Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Gerunds, Whiches and There's, Oh My!

Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker continues her entertaining and enlightening look at common errors in college papers and how to fix them. Here she tackles frequently appearing grammar goofs.

I've never been to Kansas, but when I grade college student papers, I often channel Dorothy — the sky darkens as orphaned gerunds, evil whiches, and hairy there's fly by my window. Below are quick fixes to these common and not-so-common problems.

Going on a Gerund Hunt

His dancing the cha cha cha in the middle of dinner made us woozy.

A gerund is a verb wearing a fake mustache. It's not "him dancing the cha cha cha" because the gerund dancing requires the possessive his. Done. This explanation is usually met with blank stares, so I follow it by telling students that a gerund is a verb that acts like a noun and always ends in – ing. We don't like gerunds to be orphans (unclaimed by nouns or pronouns) because I don't like that man standing in front of me (he ran over my cat!) isn't the same as I don't like that man's standing in front of me (never met the guy, but I can't see the band).

Here are more sentences with gerunds that deserve possession:

  • The chances of his being on time are slim.
  • Her haggling helped me get a cheap wig.
  • She enjoys my cooking eggs on the car hood.

Gerunds are a kind of verbal, which are verbs in disguise. There are three kinds: gerunds, infinitives, and participles. Should students memorize verbals? Not in my class, but if they continue to make mistakes, I have to conk them upside the head with a gerund; it's acting like noun, after all.

Finding the Good Which

Pookie needs high heels, which are hard to find in his size.

Which clauses are afterthoughts, an inch away from being in parenthesis. Use which here instead of that because if you chop "which are hard to find in his size," the meaning doesn't change much. It's interesting that the heels hard to find, but not vital to the sentence.When my very own grammar-loving mother asked me about that vs. which, even her eyes glazed over when I yammered on about restrictive and unrestrictive clauses. It's the same deal in the classroom yet I can't resist — restrictive clauses are essential to the meaning of sentences, and unrestrictive clauses aren't. See? You just zoned out. A which clause (unrestrictive) follows a comma: The book, which is blue, is on the shelf (it's not that important that it's blue, I just wanted to tell you) or She likes the lemon candy, which is sour (doesn't really matter that it's sour, but interesting).

On the other hand, sentences can't go on without their beloved that clauses (restrictive).  Remove a that clause and the meaning of the sentence changes: Pookie needs paints that are washable (he doesn't need any ol' paints, he needs washable ones) or The dancers need costumes that are tight-fitting and shiny (loose and dull costumes simply will not do).

Some people — even grammar lovers! — really don't care about the distinction between that and which. The problem occurs when writers overuse which because they think it sounds fancy. And it's kind of hard to teach — I've run into trouble when giving example sentences in the classroom and students argue about which (different use!) clauses require which or that when often there's no right answer because it depends on the meaning. For example, if some lemon candy is sour and some isn't, She likes the lemon candy that is sour is appropriate instead of which is sour because it's now an essential part of the sentence.

The quick fix: If you pause before you say it, it's probably which and if it flows, use that. As in I like the cookies that are covered in sprinkles but She likes the dark chocolate, which is expensive. The pause gives the listener/reader a heads-up that an afterthought is on the way.

There's No Place Like Home

They're waiting for you there.

Not theirs or they'res no place like home. This rule isn't debatable, of course. When students confuse their homophones, I assume it's a proofreading problem, but when this mistake shows up again and again, I'm forced to go over it. We all feel silly when I write this on the board: There is a place, as in There's the dragon! Their shows possession, as in Their coffins are heavy. And they're is a contraction for "they are," as in They're chasing us with sparklers and confetti.  In addition, your and you're (You're not your own boss) get mixed up, as does it's and its (It's a shame when its parts fail.), which (!) is the kind of thing they get right on quizzes, but continue to write incorrectly on papers.  I had a student who did well on tests but got the usage wrong in her papers, ask me, "I know the rules, but how do I use them in my writing?" Practice practice practice, and the guidance of a sparkly red pen.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

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