Teachers at Work

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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.

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Monday May 10th 2010, 5:42 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
But what about possessive pronouns?
Monday May 10th 2010, 6:09 AM
Comment by: Donald B. (Jamesville, NY)
Great stuff! Clear examples of some very common mistakes. DB
Monday May 10th 2010, 8:34 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
Enjoyed the article here at semester's end, with papers graded and grades posted! Beach time!

I'm so surprised when a student writer uses a gerund correctly that I write a congratulatory comment in the margin! Salaam for suggesting ways to explain. The "verb wearing a false mustache" is a great image, but wouldn't it be a "noun wearing a false mustache"? One way or other, he's like Oz the Great, isn't he? Bravo!

As for the wicked "which", the which/that distinction seems related to issues of sentence boundaries--like explaining what should be the simplest of rules: the comma is sorely needed before the coordinating conjunction that precedes an independent clause but not before a dependent one. But I find myself translating: "If everything after 'and' can stand alone as a sentence, you need the comma; if it can't, you don't." If I get the time for individual conferences, we talk about the reasons why the student writer might have combined the two sentences and think about more interesting ways to show the relationship between the ideas. While analysis of the reasons behind an "error" is difficult with the pencil (I don't use red pen--can't stand the sight of blood) or in a general lecture on points of grammar and punctuation,light often dawns when I talk one on one with a student, with his or her paper before us. As Mina Shaughnessey (sp.?)taught us many years ago, the points of intellectual energy often lie where grammar, syntax, and punctuation are most tangled. An error may be a sign of the scarecrow's sawdust burning--he really does have a brain! Your suggestion to listen for a pause before "which" makes sense if you read your draft aloud--a strategy I wish all students would use. (Of course, students overgeneralize the suggestion to listen for the pause and sprinkle in commas like pepper on mashed potatoes.)

Of course, following the that/which suggestion spoils the joke: Why don't you get hungry on the beach? Because of the sandwiches there.

Then again, I always get hungry on the beach.

With the word "there" I get more crazy about its overuse than the homophone confusion. Any time you start a sentence with "There is" you risk wordiness, failure to take responsibility for your assertions, imprecise meaning, and (the greatest sin) boring your teacher.

Wishing all a great summer--Joyce (Dr. Woo)
Monday May 10th 2010, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
Did you know that the British make no such distinction between "that" and "which"? I believe I read about it in the (London) Times online style guide. It seems very strange to me that they don't make the distinction. They had had the language first, after all.
Monday May 10th 2010, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Margaret P. (Brooklyn, NY)
Yep, I think the Brits use "which" when we'd use "that." And Joyce -- I don't really use a red pen, either! I usually use a pencil for edits on student papers. There's my confession.
Monday May 10th 2010, 9:38 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
Actually, "which" is not incorrect in either type of clause: it's the comma that makes the distinction between restricted and unrestricted. However, using "that" when the phrase is essential to the meaning makes that meaning clearer. Since Tom brings up the British usage, though, it's interesting that to most American ears "which" sounds a bit posh when we could use the word "that" and keep the same meaning.
Monday May 10th 2010, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
I have tended to overuse 'which' - incorrectly I take it from this piece - but the grammar check in
my word processor is relentless - and always suggests 'when', when appropriate. It's been a great teach - and helped my spelling, too.

Thanks for this interesting explanation of gerunds, which have always baffled me.
Monday May 10th 2010, 12:54 PM
Comment by: betsy B. (Tucson, AZ)
Best explanation clarifying "which vs.that" that I've seen. Thanks.
Monday May 10th 2010, 7:17 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Phew! I'll reread and do a bit of digesting! I think that I'd been taught with the rules and had them reinforced at home so that teaching them became a relatively simple task.

It's fascinating to hear these discussed as if grammar and the choice of word were still important!

(I'm rolling my eyes at typing that! I'm thrilled that other people care!)
Monday May 10th 2010, 10:13 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I've digested dinner, at least.

One tool I used, but with students much younger than the columnist's, was to teach spelling in context, especially problem words like homonyms.

That meant I composed sentences that were to be memorized, usually about 7 of them per cycle. I had a rather small class of reluctant learners, school being a place that they'd rather not be most of the time.

The sentences, therefore, had to have a bit of humour in them. We played games with them, with the students themselves challenging one another to repeat them with only the number being given.

The real trick, of course, was the writing of them, sentences that contained *its*, *it's*, *there*, *their*, *they're* in one sentence, for example.

That sort of repetition helped, but the process for learning the problem words has to be started earlier than university. I fear that this sort of rote learning would be frowned on now, even though it paid dividends in correct usage and fun at the time.

Yes, it was fun. Those sentences could be really crazy, tongue twisters almost, with difficult words.

I may have had the only class who could spell definitely and separately correctly! It did work. They hadn't conquered the spelling lists that appear at the National Spelling Bee, but they could spell the homonyms and the problem words -- most of the time.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 2:16 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
This discussion was such fun! I haven't done any Face Book, etc. but I'm starting to see the attraction, despite Betty White's tongue in cheek jab Saturday night. Jane, I lived in Newfoundland for four years in the late 60s / early 70s and LOVE Canada. My children learned to talk and read when we were living there. And one of my favorite textbook writers is Perry Nodelman, a guru in the field of literature for children, who lives in Winnipeg. What you--and others discussing Margaret's interesting article--confirm is that we can only learn the "rules" in the context of writing, and we learn them to enhance meaning rather than because they are prescribed. And if learning them is fun, so much the better. Congratulations, by the way, on teaching the spelling of definitely; I can't tell you how many college students DEFIANTLY spell it wrong (well, no, they don't mean to do it)--a plethora of them, I'm sure (plethora being a favorite word of a plethora of college students). Spell check doesn't tag homophones or frequent mistakes like definitely / defiantly, although it could be taught to do so, I bet. My favorite spell check howler, in a paper written by one of my students, is "cereal killer"--sounds like we need to have a funeral for Captain Crunch. Joyce
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
When your teacher makes you memorize 7 sentences every week with 'definitely' in each of them at least once, for a whole year...

it tends to stick, I think.

That is one word I battle with on forums, trying to convince people that it's really definITEly.
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Wallace N. (Scottsdale, AZ)
You're GREAT! Now, kindly write an article on the much over-used and mis-use of "myself." Somehow, over the past 5 years, I have heard it used inappropriately on TV by everyone from talking heads to participants in casual conversation at Starbucks. Only a scholar like yourself could set the record straight, "which" I wish you would!
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Wallace: On the "myself" front, check out Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner's contribution, " Vocab Lab: The Myself Generation," and my followup, " More Musings on 'Myself.'"
Sunday December 11th 2011, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Tom A.
Thank you. Perfectly clarified the which/that issue and got me going again in my under-construction book.

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Margaret takes a common-sense approach to teach rules of grammar.
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Margaret tackles the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.