Grammar Police: Top Errors in Personal Statements

Grammar can be tricky.  Just the other day, a friend and I consulted Grammar Girl after debating whether it is correct to say “myriad choices” or “myriad of choices.” (It turns out that either has become acceptable, although traditionalists still say that “myriad choices” would be more formally correct.)

Grammar matters a lot. The abilities to speak and write well are at the core of being an effective advocate, regardless of the area of law in which an attorney practices. Clients–as well as judges–judge how smart lawyers are by how well they speak and write.  Would you want to pay a lawyer $200+ an hour to produce sloppy letters and briefs full of typos and grammatical errors? Of course not. Clients pay lawyers for their excellent speaking and writing skills, as well as their attention to detail. Sloppy speaking and writing skills = no repeat clients.

In the context of a personal statement, law schools will be judging your ability to convey your message not only through the substance of your essay (which is important), but by the quality of your writing. We are seeing a lot of personal statements this time of year, which reminds me just how common grammar mistakes are in them. I’ve noticed that there are certain errors I consistently see. If I am seeing them, you know that deans and directors of admission at law schools are noticing them too. What are some grammar dangers to avoid?

  • Spell check is not enough. Say it with me. Spell check IS NOT enough. Spell check does not catch some of my favorite mistakes, like writing “statue” when you mean “statute” or “the” when “them” is what you meant. (One little letter makes a world of difference.) It won’t catch that you have written “perspective student” when you mean “prospective student.”  Spell check definitely won’t notice that you incorrectly left one reference to Stanford when the rest of your essay is about Northwestern. Tip: Use “Find and Replace” for that.
  • Possessive apostrophes. Hands down, the single biggest mistake I consistently see in students’ writing is incorrect usage of apostrophes, especially when indicating possession. Usually this involves adding apostrophes where they do not belong (like in “its mistakes”, which does not use an apostrophe for possessive) as well as missing an apostrophe where one does belong (in “students’ work”, for example).
  • Me, myself, and I. Are you the subject of the sentence? If so, “me” and “myself” don’t fit. You wouldn’t say “me walks into the room” or “myself prefers yellow.” Therefore, you also should not say “my friend and me walk into the room” or “my mom and myself prefer yellow.” (You should use “I” in both of those examples.) An especially egregious mistake is the dreaded incorrect plural possessive: “My brother and I’s apartment.” Yikes! Correct options would be to say “my apartment”, “our apartment”, or even “the apartment my brother and I share.”

Here is my number one grammar tip: READ IT OUT LOUD.  That’s right, read your essay out loud and listen. Does it sound right to you? Most of us know when something sounds “off”..even if we can’t articulate exactly why it is wrong. Circle the areas of the paper that sound odd to you, and give them some extra grammar attention.

Where can you turn for some grammar guidance?

Grammar Girl is a good online resource: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

Our Writer’s Workshop wrote a helpful grammar guide:
http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/

For a compilation of several helpful grammar sites, visit
http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/resources/grammar.htm

I also really like Grammarly.com’s Facebook page, which posts fun examples of grammar gone awry. (That’s right, grammar can be fun.)

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