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Spotlight on Grammar Archives

Index

DateTopic
September 24, 2012 Dangling Modifiers
October 1, 2012 Misplaced Modifiers
October 8, 2012 Parallelism
October 15, 2012 Parallelism Revisited
October 29, 2012 Prepositions, Things Not to End Sentences With!
November 9, 2012 The Semi-colon
December 4, 2012 it's/its, who's/whose
January 3, 2013 More Tricky Apostrophe Situations
January 9, 2013 Pat's Pronoun Pet Peeves
February 4, 2013 A Second Look at Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement
February 14, 2013 Using Commas to Separate Items in a Series
February 25, 2013 Using Dashes
March 11, 2013 Ellipsis
April 12, 2013 Hyphens
April 29, 2013 Updates
September 10, 2013 Two Words Commonly Misused in Personal Statements
September 20, 2013 Two Common Words You Should Not Mispronounce
November 1, 2013 The Colon
February 7, 2014 Using Commas to Set Off a Parenthetical Element
February 21, 2014 Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Clauses and the Use of Commas
March 7, 2014 Answers to the February 21 Extra Credit Challenge
March 7, 2014 Using Bullets
August 22, 2014 "Myself" (How Not to Embarrass Yourself)
August 28, 2014 Using Capital Letter in Titles (for example, Poster Titles)
September 16, 2014 "Use" versus "Utilize"
September 29, 2014 "As Well As" is Not a Conjunction
October 9, 2014 Can You Find the Grammar Errors?
December 2, 2014 The Hemingway App
December 15, 2014 Hemingway May Be Perfect; the Hemingway App Is Not.
January 7, 2015 Combining Two Complete Sentences into a Compound Sentence (It's Not as Easy as You Might Think!)
January 27, 2015 Punctuation Challenge
February 10, 2015 Using Subordinating Conjunctions
March 9, 2015 Extra Credit Challenges Using Subordinating Conjunctions
April 21, 2015 Try Your Hand at Editing a Paragraph from a Personal Statement for Medical School

September 24, 2012: Dangling modifiers

Consider the following sentence.  It was included in a writing sample submitted to the OITE in response to a job ad for a writer (honestly!).  "Bathed in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), researchers long assumed that waste from the brain moved by simple diffusion."  Ask yourself what is bathed in cerebrospinal fluid.  As written, the sentence suggests that "researchers" have been subjected to that watery fate.

If you begin a sentence with a modifier (that is, with an adjective or adverb or a phrase or clause acting as an adjective or adverb) be certain that the modifier applies to the subject of the sentence (or rewrite the sentence to eliminate the modifier.  In this case, the following sentence is much clearer (and also correct):  "Researchers long assumed that simple diffusion of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) removed waste from the brain."

Extra credit: what part of speech is "Bathed in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)"?  Find the answer in next week's news.

October 1, 2012: Misplaced Modifiers

Before we leave the subject of modifiers, let's deal with the problem of modifiers that are misplaced.  The rule is: put the modifier as close as humanly possible to the word it modifies.  Take a look at this sentence about a radioactive beaker: "He put the beaker in the laboratory that was radioactive."  How serious is the problem here?  What is radioactive...the entire laboratory or just the beaker?  How could such a short sentence go so terribly wrong?  The problem is that too many words intervene between the modifier ("that was radioactive") and the word it was meant to modify ("beaker").  We could rewrite the sentence to read "He put the beaker that was radioactive in the laboratory." (better) or just "He put the radioactive beaker in the laboratory." (best).

Or consider this charming example, taken from a CliffsQuickReview:  "Perhaps anticipating what modern science would discover, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, requested she be cremated before her death."  It sounds painful to me! 

Extra credit:  Re-write this sentence to express Anna Anderson's most probable intention.  Also, as what part of speech is the phrase "before her death" functioning?

Answer to last week's extra credit query:  The original sentence was "Bathed in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), researchers long assumed that waste from the brain moved by simple diffusion." "Bathed in cerebrospinal fluid" is a phrase used as an adjective.  As we discussed, it (incorrectly) modifies "researchers", the noun that is the subject of the sentence.

Spotlight on Grammar: Parallelism

Before we leave misplaced modifiers, please take a look at one more example generously provided by Julie Gold of the OITE.  "He told me about his vacation in the elevator."  May all your vacations be more interesting!

Parallel structure refers to the fact that parts of a sentence that have the same function should be grammatically parallel.  Three instances in which this is important are (1) bulleted lists, (2) items in a series, and (3) items linked by either/or, both/and, or neither/nor.  Bulleted lists are especially important because many of us use them to organize our CVs and résumés.  For example, a postbac might write the following in a list of research experience: 

Postbaccalaureate trainee at the NIH in the laboratory of Dr. X

  • Investigated the role of β-subunits in the function of Nav channel isoforms
  • Developed a mathematical model for channel gating
  • Created a poster summarizing my results
  • Writing a short report on my work for inclusion in the Postbac News Letter 

Each of the first three elements in this list begins with a strong verb in the past tense.  The fourth element does not conform to this pattern; it is not grammatically parallel to the others.  It should begin with "Wrote".  We'll explore some more examples of parallelism next week.

Extra credit:  Edit the following statement to make the elements in the series parallel:  "My goals for this year are to learn all I can about bioinformatics, mastering the Metro, and enhance my mastery of Chinese cooking."

Answer to last week's extra credit query:  The sentence was "Perhaps anticipating what modern science would discover, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, requested she be cremated before her death."  I am fairly certain Anna's intentions are better captured by "Perhaps anticipating what modern science would discover, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, requested before her death that she be cremated."  "Before her death" is a prepositional phrase that modifies "requested", not "cremated".  Putting the phrase nearer to the word it modifies clears up possible confusion.

October 15, 2012: Parallelism Revisited

You can make last week's extra credit sentence parallel in multiple ways.  The sentence was "My goals for this year are to learn all I can about bioinformatics, mastering the Metro, and enhance my command of Chinese cooking." The three elements that should be grammatically equal are underlined.  Any of the following re-writes would be fine 

  • "My goals for this year are to learn all I can about bioinformatics, to master the Metro, and to enhance my command of Chinese cooking."  All three elements in the series are now infinitives (the "to" form of a verb; that thing you are not supposed to split).
  • "My goals for this year are to learn all I can about bioinformatics, master the Metro, and enhance my command of Chinese cooking." In this case, the "to" is understood to apply to all three elements.
  • "My goals for this year are learning all I can about bioinformatics, mastering the Metro, and enhancing my command of Chinese cooking."  Here, each element is a participle, a verb form ending in "ing" that is used as a noun.

 Another common situation where lack of parallelism rears its ugly head occurs when items are linked by "either/or", "both/and" or "neither/nor".  (These are examples of correlative conjunctions.)

Extra credit:  Are the elements in the following sentences parallel?  If not, "fix" them.  "When I complete my postbac training, I hope to pursue both graduate training in neuroscience and to develop significant science policy expertise." "Either you like research at the bench or not."

October 29, 2012: Prepositions, Things Not to End Sentences With!

One day recently I read a sentence I found in a novel (a novel highly recommended by The Washington Post) out loud to my husband.  The sentence was "Whenever she heard Laura describe New York City, and all it had to offer, it made Enza want to be a part of it too."  My thought was that the sentence was sloppy and wordy.   "When Laura described New York City, and all it had to offer, Enza wanted to be a part of it too." would convey the same information.  I did NOT expect my husband to say, "I am always careful not to end sentences with prepositions."

Hopefully sometime in your past you learned that one should never end a sentence with a preposition.  Although this rule is no longer strictly obeyed, it's probably a good idea to follow it.  Hopefully you also know what prepositions are.  Just to be certain: prepositions are words that define the relationships between nouns and pronouns.  These are words like "on", "to", "in", "under", "before", "through", "during", etc. They are used in phrases such as "the girl behind the counter", "the scene below us", or "the one before this one".  In each case the preposition is underlined.  The rule means that it is better to say, "Please give me the name of the person to whom you spoke." than "Please give me the name of the person you spoke to."

This brings us to the "to/too/two" issue.  "To" is a preposition.  "Too" is not.  "Too" is the grammatical equivalent of "also", and it's perfectly fine to use it at the end of a sentence!

Extra credit:  There is another "to" in the sentence.  It is found in the phrase "all it had to offer".  Is "to" a preposition in this instance?  If not, what is it? or not."  Also, did I misuse any prepositions in creating this post?

November 9, 2012: The Semi-colon

Raise your hand if you have a favorite punctuation mark.  I thought not.  Perhaps you would be willing to consider mine.

I am quite taken with the semi-colon (Dr. Milgram reports that she likes it as well).  Used properly, it enables you to communicate more successfully while conveying a sense of being widely read and well educated.  So, what can you do with a semi-colon?  Two things.

1. You can use a semi-colon to link two complete sentences that are closely related.  The semi-colon tells the reader  that you are presenting two complete thoughts and that he/she should come to a complete stop between them just as for a period, while at the same time suggesting that the reader consider those thoughts together.  You could also use "and", but the semi-colon produces a more forceful statement.  Alternatively, you could just write two sequential, separate sentences, which jettisons the implied link between the ideas.  Consider the following alternatives.

  •  Semi-colons can be an important tool for a writer, and, if he uses them appropriately, readers may be convinced that he is literate.
  • Semi-colons can be an important tool for a writer.  If he uses them appropriately, readers may be convinced that he is literate.
  • Semi-colons can be an important tool for a writer; if he uses them appropriately, readers may be convinced that he is literate.

I hope I am hearing a resounding cheer for the third alternative, which is both more forceful than the first, and suggests that the second idea follows closely from the first, which it does.

2. You can use a semi-colon to separate complex items (i.e., items that already contain commas) in a series.  Often this clarifies the meaning.   Consider the following sentence: "The committee was composed of Dr. Jones, the Chair of the Biology Department, Ms. Smith, her administrator, and Samatha Stevens, a graduate student."  How many folks are on this committee? Six, five, four, three?  The confusion can be removed by appropriately replacing commas with semi-colons.  "The committee was composed of Dr. Jones, the Chair of the Biology Department; Ms. Smith, her administrator; and Samatha Stevens, a graduate student."  The semi-colons function as higher order separators and tell us, in this case, that the committee had three members: Dr Jones who happens to be a department chair, Ms. Smith who is Dr, Jones' assistant, and a graduate student whose name is Samantha.

Before you begin sprinkling semi-colons liberally throughout your personal statements with the goal of impressing readers, I should issue a warning.  Use semi-colons appropriately and sparingly.  If a reader sees more than one semi-colon use per page, he/she is going to begin to suspect that you are showing off.

Answer to last week's extra credit question.  We were considering the sentence, "Whenever she heard Laura describe New York City, and all it had to offer, it made Enza want to be a part of it too."  The question was,  There is another "to/too/two" in the sentence.  It is found in the phrase "all it had to offer".  Is "to" a preposition in this instance?  If not, what is it?  Also, did I misuse any prepositions in creating this post? 

ANSWER: In the phrase "all it had to offer", "to" is part of an infinitive (a verb form that combines "to" with, in this case, "offer").  I inserted a misused preposition by ending the posting title (Prepositions, Things Not to End Sentences With!) with "with".

December 4, 2012: it's/its, who's/whose

I have been reading a lot of personal statements recently, and I think it's time to focus our attention on using "it's" and "its" correctly. "It's" (with an apostrophe) is a contraction. It means "it is", and the apostrophe takes the place of the omitted letter and space. If you cannot substitute "it is" into your sentence, DO NOT use an apostrophe. Example: It's a good thing you completed your application early, since the system crashed just before the deadline.

"Its" is the possessive form of the pronoun "it". An example: The rat gathered all the bedding into the farthest corner of its cage. Although nouns gain an apostrophe when they become possessive (for example: the rat's bedding), "it" does not.

"Who's" and "whose" are entirely analogous. "Who's" is a contraction meaning "who is", as in "Who's that sitting next to you?" "Whose" is the possessive form of "who". Example: Whose personal statement was more convincing?

And one more thing: the past tense of "lead" is "led"!

Extra credit: Can you think of a pronoun that DOES include an apostrophe in the possessive form?

January 3, 2013: More Tricky Apostrophe Situations

Let's spend just a moment on some word constructs that do not need, and should not be given, an apostrophe. Take a look at the following examples:

We went to visit the Browns over Christmas break.
Being a student in the 1960s was not simple.
Which one of the ICs had the largest attendance of PIs at its retreat?

Please resist the temptation to insert an apostrophe in the plurals of family names, years, or acronyms!

But, do use an apostrophe when you create the plural of a letter, as in "I think you have included too many g's in egregious."

Extra credit from last week: Can you think of a pronoun that DOES include an apostrophe in the possessive form?

Answer to last week's extra credit question: Indefinite pronouns "refer to one or more unspecified beings, objects, or places." The possessive form of indefinite pronouns ends with apostrophe "s". Examples of indefinite pronouns are "one", "someone/somebody", "no one/nobody", "anyone/anybody", "everyone/everybody", "another", "whoever", "other", "each other", and "someone else". (There are actually more indefinite pronouns, but many of the others cannot be made possessive.) Here are some examples of the possessive forms of indefinite pronouns:

It is important to record data in one's lab notebook as one is carrying out the experiment.
Sometimes looking over someone else's notes helps a student to identify the central point of a lecture.

NOTE: in contrast to indefinite pronouns, possessive pronouns refer to a specific being, object, or place. They include "mine", "yours", "his/hers", "ours", and "theirs". These are the ones that do not acquire an apostrophe in the possessive.

January 9, 2013: Pat's pronoun pet peeves

 Thank you for your many requests for more information on the fascinating topic of pronouns! I am happy to oblige. Today I thought I would talk about two of my pronoun pet peeves: lack of number agreement between a pronoun and the noun it refers to (known as its antecedent) and incorrect use of "myself" and other reflexive pronouns.

Rule #1: When a pronoun refers to a singular noun, use a singular pronoun; when a pronoun refers to a plural noun, make the pronoun plural as well.

Consider the following correct examples:
The students asked me to look over their personal statements. ("Students" and "their" are both plural.)
The student asked me to look over his personal statement. ("Student" and "his" are both singular.)

What I see FAR too often are sentences like "The student asked me to look over their personal statement".

Extra credit: What pronoun should you use in the following sentence: "Each student should read over and edit ________ cover letter carefully before asking anyone else to look at it."?

Rule #2: reflexive pronouns (pronouns that combine a personal pronoun with "self" or "selves", e.g., "myself", "herself") are never used as the subject or object of a sentence. Instead, they are used to reflect nouns or pronouns or to add emphasis.

CORRECT: I ran the gel myself ("myself" reflects "I"). I myself was not a fan of the Washington Redskins until RG III joined the team ("myself" emphasizes the word "I"). I said to myself, "Good work!" (I have no idea what "myself" is doing in this sentence, but it IS correct.)

INCORRECT: Shirley and myself went to see the new moving on fracking, Promised Land. ("Myself" is used incorrectly as the subject of the sentence. The correct sentence would be "Shirley and I...") NOTE: The WORD grammar checker caught this error.

INCORRECT: The new postbac watched the PI and myself run the gel. ("Myself" is incorrectly used as an object in this sentence. The correct wording would be "The new posbac watched the PI and me...") WORD did not catch this one.

February 4, 2013: A Second Look at Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Again, the grammar spotlight has provoked "widespread" discussion. Colin Hoy of NIMH sent the following comment. "I thought you might be interested in an empirical perspective on your #1 Pet Pronoun Peeve. Generally speaking, I agree that he, she, his, and hers are the correct singular pronouns and should be used if at all possible, but am I right that the ambiguous cases in which gender cannot be inferred from the preceding context would require using "his/her" or "he/she"? It's no wonder people eschew this cumbersome language in favor of incorrect grammar. In fact, this article makes an argument for using singular they (and presumably their as well) for the sake of cognitive efficiency. Granted, even if such usage is eventually accepted by the grammatical powers that be, some English teacher somewhere will always protest, but I figured I'd at least present a bit of evidence to balance the other side." (Colin gets extra credit for actually using the word "eschew"!)

NOTE added in January 2017

It turns out that some things are more important than grammar.  If an individual prefers to be referred to by the pronouns "they", "them", and "theirs" rather than gender-based pronouns ("she", "her", "hers" or "he", "him", "his"), that preference should be honored and should be considered correct.

Let's take a look at last week's extra credit question, which addressed exactly this point. Extra credit: What pronoun should you use in the following sentence: "Each student should read over and edit ________ cover letter carefully before asking anyone else to look at it."? What are our choices? Note that the subject of the sentence, "each student", is singular.

1. Each student should read over and edit his cover letter. This is what we all would have written in 1960. At that time, everyone knew that "his" meant "his or her".
2. Each student should read over and edit his or her cover letter. Each student should read over and edit his/her cover letter. This approach was dictated by the women's movement. (If the pronoun was used as the subject of the sentence, it would be "he or she" or "s/he".) This construction is cumbersome, particularly if it is used repeatedly in a longer paragraph.
3. In a longer text, alternate the use of "he" and "she". (I find this disruptive at best and possibly confusing.)
4. Each student should read over and edit her cover letter. This approach suggests that the author is making a political statement in addition to sharing advice.
5. Each student should read over and edit their cover letter. This is the alternative advocated (sort of) by Colin and at least one other reader. This approach is successful from the perspective of being clear. I would not, however, recommend using it in a formal document on which an important outcome hinges. The reader could always be an English fanatic or a person who does not believe in "singular they".
6. All students should read over and edit their cover letters. This may be my personal preference. Rewrite the sentence to avoid both potential error and awkward constructions. Another alternative is to switch to the second person "you", which is the same in the singular and plural.

February 14, 2013: Using Commas to Separate Items in a Series

When you write a list of three or more items using a single conjunction, do you obsess about how many commas to use? For example, suppose you are talking about the American flag's being "red, white, and blue". Do you wonder whether you should include that comma after "white"?

This is another case of rules in transition. The rule has always been, use a comma after EVERY item in the series except the last (the one AFTER the "and"). Modern usage is moving towards eliminating that last comma.

I have three recommendations: (1) to be absolutely correct from the perspective of English teachers and picky readers, use the comma just before the "and"; (2) be especially certain to use that last comma anytime the meaning of the sentence would be ambiguous without it (see below); and (3) whichever convention you decide to follow, use it consistently throughout the document.

Check out the following sentence: When Sarah returned from the NIH, she told us all about the National Library of Medicine, the uncomfortable seats in Lipsett Amphitheater and Masur Auditorium. Does this sentence mean Sarah told us about (1) the Library of Medicine, (2) the uncomfortable seats in Lipsett Amphitheater, and (3) Masur Auditorium? Or were there uncomfortable seats in Masur too? Including a comma after "Amphitheater" dispels the confusion and speeds the reader along.

Oh, and while we're at it, remember that the elements in a series should be grammatically parallel.

February 25, 2013: Using Dashes

Documents written by young scientists often include dashes.  Dashes are far less common in the writing of older individuals, so they are likely to attract the attention of admissions or search committees.  So, let's use today's message to make certain you are using dashes correctly.

Dashes can do two things:

  • A pair of dashes can set off an element that interrupts a sentence (you will need only one dash if the interruption comes at the end of the sentence).  Commas and parentheses can also fulfill this function.  Commas are less intrusive, and parentheses may indicate that the interruption is further removed from the actual meaning of the sentence.  For example, you could write  "We use sequencing software-adapted from the work of our colleagues in Brussels-to analyze our data."
  • A dash can also be used in place of "i.e." (see the Spotlight on Grammar Archives for an earlier post on i.e.), "that is", or "namely" or "in other words". Thus you might write "When you register for Postbac Poster Day, you need only submit a poster title-you will be asked for a title, but not for a complete abstract."

Here are some important things to remember.  (1) A dash "-" is NOT a hyphen "-".  It is longer.  Hyphens are used in some compound words and with some prefixes (e.g., "on-line" or "anti-establishment").  With continued use, the hyphen may be omitted.  "On-line" is now frequently written "online". (2) To create a dash in WORD, type two sequential hyphens.  Do not precede or follow them with a space.  WORD automatically generates the longer dash. (3) Use dashes sparingly.  If you find that your documents are rife with them, consider replacing some of the dashes with commas or parentheses.  You can also rewrite sentences to eliminate the need for internal interruptions.

March 11, 2013: Ellipsis

Last week's discussion on dashes provoked such spirited discussion, that I opted this week to focus on another relatively rare punctuation situation, ellipsis.  An ellipses looks like this: " ... ".  It's a series of three periods preceded and followed by a space.  An ellipsis can be used for several things

  • You can indicate that a quotation or document has been condensed by omitting one or more words.  For example, "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ... a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."  Of course, more important than the punctuation is the requirement that the omission not change the meaning of the passage! 
  • An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a thought that has not been completed.  I use them a lot when I run out of steam and don't want to type out a complete idea in e-mail.

Once again, controversy swirls around ellipses.  Authorities disagree as to whether the three periods should be separated by spaces or not.  I am voting in favor of no spaces, because I find the resulting pattern more satisfying.  Try the other alternative and you will see what I mean.

Perhaps this discussion has raised more questions for you than it has answered.  How, for example, would one handle eliminating the end of a paragraph, or, more complicated still, the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next?  Would you need an extra period if the omission either created a complete sentence or began after the end of a sentence ? (The answer to this one is "yes".  The sentence would end with  a regular period and then be followed by the ellipsis.)   If you want to read more, I recommend the Associated Press Stylebook 2007, pages 327 and 328.  The authors have provided a comprehensive example of condensation using President Nixon's resignation announcement.  The Stylebook  is available in multiple formats, including online and as a mobile app.

April 12, 2013: Hyphens

This week we continue two running themes: the use of relatively rare punctuation and the vision of grammar as alive and evolving. Like the use of "their" as a possessive, singular pronoun; the decision whether or not to use a comma following the last item before "and" in a series; or treating "data" as a singular noun, the use of hyphens is in transition.

Consider the following sequence: "on line" > "on-line"  > "online". As a phrase becomes a more familiar part of the language, its components are likely first to be linked by hyphens and then to be fused into a single word. If you are uncertain, use a current dictionary to make your decisions regarding hyphens.

We can identify some general principles, however.

  • Hyphens are used within words. Dashes are used between words and phrases.  (Hyphens are shorter!)
  • Many compound adjectives are hyphenated when they appear before a noun, but not when they stand alone. For example, from the 2013 Postbac Poster Day Program: "Norovirus infection does not confer short-term protection against reinfection with GII.6."  But, "The effect of the treatment on the patient's memory was short term."
  • Fractions used as adverbs are hyphenated, e.g., "The exam was two-thirds multiple choice questions."
  • Most compound adverbs are written as two words. We would write "The thoroughbred horse was running full speed.
  • Prefixes are more and more likely to be written as part of the words they describe, e.g.,  "antiwar", "postmodern", or "intramural".  However, when the prefix ends and the noun begins with the same letter, a hyphen may still be preferred, as in "anti-intellectual".  Also, when the noun requires an upper case letter, a hyphen is preferred.  Thus we would write "anti-American".
  • A hyphen should always be used (or omitted) carefully when its presence determines meaning.  Consider the following example from The Elements of Style.  The authors report that, when the Chattanooga News the Free Press merged, the resulting paper was (temporarily I hope) called the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

Extra credit: As you may know, there are two spellings for the word "capital"/"capitol". Since the NIH is so close to Washington, DC, it is appropriate for you to know which spelling to use when. So, which spelling should be used to refer to

  • The building in which the US House of Representatives and Senate meet, 
  • Washington, DC as a city, also Paris, France; Annapolis, MD; etc, 
  • An upper case letter,
  • The Washington, DC hockey team, 
  • An accumulation of wealth?

April 29: Updates

First, let's deal with the extra credit question from the last newsletter. You were asked to decide which spelling of "capital/capitol" would be used in several situations. Here are the answers:

  • The building in which the US House of Representatives and Senate meet: the Capitol Building
  • Washington, DC as a city, also Paris, France; Annapolis, MD; etc: These are all capital cities 
  • An upper case letter: a capital letter
  • The Washington, DC hockey team: the Capitals (who are now in the NHL Play-offs!) 
  • An accumulation of wealth: capital

Two admissions: these do not make any sense to me, especially the first two, AND I had to look them up! 

Second update, remember our discussion of what third-person pronoun(s) to use when referring to a singular subject? Well, National Public Radio may have the answer. No more dithering about "he" vs. "he/she" vs. "they"! Students in Baltimore use "yo" instead, as in "Yo put his foot on the desk." Apparently pronouns are rarely changed once they have entered the English language. Could we be witnessing a first? Check out the transcript of the article External Link and stay tuned.

September 10: Two Words Commonly Misused in Personal Statements

Welcome to the fall and the re-institution of the ever-popular Grammar Spotlight!  This week we are going to focus briefly on two words that give many postbacs trouble.

Consider the following sentence:  "My interest in applying mathematical approaches to biological problems led me to apply to your program."  How many of you would have used "lead" rather than "led"?  Be honest!  Fifty percent of you should be raising your hands.  Please remember that "led" is the past tense of the verb "to lead".

How about this one: suppose you wanted to use a fancy word to indicate that an event aroused your interest.  Would you (correctly) write that it "piqued" your interest or would you, like many of your colleagues, say that it "peaked" your interest?

Happy statement writing!  Next week watch this space for two commonly mispronounced words.

September 20, 2013: Two Common Words You Should Not Mispronounce

No suspense today! The words are "cache" and "err". Try saying them out loud.

"Cache" is a word applied to places used to hid things, as in a "cache of weapons in Afghanistan" or a "squirrel's cache of nuts". Did you correctly pronounce "cache" just as you would "cash"? Or did you pronounce it as "ca" (like the first two letters in "cat) - "shay"? If you chose the latter, you have mixed up "cache" and "cachet". "Cachet" refers to a special (good), but not well-defined quality of a person or experience.

Now what about "err"? I am willing to bet that most of you said it just as you would say "air". Unfortunately for many of us, the word is actually pronounced like the first three letters in "earth" OR as "air-ear(th)". [That "ear(th)" sound, by the way, is a "schwa", and it is represented by an upside down and backward "e".] Although "err" is commonly used - think "To err is human, to forgive divine" (Alexander Pope) - you will rarely hear it pronounced correctly.

November 1, 2013: The Colon

We are now deep into personal-statement-writing season. Because lists are a useful tool for organizing information, let's talk about using colons. (I am not nearly as attached to colons as to semi-colons, but they do have their place.)

Colons are commonly used in three situations: to introduce a list, to introduce a formal quotation, or to introduce a restatement. Here are some examples.

  • Enclosed please find the following: my personal statement, my résumé, and my transcript. Note that "the following" is a good indicator of the need for a colon. Also, the colon is followed by a lower case letter unless each of the elements in the list is a proper noun or a complete sentence.
  • The laboratory was stocked with everything a new investigator could wish for: automatic sequencers, GC-mass spectrometers, and a fleet of plate readers. Note that you need not use "the following" to introduce a list.
  • The manuscript began with the following description of an ideal graduate student: "The ideal student, seen through the eyes of graduate faculty, is gifted and creative, perfectly suited to the program, eager to actively pursue the lines of inquiry valued by the faculty, pleasant, responsible, and devoid of serious personal problems."

These examples are relatively straightforward. The last situation in which you would use a colon is more complex. Like the semi-colon, the colon can be used to link two closely related complete sentences. However, the requirements for colon use are more stringent. The second sentence must restate the information in the first.

  • Today's weather is terrible: it's cold and windy outside and the rain is pelting down. This is an appropriate use of a colon. To verify this, try inserting "that is," after the colon. If the sentence still makes sense, the colon was the correct punctuation choice. 
  • The Phase I trial of our new drug began three months ago - already we are seeing promising signs of effectiveness. Would you replace the dash with a colon or a semi-colon?

Happy writing!

February 7, 2014: Using Commas to Set Off a Parenthetical Element

Consider this sentence:  "This posting, should you be interested, will focus on an important use for commas."  The phrase "should you be interested" interrupts the flow of the sentence.  It could have been enclosed in parentheses. In this case, it is set off from the rest of the sentence by a pair of commas, one before and one after. 

If the interruption is slight, you may wish to omit the commas.  However, under no circumstances should you use only one comma. 

Next time: restrictive vs. nonrestrictive clauses and the use of commas.

February 21, 2014: Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Clauses and the Use of Commas

Consider the following two sentences:

  • "The book that I finished yesterday is due back at the library today." 
  • "The Daughters of Mars, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was written by Thomas Kineally."

Note that they are punctuated differently. There are no commas in the first, whereas in the second, the clause "which I thoroughly enjoyed" is set off by commas. Here's why. The clause "that I finished yesterday" is a restrictive (or defining) clause. It identifies the book that must be returned tomorrow to avoid a fine. Without it, the book to be returned could not be determined. In contrast, the clause "which I thoroughly enjoyed" makes no real difference to the sentence. Without it, the sentence reads "The Daughters of Mars was written by Thomas Kineally." That statement is true whether I liked the book or not. "Which I thoroughly enjoyed" is a nonrestrictive clause.

So here is the rule: a nonrestrictive clause is set off by a pair of commas. Again, remember that 2 commas are required. (If you used only one comma, you would be separating the subject from the verb, and that is very bad. Restrictive clauses are not set off. And here's an additional (soft) rule: it is preferable to begin a nonrestrictive clause with "which" and a restrictive clause with "that". Of course, clauses can also begin with "where", "who", and "when".

Extra credit: complete and punctuate the following sentences:

1. The manuscript ________ you shared with me on Tuesday is clearly in need or additional editing.
2. The man __________ was second in line was clearly eager to get moving.
3. The speaker _________ had at first seemed indifferent grew increasingly animated as he warmed to the topic.
4. The Career Symposium program ____________ was printed in turquoise and green provided clear directions for how to reach Lister Hill.

March 7, 2014: Answers to the February 21 Extra Credit Challenge

I know that many of you have been waiting eagerly for the answers to the Extra credit questions from the last newsletter. Here they are:

Extra credit: complete and punctuate the following sentences:

1. The manuscript that you shared with me on Tuesday is clearly in need of additional editing. This sentence requires no commas. The clause "that you shared with me on Tuesday" defines the manuscript under discussion; it is a restrictive clause.
2. The man who was second in line was clearly eager to get moving. "Who was second in line" identifies the man in a hurry. No commas are required.
3. The speaker, who had at first seemed indifferent, grew increasingly animated as he warmed to the topic. This is an example of a nonrestrictive clause. As a result, it is set off by commas. The sentence would convey the same information if the clause were omitted. The same is true for sentence 4.
4. The Career Symposium program, which was printed in turquoise and green, provided clear directions for how to reach Lister Hill. "Which was printed in turquoise and green" provides additional information but is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

March 7, 2014: Using Bullets

I don't know when bullets actually appeared on the grammar scene. I don't remember using them when I was in graduate school. But they are used a lot these days. Bullets help a writer avoid long sentences by putting items into lists. They help the reader retrieve information quickly. I see them in CVs and résumés in particular. It makes good sense to use them properly.

Here are some general guidelines for using bulleted lists:

  • Use bullets only when your "list" contains more than one item. (Otherwise, is it a list?)
  • Keep bullets short. Otherwise you lose the advantage of getting information in front of the reader quickly.
  • Make your bullets grammatically parallel. Begin them with the same part of speech and aim to keep them of similar length.
  • Make certain all items in your bulleted list are related.
  • Do not begin bullets with terms like "first", "second", etc. This would be redundant.

August 22, 2014: "Myself" (How Not to Embarrass Yourself)

I am currently working with many postbacs on their personal statements and expect to meet with more of you in the future. Perhaps like many others, when you sit down to write you put on your I-need-to-sound-serious-and-adult hat. Sometimes that leads to unfortunate grammar errors.

Today, let's talk about one that can be easily avoided: using "myself" rather than "I" or "me" in an effort to sound smart. My advice: don't do it!

Consider this example, "My PI and myself discussed the proposed experiments, and I convinced him to use my ideas." The correct formulation is "My PI and I discussed ..."

When CAN you use such pronouns? They are correct in two situations.

  • I did the work myself. (in this case "myself" is an intensive pronoun strengthening the word "I".)
  • Amada spilled the newly made reagent on herself and the floor. (In this case "herself" is a reflexive pronoun, indicating that the subject of the sentence - Amanda - acted upon herself.)

Otherwise, AVOID myself, yourself, him/her/itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves! Also note that "hisself" and "theirselves" are not words.

August 28, 2014: Using Capital Letters in Titles (for example, Poster Titles)

Registration for Postbac Poster Day requires that postbacs submit, along with other information, their poster titles. In an attempt to generate a program in which all poster titles conform to the same format, we provide guidelines for title capitalization. Regrettably, following those guidelines is just too tough for some postbacs.

This year, in an early attempt to help you all generate perfect Postbac Poster Day titles, we are going to review the "rules" for capitalization in titles. Generally, an author has two options: sentence style and headline style.

In sentence style, only the first word of the title and any proper nouns are capitalized. Since this is straightforward, it is NOT the format we use for poster day.

Headline style is governed by the following rules*:

  • Capitalize the first and last words of titles and subtitles AND all other major words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and some conjunctions). Note that "is" and "are", although they are short, are verbs and should, therefore be capitalized.
  • Use lower case for the articles "a", "an", and "the".
  • Use lower case for prepositions, regardless of length, unless they are emphasized. I would, for example, capitalize "in" in the title Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. (What comes after the colon is a subtitle.)
  • Use lower case for the conjunctions "for", "and", "nor", "but", "or", "yet", and "so". You can remember these using the mnemonic FANBOYS.
  • Lowercase "to" and "as" regardless of their function.
  • Lowercase the species portion of a genus/species pair, e.g., Escherichia coli.
  • Use upper case for the first element of a hyphenated word but not the second unless the second is a proper noun or adjective.

And, while we're at it, please do not put the title in quotation marks OR end it with a period.

*These "rules" are taken from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition. Other references, e.g., The Associated Press Stylebook, 2007, advance slightly different rules. Another good reference is Grammar and Usage, Naturally, by Lawrence Barkley and Christine Sandoval.

September 16, 2014: "Use" versus "Utilize"

You may find this difficult to believe, but I often get requests to cover hot grammar topics in this column. Well, to be perfectly honest, I recently got ONE. Julie Gold of the OITE asked that I talk with you about the words "use" and "utilize". Presumably she is dismayed by individuals who use "utilize" in a misguided attempt to appear erudite (an even more pretentious word what means "having learned a lot from books"). So, the advice is simple: never use "utilize" at all.

However, we are scientists, which means that things are not quite that simple. It turns out that there is at least one time when the word "utilize" IS appropriate. "Utilize" can be used to describe the process by which an organism takes up a nutrient and uses it efficiently. Thus, you could correctly write the following: Microbes can utilize ferric iron from the environment if they secrete siderophones, which bind and solubilize the ion.

Source: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/ External Link

September 29, 2014: "As Well As" is Not a Conjunction

Consider the following sentence: "The PI as well as the staff scientist and postdoc is/are going to the Society for Neuroscience meeting." Which verb would you use: "is" or "are"? This choice has always made me nervous, but over the weekend I learned the answer. It turns out that "as well as" is not a conjunction (like "and", "but", "or", "nor" and a few others). Thus, the sentence is NOT equivalent to "The PI and the staff scientist and postdoc are going to the Society for Neuroscience meeting". "As well as" is functioning as a preposition in this sentence. That means that the subject of the sentence is just "The PI", and the verb must be singular. Putting in some commas might make this more clear: "The PI, as well as the staff scientist and postdoc, is going to the Society for Neuroscience meeting".

I think that sometimes, writers use "as well as" in place of "and" because they want to sound more accomplished, and perhaps they have already used a lot of "and"s in a sentence. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. Try this sentence, for example: "We bought books, pencils, as well as markers." The sentence cries out for "and"!

It also turns out that "as well as" is not unique. Additional phrases that are often used incorrectly as conjunctions include

  • along with
  • in addition to
  • together with

October 9: Can You Find the Grammar Errors?

I spent the morning at the dentist, so my energy is flagging. While you are reading the article on personal statements External Link mentioned in Topic A for today, use your critical grammar eyes to find at least two errors. HINT: The two I found are a dangling modifier and a missing comma. Both were covered in earlier grammar posts.

December 2, 2014: The Hemingway App

Ernest Hemingway was known as a powerful, no-nonsense writer. Now you can use the Hemingway app to evaluate your own writing. (Too bad The Washington Post only recently brought the app to my attention.)

To try the app out, go to http://www.hemingwayapp.com/. External Link You can replace the sample text with text of your own and then click on the "Edit" button for an evaluation of your work. The app will identify adverbs and the passive voice, both of which are to be avoided. In addition, it will highlight sentences that are hard to read and those that are VERY hard to read. Finally, it points out phrases that could be simpler.

As a test, I pasted in the text from an OITE Web page, https://www.training.nih.gov/trainees, which suggests ways to make your NIH experience successful. The text (which I wrote) got an "OK" score. It was, and this is not good, written at the 11th grade level (7th grade level is preferred). It contains 11 adverbs, but only 2 uses of the passive voice, in 69 sentences.

December 15, 2014: Hemingway May Be Perfect; the Hemingway App Is Not

I have been amusing myself pasting snippets of text into the Hemingway app this week. As a result I have discovered that the app is not too good at identifying the passive voice. Let's see if you can do better. Which of the following four sentences are authentic examples of the passive voice, and which are not? The Hemingway app thinks they are ALL passive.

  1. My aunt was related to Albert Einstein.
  2. After your application has been submitted, you should be able to enjoy the holidays.
  3. The picnic will be planned by the Postbac Committee.
  4. A student who is interested in science might consider applying to the Summer Internship program.

And, for even more (imaginary) credit: why is the app making this mistake?

January 7, 2015: Combining Two Complete Sentences into a Compound Sentence (It's Not as Easy as You Might Think!)

Over the break, I began reading Grammar Troublespots: A Guide for Student Writers by Ann Raimes. I didn't expect to learn something new by troublespot #2. What I learned seems worth sharing.

If you have two complete sentences, and you are considering combining them into a compound sentence, you have four choices. Consider the following two sentences: "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school. My first choice is the University of Maryland, College Park."

  1. You can leave them as independent sentences (as written above) and end each with a period.
  2. You can combine them using a coordinating conjunction. NOTE: there are only 7 coordinating conjunctions, "for", "and", "nor", "but", "or", yet," and "so". You can remember them using the acronym FANBOYS. If you choose this route, put a comma in front of the coordinating conjunction. "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school, but my first choice is the University of Maryland, College Park."
  3. You can combine them using a semi-colon. The semi-colon is used when the two sentences are closely related. It is also used sparingly. NOTE: you would not use both a coordinating conjunction and a semi-colon. This is an either/or situation. (A semi-colon works like a period. It indicates that one sentence has ended and another is about to begin.) "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school; my first choice is the University of Maryland, College Park."
  4. If you want to point out a connection in meaning between the two sentences, you can combine them using a transition. Transitions include words like "in addition", "then", "however", "as a result", "indeed", "for example", and "in summary". FANBOYS are NOT transitions. If you choose this route, remember that the sentences remain independent. You can end the first sentence with a period and then begin the second with the transition followed by a comma. Alternatively, you can end the first sentence with a semi-colon and follow this with the transition, a comma, and the second sentence. Thus you can write either "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school. However, my first choice is the University of Maryland, College Park." or "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school; however, my first choice is the University of Maryland, College Park."

I am embarrassed to say that only now do I appreciate the difference in punctuation for sentences linked by coordinating conjunctions and transitions. (And the logic escapes me, as is often the case with English. It seems to me that "but" and "however" are a lot alike and should be treated the same way.)

Extra credit question: What if the sentences had been "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school. I have chosen the University of Maryland, College Park" and I wanted to omit the subject of the second sentence because I didn't want to repeat "I have"? How would I punctuate, "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school and chosen the University of Maryland, College Park."? Specifically, would I put a comma in front of "and"?

January 27, 2015: Punctuation Challenge

In the last Postbac News, I talked about combining two complete sentences into a single compound sentence and how the result is punctuated, depending on whether they were connected with a coordinating conjunction (like "and") or a transition (like "however"). If you missed the post, you can find it in the Spotlight on Grammar Archives. At the end, I proposed an extra credit challenge.

Extra credit question: What if the sentences had been "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school. I have chosen the University of Maryland, College Park" and I wanted to omit the subject of the second sentence because I didn't want to repeat "I have"? How would I punctuate, "I have recently submitted four applications for graduate school and chosen the University of Maryland, College Park."? Specifically, would I put a comma in front of "and"?

The answer is "no". You would not put a comma before "and". The material that follows the "and" is no longer a complete sentence. Its subject is the word "I" at the beginning of the sentence. Furthermore, "chosen" together with the "have" at the beginning of the sentence forms the compound verb "have chosen". Inserting a comma would both separate the parts of the compound verb and separate the second half of the verb from its subject.

February 10, 2015: Using Subordinating Conjunctions

In an earlier posting, we looked at combining two complete sentences to form a compound sentence using, among other things, coordinating conjunctions (like "and" and "but"). Today we are going to discuss subordinating conjunctions, both their uses and how to punctuate sentence that involve them.

Subordinating conjunctions attach a less important clause that is not a complete sentence (a dependent clause) to a complete sentence (an independent clause). Examples of subordinating conjunctions are "before", "when", "where", "because", and "unless".

Let's look at an example.

"When the postbac arrived at Building 10 to be fingerprinted for his ID Badge, the line was already fifty people long."

"When the postbac arrived at Building 10 to be fingerprinted for his ID Badge" is not a complete sentence. (Although, note that "The postbac arrived at Building 10 to be fingerprinted for his ID Badge" is.) The word "when" actually makes the clause dependent.
"The line was already fifty people long." is a complete sentence.
When the dependent clause comes first, it is followed by a comma.
If the dependent clause comes second, no comma is inserted. "The line was already fifty people long when the postbac arrived at Building 10 ..."

Extra credit: Identify the dependent and independent clauses in the following sentences and punctuate them appropriately:

If you want to be successful at the NIH make research your first priority.
The Postbac Committee developed the Distinguished Mentor Award because they wanted to focus attention on and reward good mentoring.

More extra credit: How many examples of sentences involving subordinating conjunctions can you find in Topic A today?

Again, credit for these ideas goes to Grammar Troublespots: A Guide for Student Writers, by Ann Raimes.

March 9, 2015: Extra Credit Challenges Using Subordinating Conjunctions

NOTE: If you need to look again at last week's posting, visit the Grammar Spotlight Archives by clicking on the link to the right.

Here are the challenges from last week.

Extra credit: Identify the dependent and independent clauses in the following sentences and punctuate them appropriately. In the two numbered sentences below, I have underlined the dependent clauses. I added a comma in the first sentence because the dependent clause comes before the independent clause. No comma is necessary in the second sentence because the dependent clause comes second. Note that two of the three sentences that precede this one (they are underlined) use subordinating conjunctions. Obviously, this structure is VERY popular and/or useful.

  1. If you want to be successful at the NIH, make research your first priority.
  2. The Postbac Committee developed the Distinguished Mentor Award because they wanted to focus attention on and reward good mentoring.

More extra credit: How many examples of sentences involving subordinating conjunctions can you find in Topic A today? I have reproduced last week's Topic A below and underlined the sentences that involve subordinating conjunctions. The subordinating conjunctions are shown in italics.

The deadline for filing your income tax return is April 15th. The stipend you earn as a postbac is taxable, so be certain you file.

Because you are considered a trainee (not an employee) at the NIH, no taxes are withheld from your stipend (you are also not subject to FICA - Social Security and Medicare - taxes). This means that you need to save some money so that you will be able to cover your taxes when they come due.

Because your postbac position is not a job, your income will be reported on a Form 1099G, not a W-2. If you do not receive your form this month, please contact the NIH Office of Financial Management to inquire.

The OITE is not able to provide tax advice (frankly, since we are not tax experts, you should not want our advice!). You can find what we are able to say in the Postbac Handbook on pages 23 and 24.

Piggy-back extra credit: Why is "so" in the first sentence not italicized when "so that" a few sentences later is?

Again, credit for these ideas goes to Grammar Troublespots: A Guide for Student Writers, by Ann Raimes.

April 21, 2015: Try Your Hand at Editing a Paragraph from a Personal Statement for Medical School

Here's the paragraph:

"I am absolutely committed to a medical career that incorporates efforts to minimize the effects of glaring health disparities. I was lead to this conclusion by a gripping experience in my past. I spent summers with my grandparents at their retirement home in West Virginia. Their home was really comfortable and located in a community of especially large homes on similarly large lots, but when we went into the nearest town, I saw something entirely different. There were three things I noticed immediately; the children had no shoes and everyone had crooked teeth and the houses looked flimsy and small. When a traveling physician visited the town square long lines formed so that families could access his services. It was then that I realized that I had seen no doctor or dentist offices in the town. Since he seemed like a nice enough person I asked if I could watch the proceedings. The doctor worked swiftly and caringly, diagnosing illnesses, writing prescriptions, and providing referrals for additional tests and procedures. I complemented him on his making a difference, but he responded that what he could do was limited, most of the folks would not have the resources to fill the prescriptions or pay for the services of specialists."

Take a look at this paragraph from the perspective of grammar and punctuation, writing style, and actual content. What improvements would you suggest? Being able to look at your own personal statement in this way will be an important step in creating a document that will get you where you want to go.

Feel free to send me your editing suggestions and then check this spot in the next news for a compilation of responses ... or my thoughts.