Grammar problems

By Dr. Robert F. Stevenson
A few days ago, a friend of mine struck up a conversation with me concerning the pervasive problem of poor grammar. The discussion centered on the fact that one of the biggest complaints employers across the country have concerning those applying for entry-level jobs is the potential employees’ poor grasp of English grammar. I contributed my observation that in the not-too-distant past a good test for writers frustrated over a grammar conundrum included the simple question: “Does it sound right?” Unfortunately, a problem facing today’s youth is that poor grammar has seeped so deeply into daily conversation that, “Does it sound right?” just doesn’t work anymore. A little research confirmed the existence of that problem.
In an article entitled Poll finds grammar not prized by high school teachers, published in Education Daily, April 21, 2003, author Michael Cardman reported, “Among six general writing skills, high school teachers in a recent poll rated grammar and usage as the least important.” Cardman went on to say, “Of seniors who graduated in 2002 and took the ACT (standardized test), 46 percent scored at or below a level of marginal preparedness for college coursework, meaning they may struggle with such tasks as using punctuation to clarify meaning, making subjects and verbs agree, or linking clauses clearly and logically.”

In a separate article by United Press International, March 18, 2003 entitled, Top 20 mistakes in writing resumes, Mike Worthington, the so-called “Resume Doctor,” discussed recruiters’ top 20 complaints. Recently, Worthington’s firm interviewed hundreds of recruiters and headhunters in the United States and Canada to find out what turns them off. The report, available at, found that, “The No. 1 thing recruiters hate is bad writing: spelling errors, typos and poor grammar.”

Are you one of the countless hordes of seemingly normal people with a “closet” grammar problem? Maybe you were absent (in mind if not in body) when your fifth grade English teacher discussed pronoun-antecedent agreement. Or, maybe the pluperfect tense makes you perfectly tense. Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones — who invariably “gets it right,” without a clue as to why. Whatever the reason, if you have concealing a grammar phobia, it’s not too late to conquer the comma!
Why not make this the day that you begin to liberate yourself from that cloud of confusion surrounding English grammar? It can be done. When I taught English as a Second Language to international students at a community college north of Seattle, one of my most common replies to my students was, “That’s another exception to the rule.” I sometimes felt a little guilty that I was fortunate enough to grow up speaking English because English seemed to me a relatively difficult language for a non-English speaking adult to master.

Shown below is a quick test of common grammar and spelling problems. Why not take a minute to see how you fare? Just circle the correct responses.
a. The dog lost (its or it’s) collar.
b. Give the money to (whoever or whomever) you like.
c. Exercise may be difficult (comma, semicolon, or no punctuation) but it can be very rewarding.
d. The (effect or affect) of the experiment would negatively (effect or \ affect) the group.
e. Our garden has (a lot or alot) of weeds this year.
f. The team comprised entirely of girls made (their or its) debut last Saturday.
g. It is (all right or alright) that you are finished (all ready or already).
h. You (two, too, to) have (two, too, to) much time (two, too, to)!
i. She made this gift for you and (I or me).
j. The committee discussed the issue amongst (themselves or itself) before rendering (their or its) decision.
The answers are:
a. its (“it’s” only means “it is”);
b. whomever (we need an object to fit with the preposition “to” in this sentence – “whoever” is nominative case or a subject; whomever is the objective case pronoun);
c. comma (there are two independent clauses [phrases with a subject and a verb] combined by the coordinating conjunction “but.” The rule is to “always precede a coordinating conjunction with a comma.” )
d. effect (“effect” with an “e” means result); affect (“affect” with an “a” means change). e. a lot (“a lot” is always two words);
f. its (in this sentence, we’re dealing with a pronoun/antecedent agreement. “Their” is plural and therefore incorrect because the antecedent “team” is singular).
g. all right (alright is non-standard English); already (already means “by now”).
h. two (always a number); too (excessively); and too (as well).
i. me (the pronoun “I” is always a subject, and “me” is always an object. In this sentence we need an object).    
j. themselves (“committee” is a collective noun; it can either be singular or plural depending on its usage. [In the first reference, “committee” is plural, so we need a plural pronoun) its (committee is acting as a singular noun in the second reference.] “Its” is therefore the correct pronoun).

If you missed 0-2, go back to your reading; you’re doing fine.
3-5, maybe a little brush up wouldn’t hurt.
6-8, time to get a library card and enhance your writing through reading
9-10, time to get a grammar book.
If you felt a little rusty with this English grammar challenge, I recommend acquainting yourself with either of these two books: THE LITTLE BROWN HANDBOOK or STRUNK
Don’t let a comma come between you and your next job.




About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
This entry was posted in *grammar posts, *writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s