Bad Grammar, Bad Outcome
Here, for your perusal we have compiled a list of misusages, misspellings, and colloquialisms that often find their way into graduate school application essays. Small language errors may seem unimportant, especially if you are presenting yourself as a mathematically or scientifically-minded person, but you never know what sort of person the admissions officer reading your essays will turn out to be. While it is possible that you will be lucky enough to have a forgiving reader who focuses on concepts and argument structure, you may also get a curmudgeon who is a stickler for grammar and language use. You do not want to miss your shot at your dream school due to poor language facility.
Misused and Confused Words and Phrases
Generally, you want to be sure that you know the definition of every word you use, down to every specific connotation. It is often difficult to understand the full meaning of a word based solely on its definition, so make sure that you look up examples or proper usage instructions as well. Below, we listed only the basic definitions of a few commonly-mixed-up words and phrases in order to make the differences between various expressions as comprehensible as possible.
Your vs. you’re
Your is possessive. It is an adjective that shows that a noun you are referencing belongs to a person to whom you are referring. You’re is a contraction of you are. It is best to leave contractions out of your formal writing altogether.
Its vs. it’s
Its is possessive. Similarly to your, it shows that a noun that you are referencing belongs to something. It’s is a contraction of it is. Again, it is best to leave contractions out of your formal writing.
Hone vs. home
To home in means to focus on a target and work towards it. A missile might home in on its target. Hone means to sharpen or perfect. A student might hone the mathematical skills necessary for an algebra examination.
Ability vs. capability
These words are often synonymous, but also differ subtly. Ability simply refers to having the capacity to do something. Abilities are usually innate. If someone tries to learn the piano without having the ability to do so, they would struggle to learn because they lack the potential for it. Ability can also refer to aptness or talent in a certain area.
Capability is a word whose definition includes two parts: how much a person can do, and how well they can do it. In other words, knowing someone’s capability implies knowing their level of performance as well as an awareness of their limitations. A student might have the ability to pass an exam, while having the capability to perform at a much higher level.
Comprise vs. compose
The most common definition of comprise is “to contain”. A sentence comprises a subject and a predicate. In more recent adaptations of this word, it can also be a synonym of compose: to make up. A subject and predicate compose a sentence.
Comprise is used when the subject of a sentence is the whole and the object is a part, whereas compose is always used when the subject is the part and the object is the whole. In other words, comprise encompasses all definitions of compose, but compose cannot mean “to contain” in the same way that comprise can.
Consequent vs. subsequent
Consequent is similar to the word consequence—it means “as a result of.” Subsequent simply means “after.” A consequent action is always a subsequent action, but a subsequent action is not necessarily a consequent action.
E.g. vs. i.e.
E.g. stands for the Latin phrase exempli gratia which means “for the sake of example.” You should use e.g. when you are about to cite an example of a point you just illustrated (e.g. when you mention a Yorkshire Terrier after stating that there are dogs that do not get along with children). I.e. stands for the Latin phrase id est which means “that is” (i.e. it’s the same as saying, “in other words.”)
People often use this word to mean “glance over” or “skim.” Its actual definition is quite the opposite. If you are perusing, it means you are reading closely.
I vs. myself vs. me
I is a first person pronoun that appears only as the subject of the sentence. If the pronoun is the indirect object of the sentence, use me. Finally, if the subject of the sentence is I and the object or indirect object of the sentence is that same person (me), use myself. In other words, I performs the action, me receives the action directly or indirectly, and if both pronouns are used in the same sentence, change me to myself. Take a look at these examples:
I love John.
John loves me.
I love myself.
John is loved by me.
I am loved by myself.
Farther vs. further
Notice that farther has the word, “far” in it. Farther refers to physical distance, while further refers to figurative distance. You can travel farther away from home to gain further understanding of independence.
Fewer vs. less
Fewer and less are used for quantifiable and non-quantifiable nouns, respectively. If you can pluralize a noun (e.g. dresses, ropes, cars, movies), then it is quantifiable and you should use fewer. If you cannot pluralize it (e.g. water, air, humor, patience), then it is unquantifiable and you should use less.
You have fewer friends than I do.
I have less patience than Janet does.
Altogether vs. All together
The biggest difference between these two is that altogether is an adverb and all together is an adjectival phrase. Use altogether to mean “on the whole,” or “entirely.” You can say, I forgot something altogether. Or, We sang “America, the Beautiful” all together. A good test to determine whether to use altogether or all together, is that if you can separate all and together with a different word in the sentence, then it is the two separate words that you want to use. For example, it makes sense to say, We all sang “America, The Beautiful” together, but you cannot say, I all forgot something together.
About vs. Approximately
Do not use about to mean approximately. About is a colloquialism, and does not belong in formal writing. Approximately is an adjective that indicates a lack of accuracy. It shows that the time, number, or explanation of something is nearly exact with some margin of error.
About should only be used in formal writing to mean “concerning,” or “in regard to.”
Misspellings and Colloquialisms
Your graduate school application is an example of formal writing—it is extremely important to avoid grammar errors and colloquialisms. Strike these words and expressions from all of your professional writing.
Incorrect Expression: towards
Incorrect Expression: for all intensive purposes
Correct: for all intents and purposes
Incorrect Expression: should of
Correct: should have
Incorrect Expression: try and
Correct: try to
Incorrect Expression: as to whether
Incorrect Expression: this is a place which…; he is a man who…
Correct: eliminate the redundancies. Say, He…, or, The place…
Incorrect Expression: being that; being as; due to the fact that
Incorrect Expression: so as to
While we hope that these examples will be helpful, this list does not address every possible mistake. For more information, consult an MLA or Chicago Manual of Style. There are also idiomatic dictionaries that can be helpful in determining whether or not something is a colloquialism.