Hardy perennials

Every fall brings a new crop of students making the same mistakes in English as the class before them, and the class before that, and one before that. (And second-year students aren’t necessarily any better.) From student work early this semester, here are fresh examples of some of the most common, and avoidable, mistakes I’ve seen in my six years coaching the international students at the J-school.

 

So what they intend to do?

The problem: word order in question formation. While some languages form questions by adding a word or two at the beginning of a statement (for example, est-ce que in French, czy in Polish) or at the end (ma in Chinese, ka in Japanese), in English we do it through inverted word order. The general order is question word + auxiliary verb + subject + base verb or participle. The question formed correctly:

So what do they intend to do?

 

If confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, his right-leaning vote could adversely affect the future of women’s reproductive choices.

Dangler alert! A dangler is a misplaced modifier — sometimes a phrase, sometimes a clause —  that makes a sentence say not quite what it means. (Danglers can be very funny; Deb Stead and I delight in trading them.) In this case, the sentence says it’s the vote that’s facing confirmation, not the Supreme Court nominee. Corrected:

If the nominee is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, his right-leaning vote could adversely affect the future of women’s reproductive choices.

 

And it is a big one, according to a research from Pew from December 2016 that says 69% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

My researches on virtual reality journalism and ethics are featured in MediaShift.

Research is uncountable in English; therefore, you can never have a research or researches. It’s always just research. So:

And it is a big one, according to research from Pew from December 2016 that says 69% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

My research on virtual reality journalism and ethics is featured in MediaShift.

The same is true for a number of other words, among them advice, evidence and feedback. I would add training to that list, although I hear more and more people talking about a training or trainings, as in this sentence from e-mail that just landed: We are still looking for more volunteers to act as marshals, and are offering two more trainings this month. To which my ear says, “Ugh.”

 

He believes those countries are blocking an U.N. action against the Venezuelan government.

The rule for indefinite article: use a if the word that follows start with a consonant and an if it’s a vowel. Clarification: that really means a consonant or vowel sound.  U actually starts with a Y sound. (Say it and see for yourself.) So it’s preceded by a, not an; that’s why we say a university, not an university. And that’s how we write it, too. Similarly, many consonants start with vowel sounds; F, for example, is pronounced ef, leading to the euphemistic expletive effing. So:

He believes those countries are blocking a U.N. action against the Venezuelan government.

Coincidentally, a current ad in the subways says a NYC girl. It should be an NYC girl. But the poster is too colorful for my edit in blue felt-tip to show up.

 

But overturning Roe v. Wade maybe too high of a price to pay for those votes.

No of, please; it’s unnecessary and inelegant. (The same goes for make for; just make.) So:

But overturning Roe v. Wade maybe too high a price to pay for those votes.

 

My job was to take requests from foreign press and help them produce their stories.

The radio station and the drug gang that controlled Providencia had a deal: as long as we didn’t report on shootings or other crimes there, they would keep their hands off reporters.

In British English, collective nouns like press and gang are treated as plural, but American English considers them singular. Verbs and pronouns referring to them must agree with them in number. Press would require it and its, which would make sentence awkward. Better:

My job was to take requests from foreign journalists and help them produce their stories.

And

The radio station and the drug gang that controlled Providencia had a deal: as long as we didn’t report on shootings or other crimes there, it would keep its hands off reporters.

 

Two more singular/plural problems:

A big hit among international journalists were the new cablecar systems.

The subject of the sentence is hit, which is singular, not journalists, the noun closest to the verb. (Don’t be fooled by modifying phrases that come between the subject and the verb.) So the verb needs to be was.

And:

It has had the reputation of being one of the city’s most violent slum complex.

One of the means one among many (or at least multiple); it always needs to be followed by a plural. So:

It has had the reputation of being one of the city’s most violent slum complexes.

 

The Army occupation was broadcasted live.

Broadcast is an irregular verb; past tense is broadcast. Same with forecast.

 

It is a waist of money.

The problem here is homophones — words that sound alike but have different spelling and meanings. The writer meant waste. Another homophone problem:

They are all to often left too their own resources.

The writer has it exactly backwards. She meant:

They are all too (adverb) often left to (preposition) their own resources.

 

The intent is to relate to people as “the experts in their own lives,” said Hardman to the class.

Hardman may have misspoken or the writer may have misheard, but idiom says people are experts on something.  English has lots of prepositions, and their use tends to be very idiomatic. See this post on prepositions and phrasal verbs for some advice on getting them right.

 

He believes the tourist could have been suffering from a viral disease that caused his violent behavior.

Journalists don’t know what people, deep in their heart of hearts, actually believe, think or feel; we know only what they tell us. So, please:

He said the tourist could have been suffering from a viral disease that caused his violent behavior.

He said he believed the tourist could have been suffering from a viral disease that caused his violent behavior.

 

The two recorded announcements I type most often on student work, hundreds of times every school year:

In English, periods and commas go INSIDE quotation marks.

In multi-sentence quotes, put the attribution after the first complete sentence.

 

To end on a positive note:

Rio’s unique geography comprises many hills and mountains.

Correct, and congratulations, Isadora Varejao, for getting it right! Most people don’t; they would say is comprised of instead. But the whole comprises the parts, so the verb does not work in passive voice. When in doubt that you know how to use comprise correctly, say consists of instead.

 

 

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