Common grammar mistakes: Dangling participles.

As an editor, I have a number of literary and textual pet peeves. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not?), lolspeak is not one of them. But, in any case, some things just drive me More »

Personal Statements: Do’s and Don’ts.

The admissions cycle is just about to begin and questions have already been rolling in. So, to help you navigate this often nerve-racking time, I’ve compiled a list of some of the More »

How to approach your personal statement.

The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My More »

Personal statement tips.

Personal statements, or admissions essays, are definitely one of the hardest parts of the admissions process, a process that is already stressful to begin with. Now that the application cycle is just More »

Paragraphs and how to use them.

Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them. Why? Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless More »

Common Grammar Mistakes: Let’s versus Lets.

Common Grammar Mistakes: Let's versus Lets. (From jdeeringdavis on Flickr.)

This week, while working with a number of students on their final papers and transfer essays, a particular grammar question popped up. Well, to say it “popped up” is a bit of an understatement; this question came from not one, but SIX students, separately, yet almost all on the same day. (Travis, you broke up the would-be flash mob. Shame on you.)

So, because my students have assumed a Voltron-like formation to ask me the same, exact question (!), I will answer it here.

What is the difference between let’s and lets?

“To let” means to allow or to permit, as in “I let the dogs out each morning.” It also means to lease or rent, as in “Wanted: Apartment to let” but let’s (HA!) not get ahead of ourselves here.

“Lets,” then, is the third person singular present tense form of “to let.” Translation: you use it with he, she, or it when using the present tense, like this: “Sally lets her brother use her bicycle on weekends.”

Easy enough, right? Now, for the second part.

“Let’s,” with an apostrophe, is a contraction of “let” and “us.” It is commonly used in first personal plural commands, like “Let’s go!” or “Let’s eat!” For the less enthusiastic, “let’s” commands without exclamation points suffice as well.

As a contraction, “Let’s go!” really means “Let us go.” This contraction, like most others, is more informal– after all, trips to the grocery store don’t have to be quite so dramatic.

Here’s another example of what I mean: “Guys, let’s go to the beach.” In reality, you’re really saying “Guys, let us go to the beach,” albeit in a less formal, contracted way.

So, therein lies the difference: “Lets” is a third person singular conjugation of the word “let,” as in, “She lets me watch sports” or “It lets you download more information.” “Let’s,” in turn, is the contraction of “let” and “us,” used in plural commands, such as “Let’s get started” or “Let’s get married.”

A good rule of thumb:
To ensure you’re using the proper form of “let’s,” substitute “let’s” with “allow us” when constructing a command. It’s an extra step but, by keeping this in mind, you’ll be sure to choose to right form.

Here’s what I mean:

With “let’s”: Let’s grab some sushi.
With “allow us”: Allow us [to] grab some sushi.

This makes sense, right? It may be overly formal, but it’s nonetheless grammatically sound. Of course, you don’t actually have to substitute “let’s” with “allow us” in your writing; however, by keeping this in mind, you will know (and use!) the correct choice.

And, that’s it. Once you know the difference, it’s easy to remember. Granted, I don’t have a funny mnemonic this time around (sorry!), but it’s relatively easy to keep these two straight.

Time Management: Prioritizing Tasks.

When things get out of hand (From LOLitsLloyd on Flickr)

I’ve written an earlier post about how to start managing your time properly by consciously assessing how much time you actually have. Here, I will explain a bit further of how to really use your time more efficiently by prioritize your assignments. Why? So you can get more work done, on-time.

First off, take a look at what assignments are due and order them by deadline, from earliest to latest. Of these assignments, if you have any that are due right now, as in, today or tomorrow, please stop reading this (or anything else, including Facebook) and do them right now. But, if you’ve been following my time management tips so far, you shouldn’t have fires burning on your desk and will have at least a little wiggle-room for what to accomplish next.

Now, start assessing your assignments list. What can be taken care of immediately? Short response papers and articles, for instance, can be done relatively quickly compared to, say, a 15 page term paper. These short assignments can be completed first as they are (for the most part) relatively easy and cluttering up your assignment schedule. As such, they should be the first to get done and quickly. By doing so, you’re freeing up more time to conquer the larger, more daunting assignments– like, the ones that count for a larger percentage of your grade and/or the ones your professor will be looking at closest. If anything, you can call it survival of the fittest and, in the arena of schoolwork, they should be eliminated immediately.

Following this method, you should work on assignments in order of least difficult and quickest to hardest and most time-consuming. You will then allow yourself to devote most of your time to assignments that require the most time, effort, and concentration, without other assignments slowing smoldering in the back of your mind. Wouldn’t it be easier to work solely and dutifully on that massive 10-15 page paper on Russian literature that’s 50% of your grade without smaller assignments nagging at you?

That being said, you want to make sure you’re being completely honest with yourself and realistic: in order for ANY of this to work, you need to devote the truly appropriate amount of time each assignment. This means you can’t dilly-dally over a 1-2 page response paper for four days; this would be the complete opposite of what I’m saying. Misappropriation of time is a symptom of procrastination— meaning, spending way too much time on menial tasks are really attempts to put off tackling the bigger ones. This not only makes smaller, menial tasks more tedious and time-consuming (literally), but also leaves you with little time for assignments that really matter. This is where you have to be as blunt and honest with yourself as possible– to know if the time you’re using is an appropriate amount of you’re just slacking off. And, should you realize that, yes, you are slacking off, you’ll need to summon the inner drive to cut it out and finish it, so you carry on to the next item on your agenda.

This is all easier said than done– and I know exactly how hard this can be. Like writing itself, this requires self-discipline and, sometimes, a little self-adjustment. But, with practice, you’ll be well on your way to acing your papers and your semester as a whole. This may not seem like writing advice per se, but methods like these give you the tools– such as more time and more discipline– to better yourself as a writer and as a student.

Stefanie Arr

The AE is now on Twitter and Facebook!

How to write without self-consciousness.

Writing without self-consciousness. (From J. Paxon Reyes on Flickr.)

In my last post, I covered writer’s block, reasons why it occurs, and how to beat it when it does. Whether it’s disorganization,  difficulty with topic formulation, or sheer laziness (hey, it happens), I covered a number of remedies on how to combat it.

Sometimes, however, a writing assignment could be so daunting that the task itself is what’s keeping you from writing and from getting it done. It’s normal to get nervous when a big assignment is due– particularly if it’s a requirement to graduate, part of an incredibly hard course, or if it was assigned by a notoriously difficult teacher. Often, this can manifest in negative feelings about your own writing or even about writing itself:

“I’m not really much of a writer.”

“My writing just isn’t good enough.”

“I hate writing; I suck at it.”

I’ve heard many variations of these thoughts over the years. This usually stems from feeling apprehensive about the writing process. But, most often, it arises out of self-consciousness and anxiety over the reader and his/her potential response.

It is understandable to feel this way– writing can be a very scary thing. But, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed; with some reassessment and planning, you can overcome feeling self-conscious about your work. Here are a few ways you can combat self-doubt and write without hang-ups.

  • Get your facts straight.

As with speaking, writing comes a lot easier–and a lot less self-consciously– if you have full understanding of what you’re going to say as well as how you will say it. As any one who has done public speaking would know, it’s infinitely more nerve-wracking to speak on the spot than to speak after you’ve had time to fully prepare yourself. So, to build confidence before taking on your next writing assignment,  you need to strategize and plan ahead. Use brainstorming tools to formulate topic ideas. When you have a topic, do your research. Create an outline. Take full command of the information at hand– sketch out your ideas and fully digest the material you are using. Make yourself comfortable with the information– the more comfortable you are with the task at hand, the more confident you’ll feel writing about it.

  • Turn the spotlight away from you and onto your work.

Whenever you write, you’re expected to tell a story, and to tell it well; this is what your professors expect of you, what readers expect of novelists, and even what you expect of me. Because of this, subconsciously, you might feel as though you’re being judged– that, whatever you produce, is a reflection of you. To some extent, this is true; those working on personal statements, for instance, can understand how this works. However, writing isn’t about you– writing serves a purpose, to divulge information in a well-reasoned manner with intention. While, yes, you are responsible for creating good work, you yourself are not the words on your screen. It is important to remember this difference, especially when that pesky self-doubt starts to rear its ugly head; it’s all about the work itself. So, if you’re feel stuck or lost while writing, don’t turn the scrutiny towards yourself–  take a step back and focus on the work and the assignment. You are not what you write.

  • Only edit when you’re editing.

It’s hard not to self-edit– trust me, I know. I make a living by critiquing other people’s work so it’s incredibly hard not to second-guess my usage of punctuation and panic over tense agreement. (And, don’t even get me started about word choice– my inner monologues often sound like this.)  But, editing while you’re writing is like burning a bridge on one end while you’re still building the other side; you simply can’t make progress while looking fearfully (or, in this case, critically) behind you. Just getting your thoughts down on paper is hard enough, so don’t make the process anymore difficult for yourself. So, get the words out however you can and save the self-critiquing  for later. Don’t hold yourself back; the ability to write freely and easily comes only when you allow yourself to let go. When your self-editor tries to sneak in while you’re writing, point to the door and just write. Once your draft is completed, you then can look it over and edit to your heart’s content (reason #34,382,370 why time management is key) but not until after the fact.

Of course, these are all hard habits to break; I’ll admit that I’m still working on some of these myself. But, like all efforts to improve writing skills, with consistent and continual practice, it can be done and the boost in confidence is totally worth it.

How to beat writer’s block.

Writer’s block.

We’ve all suffered from it. I certainly have and, at some point in time, I’m sure you have as well. Plenty of famous authors have succumbed to it, also. It’s an affliction common to both creative and academic writers alike.

There are many reasons to writer’s block occurs, and nearly just as many strategies to overcome or at least circumvent it. This week, I will cover those particular to academic writing, by going over scenarios that all students have found themselves in. By learning what to handle these kinds of situations, you can unplug the stopper, unblock your writing, and get yourself going again.

You’ve started writing your paper, but you don’t really know where you’re going with it.

This is probably the most common of writing blockages. You’re sitting at your computer starting your paper when you realize, “Crap, I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

This lost feeling is often the symptom of disorganization. I’ve talked about the importance of outlining in some of my posts on personal statements, but it’s just as relevant here as well. When writing an essay or paper, you need to devise a convincing argument– a thesis that is strong from beginning to end, and is presented and explained thoroughly and clearly. One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an outline, so that you can create a framework to build your argument upon.

But, in terms of defeating writer’s block, outlining helps clarify your own thought process. Staring at pages of academic research, peer-reviewed journals, and a blank word document will cause anyone to go into a foggy, non-writing trance. But, realizing that your thesis can be deduced to a basic logical structure, it can ease some of your anxiety. With a well-devised outline, you can see your argument unfold which, in effect, will help you see exactly where you should be going.

You have a topic, but you hate it.

The writing assignments that you dislike are some of the most difficult ones to write– this much is true. Whether you find the topic to be boring, the content disagreeable, or you just don’t understand the material, you have your reasons to dislike the assignment given, all of which are hard to surmount.

Unfortunately, there’s no way out of doing what is asked of you. Sorry, but there’s no way out of doing the work. That being said, you can get yourself through it.

As I have said earlier, you should aim for a topic that addresses the overall theme of the course– what does the professor want you to come away from course with? What major themes or ties can be drawn through the material? If you’re still having difficulty, then consider this: What aspect of the material did you like the best? Or, what can you at least explain the best?

If you’re still deep in trouble, try speaking to your professor or, at the very least, your TA. (This is when having good time management skills will come in handy.) If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, they should also be able to offer suggestions. However, if you’re you’re having difficulty with the material itself, you’re experiencing more than writer’s block, and should look to outside help. If this is the case, you must speak to your professor– not only so he/she could understand your predicament but also to better your own understanding of the task at hand. If for whatever reason they aren’t helpful to you (and they really should be if they’re worth their salt), try talking to your classmates. Or, find someone who has taken this class before. Even try speaking to your librarian. Your goal should be to reach out to someone who can give you some guidance– if you’re truly lost in the course, you need to throw out a lifeline. If you find yourself struggling with the material, it will make the writing process that much harder. Do everything you can to find someone to help you– most schools have some sort of advising or tutoring program that you can turn to for help, as well.

You just don’t want to write. 

Well, sorry to break it to you. There’s no real way to get out of this aside from taking an incomplete, dropping the course, or, worst of all, failing it outright.  As fatalistic as it sounds, even if you don’t want to write, you’ll have to resign yourself to the task eventually.

But, sometimes, this extreme dislike is often masking some other problem– do you not want to write because you don’t know how to engage the topic? Or do you not want to write because you don’t understand the material fully? Or, alternatively, do you just not want to do it because you’d rather play Words with Friends? Be honest with yourself. If you’re having difficulties engaging with the material or understanding the assignment, follow what I said above. Often, writer’s block emerges when you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with the assignment, so do a bit of a self-check up. Here, brushing up on your outline will help you figure what kinks need to be worked out– it will help you see where the fogginess is coming from. Talking to others, like your professor or classmates, will help as well– some outside feedback may just be what you need. Try to figure where this writing malaise is coming from; chances are it’s from being overwhelmed by one of the issues I’ve stated above.

But, if you don’t want to write simply because you “just don’t want to,” then you’ll have to get past that. There’s no easy way around it. Get off Facebook, Twitter, this blog, whatever. If need be, disable your Internet connection– save all your articles and research so you can work offline to avoid distractions. Do whatever it takes for you to stop procrastinating and get motivated.  In this case, talking to others may not be the best idea; you can’t afford yourself any further time away from doing what needs to get done. You might not like writing, I understand that. You might be one of those people who just don’t feel “right” in academia– I understand that as well. However, there is no salve or “quick-fix” to getting out of doing the work. (Or at least moral ones anyway, and I’m certainly NOT suggesting those by any means!) And, spending time away from the assignment is only putting off the inevitable which, as time goes on, will only grow in its dreadfulness. So, do yourself a favor and just get it over with. Stretch, go for a short run, take a shower, whatever– then, grit your teeth and rip the bandaid off and just do it. Trust me, you’ll be happier once it’s done.

Letters of Continued Interest: What they are, and how to write them.

Letters of Continued Interest. (From Muffet on Flickr.)

So, you’ve been waitlisted. Or, you’ve been deferred. Now what?

Well, you can do one of two things: you can either sit on your laurels or you can write what’s called a letter of continued interest.

A letter of continuing interest (or, if you’re cool, a LOCI) is essentially what it sounds like: a letter to the admissions committee stating your continuing interest in their school.

While a LOCI doesn’t bear as much weight as other parts of your application like, say, your personal statement, it is still a very good idea to send one. If you’ve been waitlisted, deferred, or otherwise on hold, a LOCI could perhaps be the extra nudge you need to get in.

Here are a few tips to help get you out of limbo:

Write it as soon as possible.

“When should I submit one?” is usually the second question I’m asked. (Following what a LOCI is to begin with, of course.) My answer, as it is in many scenarios, is as soon as possible. Meaning, you should begin working on your LOCI as soon as you receive your notice of deferral or waitlist letter. Sending it out quickly shows your seriousness as an applicant by illustrating just how badly you really do want to go to this school. Also gives you a practical edge over the rest of the applicant pool– you’ll beat them to the punch.

Your LOCI should ONLY be one page.

Yes, this should only be a one-page letter. You have already written a personal statement– perhaps even a diversity statement as well. Your LOCI is a letter of continuing interest; there’s no need to rehash your application again. In terms of format, your LOCI should resemble a business or cover letter– it should include all relevant contact information as well as the appropriate greetings. (“Dear Mr./Ms. X,” works as an opening salutation, and “Sincerely,” to close.)

Explain why you’re still interested in attending.

Ideally, if you’re thinking of writing a LOCI, you still want to attend a particular school. So, be sure to explain how this school  is the perfect match for you– what specific programs are you interested in? Is there a particular professor you’re interested in studying with? In other words, why do want to get in, and what will you do there once you are admitted? Consider these questions, but be sure your answers are concise. Also, if you’ve visited them since applying, let them know– it will really drive home your veritable continuing interest in the school.

Provide updates to your application.

Surely, some time has passed since you first submitted your application. Has anything changed since then? Have you accepted any new positions or received any awards since you first applied? Have you completed any interesting research or published anything? Be sure to include updated information– don’t be redundant. By now, they have already reviewed your application, so repeating it all over again would be unnecessary and even unwanted. However, if there are some serious changes — like internship or thesis credits–  you can send them an updated transcript or even an additional letter of recommendation. It will not only confirm what you’re saying but also bolster your open application, giving them more reason to possibly admit you.

Address it to the right person.

Following what I said earlier, your LOCI should resemble a business letter. As such, it should be addressed to the appropriate person– in this case, the person who signed your deferral or waitlist letter. If no one signed your letter, send it to the Dean of Admissions. You can also do a little detective work on the school’s website or even call the admissions office and ask who it should be addressed to. Be sure to address the letter to an actual person, lest it end up lost in the shuffle somewhere and not seen by the right person.

Mail it. (And, no, I don’t mean by email.)

Following what I said above, you should physically mail your letter rather than email it. As you can imagine, an admissions office inbox is a crowded place where things can get lost, misplaced, and, worse yet, unread. As such, you want to send your LOCI in a manner that you know will be physically opened, read, and sorted by a real person. This sounds terribly archaic, yes, but there is something to be said about physically receiving, opening, and filing a physical letter over receiving an intangible email that can be easily skipped over or even accidentally deleted. By using snail-mail, you’ll be reducing the chances of clerical error as well as increasing the chance of it being read by the right person. (Hence, the importance of addressing it appropriately, as I said above.) Also, a physical letter is more professional and, dare I say it, even nice— almost like a thank-you note.

Follow the directions given.

As I’ve said so many times before, to be admitted anywhere for anything, you must follow the directions. Some schools specify to not send any additional materials at all, ever. Others ask for an extended response, requiring more than a single-page letter. Granted, there are only a few schools are such exceptions, but make sure your school in question is not one of them. If the admissions committee is still on the fence about admitting you, don’t make the decision for them by not following basic directions. So, if you can write one, by all means do so. But, if the school says specifically not to, then don’t– it’s pretty simple. Of course, if you’re not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask.



How to improve your writing.

Last week, I covered how to develop a successful essay topic, from the beginning, by investigating your interests.

A great admission essay doesn’t come from thin air– not only do you have to cultivate great material to later write about, but you also have to develop the skills to do so.

As I said in my last post, good writing comes with persistence. Meaning, in order to write well, you have to do more than just memorize grammar and syntax rules. Improving your writing is not an end-product in itself but instead a developing process. To continuously improve, you have to continuously practice. 

So, here’s how to practice, and how to improve, your writing:

Read discerningly and critically.

Yes, to improve your writing, you need to read more. But, this goes farther than just reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while curled up on the couch. You have to read actively. Active reading is a bit like studying–  you are reading more than just for what’s on the page, but to absorb the material. You are to analyze what is being said, and how it’s being said. Rather than letting the material wash over you passively, you have to engage with what you’re reading, and think about it critically. It doesn’t matter if it’s Thomas Pynchon, Tom Clancy, or the New York Times— think about what’s being presented to you. What is being said? Carefully consider the writer’s style– what is being done, exactly? How is this story being told to you?

Then, consider your own interaction with the material– is this story being told well? Is the writing effective in telling this story? What is attractive or unattractive about what is being said? What do you like or dislike about what the writer is doing?

Take careful note of what you like– and don’t like– about the material.  Analyzing critically will help you develop your own style through comparison. So,  consider your answers to the last line of questions I posed– what would you do differently? What do you agree with, in terms of phrasing, word choice, or content?

Interact with your own writing.

Now, pose the same sort of questions I’ve raised above to your own writing. Dig up old written assignments and essays– anything you’ve written in the last year or so. Then, critique it: did the story come through as you had intended? What could have been improved? Are you happy the way it turned out? What should be changed or remain the same? Was your story told successfully and effectively? In terms of phrasing and style, what was successful and needs some improvement? Take note of what worked and what didn’t and, most importantly, why that is the case. It is also helpful to look over any written work that had already been graded– you can definitely take cues from a professor or teacher in your self-analysis.

When you review work from a considerable time ago, you are reconsidering your writing with a more objective, critical eye. You are likely to find wording or phrasing issues or other mistakes that you may have missed the first time around. You are also likely to find phrasing or styling that worked then and continue to work now. Yes, you can be your own worse critic, so be sure not to beat yourself up too much; this is all part of the improvement process. By highlighting the best and worst aspects of your writing, you stand to improve on both of these points– to be mindful of the mistakes and to continue doing what works.

Practice revision.

Aside from reading outside work and your own work more critically, you must also hone your own writing and editing skills. To become a more discerning writer, you must be in-tune with what makes for effective writing and what doesn’t, so that you can be in a better position to do so yourself. But, while reading critically is important, knowing what to do about it is absolutely crucial. This is when revision comes in.

Revision can be a difficult exercise but, by reading critically, you’re already halfway there. Consider some of the questions I’ve said above– namely, the ones asking where you (or anyone else) could improve on effectiveness. Then, as a starting exercise, try acting on these suggestions to yourself– rewrite these points as you feel they should have been written in the first place. (This is where looking over your old, graded materials comes in handy; your teacher has ideally earmarked what needs to be changed already.)

When practicing revision, you’re developing your own keen senses of what works within writing and what doesn’t. Whether it’s within your own writing or someone else’s, practicing revising and rewriting skills is key to developing your own “nose” for good writing.  Likewise, it helps to develop the grounds for your own self-improvement.  Especially in your own work, through revision, you are in effect improving your own writing literally– you are learning from the very mistakes you made by learning how to directly fix them. Again, you can be your own worst critic but it can be a very satisfying experience, if you make it one.

Write more, and write often.

Of course, this is the part you’ve been waiting for. The best way to truly exercise these developing skills is, naturally, to do some more writing yourself.

Write whenever you can. It doesn’t really matter about what, so long as there is a discernible purpose to what you’re trying to get across– a story to tell or an argument to make. Writing for practice doesn’t have be submitted for a grade or even to the general public in any way, so you have pretty wide range of possibilities to use. If you find yourself stuck, you can use some journalism exercises as good jump-off points or “personal assignments” to get you started. One helpful exercise is to write reviews– of anything, even for things or events that aren’t real.  Or, as a journalism professor once told me, you can write mock-obituaries for celebrities, a fun (if not mildly morbid) writing exercise. In terms of how you do it, that is up to you as well. I myself like to carry a notebook around and just jot things down as they come, but do whatever feels comfortable for you. (If you’re strictly digital, Evernote is an amazing tool.)  You can keep a private journal or even start a blog.  Of course, putting these skills into practice can be difficult, yes. But, like running or an exercise routine, it gets much easier with time. And, just like exercise, it’s not so important when, or how you do it, as much is it is important you do it well, mindfully, and consistently.






Common Grammar Mistakes: Which versus That.

Which versus That. (From-Paul V8 on Flickr.)

Knowing the difference between which and that can be a bit confusing. Which one do you use? That one? Okay, I’ll stop.

What makes matters worse is that there has been a shift in usage and definition over the last century. While you may not be using grammar books from 100 years ago, you’re more likely to encounter this change in literature as so many classics are over a century old.

So, which one do you use, and how can you tell the difference?

Ultimately, it boils down to the difference between two types of clauses.– restrictive and non-restrictive. A restrictive clause is one that limits or restricts the scope of the noun it is referring to. A non-restrictive clause, as I’m sure you can imagine, doesn’t. Here is what I mean:

The cheese that is stinky is delicious.
The cheese, which is stinky, is delicious.

In the first example, the clause “that is stinky” is a restrictive clause, because it limits the scope of the word “cheese”, as it is only referring to the cheese that is stinky. It isn’t referring to any other cheese except that one. If you remove the clause, you are only left with: “The cheese is delicious.” Without the clause, the reader no longer knows which cheese is being referred to and the sentence loses crucial information– not just any cheese is delicious.

In the second example, the clause is non-restrictive: the cheese’s stinkiness is additional information about a cheese being described. Basically, the clause which is stinky is here parenthetical —as in, “by the way, the cheese happens to be stinky.” It is an additional piece of information but it’s not essential to the sentence’s meaning.

Here’s another example:

Another great type of cheese is one that is blue-veined and harder than most.

The clause “that is blue-veined and harder than most” modifies and constrains “one”. Another great type of cheese is not just any other cheese but one particular type. The clause is restrictive,especially considering how little sense the sentence would make without it.

In terms of punctuation, there are two hard-fast rules to follow:

  • Restrictive clauses are not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
  • Non-restrictive clauses must be separated by commas from the rest of the sentence to indicate parenthesis.

This all seems fairly simple, yes?

Of course, I can’t end this blog post without listing a few exceptions to complicate things a bit. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of a few examples that defy the rules I’ve listed above, yet still make perfect sense. In fact, few writers have ever followed these rules systematically, and it’s easy to find examples where either relative pronoun is used with restrictive clauses. Here’s an example:

A vase which has lost its bottom is useless.

The clause which has lost its bottom is certainly restrictive; without it, you’re left with “A vase is useless” which you can agree makes no sense. Now, according to the traditional rules, which should instead be that. However, did you have any trouble discerning the sentence’s meaning? I’m guessing the answer is no.

It also comes down to a question of style. Granted, style is a bit harder to pin down as “it just sounds better” is hard to define as preferences to consonant stress and rhythm. (For the linguist geeks in the house, that provides a softer, relatively unstressed sound while which is harder and easier to stress.) . But, in certain instances, it does “just sound better” to use that instead of which. Here are a few examples; again, they don’t necessarily abide by the rules, but they are definitely points to keep in mind.

  • In clauses that follow impersonal constructions, such as it is, that is preferred: “It was the plant that fell”.
  • Clauses that refer  to the words anything, nothing, something, or everything have a slight preference for that over which: “Can you think of anything that still has to be done?”
  • Clauses that follow a superlative also tend to prefer that: “Thank you for the best night that I’ve ever had”.

By throwing these wrenches in, I’m not suggesting to completely ignore what I just said. After all, if that were the case, I would just delete this blog post entirely. What I am suggesting, however, is that language is fluid– yes, there are rules, but sometimes you can bend them a little– and you CAN use which instead of that sometimes, so long as your meaning is well-understood.

That being said, it doesn’t apply the other way around; non-restrictive clauses should always to start with which. That’s just the way it is. Likewise, the punctuation rules will always apply– non-restrictive clauses always need commas, but restrictive ones (whether you use that or which) don’t. Without the proper punctuation, your whole sentence can go awry and your meaning could get totally lost. So, if you do decide to bend the rules, you have to do so carefully. If you’re not sure (and it’s understandable if you’re not), then just follow the restrictive/non-restrictive rules I’ve first outlined above and you’ll be fine.



How to become an interesting student.

How to become an interesting student. (By AMagill on Flickr.)

Last week, I was invited to lead a college essay writing workshop for Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls, an incredible program dedicated to high school girls pursuing math and science degrees.

The students in attendance were between the ages of 13 and 16. Most were in the very beginning stages of the admissions process for next cycle but others were definitely on the younger side of my usual student pool. While college admissions requires plenty of time management and diligent preparation, it was almost too early for some of these girls to work on their essays proper. But, these highly driven underclassmen weren’t going to let me get away scot-free. After a break, I was approached by a freshman with a great question: “What can we [underclassmen] do to prepare for a great college essay now?”

Of course, there are a number of immediate answers that come to mind. Successful writing skills– adept knowledge of writing mechanics, style, and grammar– come with practice and persistence, which students of any and all ages should be conscious of. (It also helps if you follow this blog!) Likewise, choosing an appropriate topic for your essay comes through careful consideration and a thoughtful process of elimination. But, the question posed was begging for an answer that is even deeper than all this; after all, several of the attendees had only just begun high school. How does one really develop great potential topics to begin with? How do you create them? In other words:

How do you become an interesting student?

While we all like the preternatural-prodigy story– where magnetism and intriguing qualities are seemingly innate and one is simply born interesting– these attributes are often discovered and, later, developed and cultivated. Sure, there are some who are born with the knowledge of what they like, the ability to be good at it, and the all-around support system to nurture it, from the beginning. But most have to investigate at least one if not all three of these qualities.These students are no exception. These particular girls are at beginning of their academic careers and are now forming these interests of their own– ones that will likely permeate through to their specialties and professions. But, through careful search, dedicated practice, and active involvement in these interests, they are on their way to not only becoming dedicated, driven students, but genuinely interesting ones at that.

How does this work? Well, here are three steps to do so.

1. Find out what you like (or don’t like).

Finding out what you like is critical to being an interesting student. How?

When you find something you like, you develop a potential genuine interest. These potential interests are kernels of promising growth that can possibly be expanded upon and developed fully into, well, a genuine one. Things you like tend to become things you care about– qualities that will enhance your experience and, in effect, your personality. Genuine interests, in turn, are what make you interesting.

To find what you like, you have to search, to really explore. Keep your ears and eyes open for whatever it is that grabs your attention. And, when they do hold your attention, investigate them! Find out what it is that you like about it and, when you do, keep doing it. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If you realize after trying it a few times that you don’t like it, don’t fret– narrowing down these potentials is as much a part of this investigative process as it is finding that sweet spot to begin with.

These girls, by participating in this event, have at the very least least started the search process and are actively honing in on what it is they do like, whether it is medicine, engineering, computer science, or robotics (!). These interests are informing their high school experience and, in turn, their own unique personalities, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest. Their pursuit of what interests them are what makes them interesting.

2. Stick with it.

Following what I said above, you’re more likely to follow through with something you like than you would with something you don’t. That being said, once you do find something you like, you have to solidify that commitment.

Immersion learning is the best method of learning a language and the same is true for learning a new skill or discipline. Athletes practice during the on- and off-season to keep their minds and bodies in prime shape for competition, year-round and at all times. Likewise, students of every discipline must keep themselves sharp by consistent practice and dedication.Through this kind of persistence, interests become specialties and areas of expertise.

How does this happen? Simply put, people pursue what they like. When you enjoy something, you’re that much likely to remain committed to it. Being immersed in something you like is definitely a lot more pleasurable than being mired in something you don’t.

From this kind of commitment, your personal expertise and knowledge grows– after all, there is a reason that people tend to be good at the things that they happen to like. And, with intimate knowledge comes the ability to communicate freely and confidently about these interests. The ability to relay this interest to others –friends, teachers, admissions counselors, and professors alike– is what makes you interesting to them in the first place.

These students, by their own admission, are completely dedicated to their academic pursuits. They eat, breathe, and sleep math and science. Their attendance clearly spoke of this dedication but I was continually told of their active participation in other areas relating to their individual interests, from building computers for charity organizations to volunteering in projects dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainability. They not only found what they liked, but they involved themselves in everything they could to further themselves within it, and did so tenaciously. And, having done so, they were able to speak confidently about what their passions and drew me in, even as a decidedly “non-math” outsider. Their dogged interest interested me.

3. Cultivate it.

Aside from finding that thing you like and dedicating yourself to it, you have to allow it to grow. This all is a continual process that needs to be fostered by not only you, but by others as well.

Involve your peers in your interests. More likely than not, there will be some sort of club or organization devoted to this recently discovered interest. If there isn’t, then this is an opportunity to make a space for yourself and those like you to join forces– chances remain high that you are not the only one interested in this particular thing, nor will you be the last one to be. Involving others in your interests also creates fertile, creative ground to explore and investigate them further. The best and most creative ideas often come from such collaboration, especially when new territories are concerned. This will also help foster greater dedication; as any fitness nut or otherwise athletic person will tell you, it is easier to retain — and keep!– commitment when others are joined in with you.

The G.O.A.L.S for Girls campers certainly inspired each other– the camp comprised of a competitive pool of girls with similar interests and background, working and learning together for six weeks. Surely, a camp full of high school girls can make for an interesting experience in and of itself (I can definitely attest to that from my own experience, oh-so-long ago) but the opportunities like this to inspire and challenge yourself and others in a fertile environment is critical to the success and longevity of these interests.

Similarly, these interests need to be nurtured by you and those like you, first and foremost, but they also need to be nurtured by others with greater and more expansive knowledge on the subject as well. Aside from securing letters of recommendation in the future, involving teachers, professors, and organizers will also allow you to delve deeper and become especially good at them. Self-teaching can certainly go far but having guidance will help you not only develop your skills even farther, but also cultivate your own interest level, in both the thing itself and in your own “interestingness.” Enhancing your own understanding will doubly enhance your own experience within and outside of this process– thereby make your experience, your personality, and, by extension, you that much more interesting as a whole.

Grammar Myths Debunked: Ending a sentence with a preposition.

Ending a sentence with a preposition. (From Remixer 96 on Flickr.)

In my last grammar post, I covered how starting sentences with because is actually grammatically acceptable. Now, I will show you how you can also end sentences with prepositions, contrary to what grammarians and English teachers may tell you.

Students are taught time and again that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition; I certainly remember learning this in grade school. This lesson is also attributed (wrongfully, I’m afraid) to Winston Churchill as well.

The origin of this myth stems from a 17th century notion that English was inferior to Latin and that, in order to approve upon it, English should abide by Latin’s grammar rules. (If you’re nerdy like me, you can read more about that here.) But, as English is an ancestral German dialect, these Latin rules does not fit the natural structure of English comfortably.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, first off, there are certain sentences that almost can’t be formed without ending with a preposition without sounding ridiculous.

In the famous story woefully misattributed to Winston Churchill, he complained “…[t]hat is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!” when criticized by a newspaper editor for, well, ending a sentence with a preposition. Wrong story or not, this nonetheless highlights how sentences can sound nonsensical when following this “rule.”

Here are some more examples:

The ring had not even been picked out. This sentence sounds good and ends in a preposition. It is also grammatically correct. See?

Picked out the ring had not even been. This sentence, while grammatically correct, resembles a quote from Yoda. This clearly doesn’t work as well.

The marathon was rained out. While this isn’t such good news for the runners, it is a perfectly good sentence that –you guessed it– ends in a preposition.

Rained out was the marathon. This is yet another Yoda impression that doesn’t work.

So, why is this the case?

Often, what looks like a preposition in an English sentence is actually not a preposition at all. Instead, it is a part of the verb, to create a phrasal verb. These words are prepositions on their own but, when combined with certain verbs, become adverbial particles and part of these phrasal verbs.

Examples of these phrasal verbs are:

  • Branched out
  • Throw up
  • Put up
  • Shut up
  • Got off

As such, it is preferable to say “Where do you get off?” rather than “Off where do you get?” And, it is perfectly fine to say “Let’s kiss and make up.”

But, yes,  there are circumstances where you shouldn’t to end your sentence with a proposition. If the meaning of your sentence does not change with or without the preposition, then you should not include it. So, “where are you at?” is still incorrect, as it means exactly the same as “where are you?” (Sorry.)

Of course, this is a much contested rule so, if you’re still not sure, here’s further proof:

The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straightjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a “rule” at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, of course, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.

(Garner’s Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, 2003)

How to write a successful cover letter.

How to write a successful cover letter. (From Drongowski on Flickr.)

Writing cover letters can seem astronomically hard. Yes, this struggle is similar to personal statements– you know yourself better than anyone else yet writing about “you” as a formal subject is a hard task.

But, there is a major difference. Personal statements ask you to show why you should be considered as part of a pool of accepted students by writing about an anecdote, specific event, or your life history thus far. Cover letters, on the other hand, ask you to showcase not only why you should be considered for the job but why you deserve this position over anyone else, period.

Now what?

Well, to begin, you have to do some introspection. Like personal statements or papers, you have to do a bit of brainstorming to formulate an appropriate topic or a particular bent. So, sit down and think for a bit: What is it about this position that is so attractive? Granted, ITE, you are most likely considering this position along with many others, sending a slew of resumes into cyberspace at large, and hoping for a response back. Or, this could be your dream job/internship/position that you’ve been fantasizing about since you were six. Either way, you have to consider: What do you like about this particular position? Make a list of your ideas: write down every reason, whether it’s the field, the particular company/brand you’re interested in, or even the increase in pay, better benefits, or better location. Then, consider what you offer: What makes you the ideal candidate? Is it your problem-solving skills, your punctuality? Maybe, it is your “go-get-it-ness” and genuine drive to be in this industry? Or even just your desperate need to get out of your current job or industry?

Now, consider how these intersect: How will you utilize your strengths if you’re given this position? How will this position satisfy your needs? And, in turn, how will you satisfy the requirements of this job?

Think carefully about your answers. These questions I’ve just posed are meant to get your juices flowing and to get you to start thinking about your selling points– and, how to market them to your prospective employer. You want to prove that you are not only a shoo-in for this job but also a natural fit.
Lastly, here are a few tips to get you on your way:

  • If you’re responding to a job posting or ad, follow the directions. Meaning, if they ask for specific information in your cover letter (the specific position you’re applying for, your salary requirements, etc) then you must provide it. Also, if it says “no phone calls”, don’t call. I’m serious.
  • Proofread. If you take away anything from this post (or even this blog), please proofread your work. Remember, mistakes reflect carelessness– the total opposite of “detail-oriented.”
  • Keep it simple… and short. Purple prose is always a no-no, but this is especially applicable here. Be concise; most cover letters are only a page long. If it must be over a page, make it only a page and half, tops. So, don’t send a missive, send a directive– keep it short and sweet.
  • Keep it professional. Use a professional-sounding email or, at the very least, your school email when including your contact information. As hot as “” sounds, it’s incredibly jarring to Human Resources. Don’t be the office joke, and sign up for a nice, normal-sounding Gmail account that includes your name and not any weird proclivities.