Another problem we see cropping up in papers is verb tense consistency -- it might seem obvious, but surprisingly, this mistake is made more often than you might think.
A real-life example from a student:
"Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun appeared to get weaker..."
Ok, so what's the problem? If we are going to use were lit and were getting then let's say was appearing (use was, not were, since sun is singular and bonfires and days are plural).
A better way to phrase this sentence would be:
Bonfires were lit to praise the sun because the days were getting shorter and the sun was appearing to weaken.
That just sounds so much better and now our tenses are consistent.
For more practice grab a paper and pencil (yes, I know it's July) and try your hand at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) Tense Consistency Exercise. Answers are included and there are four different exercises.
Sometimes it is appropriate to shift your verb tenses within a paragraph. This depends on what is being written and how the information is conveyed. There is a great example of correct tense shift in the first example of OWL Exercise 4. Can you find the two instances where the present tense is used correctly? The rest of the paragraph examples are more challenging -- see if you can do them without peeking at the answers!
Verb tense consistency can be trickier than you think. It always helps to read your writing aloud -- it will often reveal inconsistencies that you did not realize existed.
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This week's quick tip comes from a problem we see creeping up too often in papers these days: mixing singular nouns or pronouns with plural nouns or pronouns (or vise versa). For instance, can you spot the problems in the following sentences? These are sentences from two different papers, written by two different students.
"If they were wealthy, men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like."
"The wives were left to take care of the children in the absence of her husband, giving her limited time away from home."
Did you immediately spot the mixing of plurals with singulars? Upon closer inspection we realize that we have not matched up correctly our plural pronouns or nouns with other pronouns (or nouns) we used later in the same sentence.
There are some other issues with the sentences, but for now let's focus on the following:
In the first sentence, we have they and men (a plural pronoun and a plural noun) so we need to make sure we do not switch to a singular pronoun when referring to these nouns again...his (bride) is a singular pronoun, so now we have a problem. Replace his with their and we match up. Please note that you will have to make picture and bride plural, too. It is incorrect to say "...men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what their bride would look like," unless more than one man is sharing a single bride. Not likely.
We would have made this sentence singular. It sounds better to say, "If a man was wealthy, he would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like." These little choices can make a big difference, and ideally it's preferable to start the sentence off with the noun (man) than with the pronoun (they). We know right from the get-go whom we're dealing with!
For the second example, we have the same issue rearing its head. We see wives but then we jump to the singular pronoun her, and use it twice in the same sentence. For this one, we would go ahead and stick with the plural forms, and substitute their and them for each her, in that order. Don't forget to make husband plural, even though it is more plausible that multiple women might be sharing one.
If you enjoyed this week's tip, please pass it on to your friends and neighbors.
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Rarely do we use whom in everyday conversation. Let's face it. When is the last time you heard someone say (or heard yourself say) "Whom did you speak with on the telephone this afternoon?" Huh? Still, even though we may choose not to use whom when chatting with (or about) our best friend, we need to be sure to use who/whom correctly when writing. Even experienced writers can get hung up on what sounds right versus what is correct.
Instead of discussing pronouns, subjects and objects (you can read about those on Grammar Girl) we're going to give you the super simple way to know when to use who and when to use whom.
Think of who as married to he and whom as married to him -- whom ends in m as does him so they go together very nicely.
Who = He
Whom = Him
So, what do we mean by Who = He and Whom = Him?
Simple: When trying to decide which pronoun to use, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. For instance, in the above graphic the answer to the question "Whom did you throw the ball to?" would be "I threw the ball to him." Therefore, we must use whom since Whom = Him.
Conversely, the answer to "Who threw the ball?" must be he, because we don't say "Him threw it." Babies learning to speak might say that, but we'll give them a pass just this once.
Finally, using the example that we started this post with -- "Whom did you speak with on the telephone this afternoon?" it must be whom (him), because we did not speak with he on the telephone.
Astute readers might bring up the fact that if we are not talking about a male member of society, does the rule still apply? Indeed it does -- you'll need to pretend the subject or object is always male. If you can think of another trick that is not so gender-biased, feel free to share it in the comment section.
As always, all other questions concerning grammar, punctuation, and writing are welcome!
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