, *, *
NCSU 51, *, * 81, *, * 42, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Duke 43, *, 39 44, *, * 22, *, 22 *, *, 29 6, *, 4
Rensselaer Polytehnic 69, *, * 82, *, * 103, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Washington Univ in St. Louis 52, *, * 55, *, * 29, *, 29 *, *, * 50, *, *
Univ of CA- Davis 67, *, * 48, *, * 38, *, 37 *, *, * 48, *, *
Univ of CO- Boulder 38, *, 33 42, *, * 55, *, * *, *, 22 52, *, *
Case Western Reserve 65, *, * 71, *, * *, *, * *, *, * 91, *, *
Iowa State 50, *, * 26, *, 16 37, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Virginia 46, *, * 43, *, * 24, *, 25 *, *, 18 4, *, 5
Lehigh 98, *, * 84, *, * 89, *, * *, *, * 114, *, *
Yale 13, *, 11 12, *, 14 6, *, 6 *, *, 2 1, *, 1
Rutgers 20, *, 23 60, *, * 52, *, * *, *, 32 17, *, 17
Dartmouth 84, *, * 54, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Delaware 74, *, * 73, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Rochester 25, *, 25 32, *, 34 14, *, 15 *, *, 30 46, *, *
Brown 27, *, 26 56, *, * 23, *, 23 *, *, 23 14, *, 15
Univ of CA- Irvine 34, *, 32 36, *, 37 *, *, * *, *, 38 15, *, 14
Univ of MA- Amherst 64, *, * 58, *, * 51, *, * *, *, 39 41, *, *
Boston 39, *, 37 89, *, * 21, *, 21 *, *, * 38, *, 37
Univ of AZ 46, *, * *, *, * 37, *, 36 *, *, * 58, *, *
Univ of Iowa 73, *, * 76, *, * 30, *, 30 *, *, 33 45, *, *
Univ of Notre Dame 56, *, * 62, *, 38 82, *, * *, *, * 63, *, 29
Univ of Pittsburgh 40, *, 40 34, *, 32 34, *, 34 *, *, * 27, *, 25
Vanderbilt 58, *, * 86, *, * 48, *, * *, *, 25 31, *, 30
ASU 70, *, * 69, *, * 67, *, * *, *, * 79, *, *
CO State 105, *, * 37, *, * 100, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
MI State 32, *, 31 39, *, 39 27, *, 26 *, *, * 60, *, *
Drexel 81, *, * 118, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Ill Institute of Tech. 88, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ at Buffalo 108, *, * 57, *, * 58, *, * *, *, * 27, *, 26
Univ of Illinois, Chicago 88, *, * 63, *, * 71, *, * *, *, * 64, *, *
Northeastern 66, *, * 105, *, * 107, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
SUNY -Stony Brook 23, *, 21 46, *, * 39, *, 38 *, *, 31 49, *, *
Syracuse 58, *, * 60, *, * 56, *, * *, *, * 76, *, *
Univ of Utah 58, *, * 32, *, 31 90, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
CO School of Mines 107, *, * 159, *, * 104, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Cincinnati 102, *, * 72, *, * 97, *, * *, *, * 109, *, *
University of NM *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Oklahoma State 121, *, * 100, *, * 86, *, * *, *, * 122, *, *
Univ of CT 102, *, * 85, *, * 84, *, * *, *, * 82, *, *
Univ of NC- Chapel Hill 54, *, * 17, *, 16 25, *, 24 *, *, 24 24, *, 24
MI Tech 139, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Missouri, Rolla 124, *, * 111, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Clemson *, *, * 94, *, * 75, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Mississippi State *, *, * 159, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Polytechnic Univ 126, *, * 109, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of Central Fl *, *, * *, *, * 36, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Auburn 128, *, * 123, *, * 74, *, * *, *, * 93, *, *
NJIT *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Univ of CA- Riverside 70, *, * 70, *, * 71, *, * *, *, * 35, *, *
Univ of Houston 62, *, * 50, *, * 57, *, * *, *, * 88, *, *
Oregon State 76, *, * 61, *, 40 *, *, * *, *, * *, *, *
Tufts 77, *, * 137, *, * *, *, * *, *, * 70, *, *