Don’t Hate Me

The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care

When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”

I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.

Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1

Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”

To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).

What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.

Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:

Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.

Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.

In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.

Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).

So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:

They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.

1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.

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College Application Essays Dos and Don’ts

How to Put Your Best Foot Forward in Writing

In my years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve had the joy of helping many students with their personal statements and application essays. While the essay is often only one part of the admissions process, many colleges will say that a strong statement can save an otherwise lackluster application, while a terrible one can sink a student’s hopes no matter how high his GPA. So what does it take to win over the admissions committee? I’ve tried to keep it concise and include examples—that’s a hint for you, too.

DO

  • Answer the question.
    Some of those Common Application prompts sound awfully similar, and some are extremely open-ended. Be careful, though. “Recount a time when you faced a failure” is NOT the same as “describe a problem you’ve solved,” and “share a story about your meaningful background or identity” is NOT license to give an unabridged autobiography. Good essays are focused, clear, and organized. Don’t waste your precious word count restating the prompt; instead, make it obvious from your content.
  • Be honest, humble, and positive.
    Even if you’re a national champion gymnast or a published research scientist at seventeen, a little self-effacement goes a long way. Avoid certainty or finality (“For the rest of my life, I will protect our planet at all costs”) by instead exhibiting a healthy degree of doubt (“I realized that I can’t win every battle”)Most importantly, end on a positive note. A wise person knows she’s not perfect, she can’t fix everything, and that the world won’t always give her what she wants. Finding hope, purpose, and determination in the midst of struggles is a high mark of maturity.
  • Say something about college.
    Once you’ve figured out how to organize the essay and respond positively to the prompt, don’t forget the whole reason you’re doing this. An essay about your passion for building custom PCs should somehow connect to your future plans. It’s decent to describe college in general (“This experience inspired me to pursue an engineering degree”), but much better to name the school where you’re applying (“My love of research draws me to Princeton, where I can…”).
  • Show personal growth.
    A GPA proves you can learn facts, but what about life lessons? No matter what prompt you’re given, incorporate a clear before and after. Err on the side of too corny (“I learned that teamwork means sharing in defeats as much as sharing in victories”) rather than too subtle (“Teams go up and down together”).
  • Ask other people to read it.
    Spellcheck won’t catch every error, so make sure someone proofreads who can differentiate ‘affect’ and ‘effect.’ More importantly, however, give your essay to friends, family members, or a guidance counselor and simply ask, “Does this sound like me?” Grammatical correctness won’t save a bland, cookie-cutter essay.
  • Say what no one else can.
    You’ve probably heard advice to “just be yourself.” The way that happens is through using specific details that no one else in the world can claim. An essay about sports? The world has millions. About winning the state championship in soccer? Still not unique. About a girl who broke her foot in the district final and had to redefine her self-worth and role as team captain while watching her friends chase the first state title in school history without her? Getting closer.

DON’T

  • Try to impress the admissions committee.
    Don’t suck up by telling a school where it ranks in the U.S. News & World Report (if that’s your main reason for applying, I have bigger concerns). Show why the school’s a good fit for you, not why it’s a good school. Don’t spout GRE-level vocabulary or mention your perfect score on the SAT—they’ll see this on your application anyway. With respect, the essay is your chance to be a person, not a robot.
  • Be clichéd, arrogant, or negative.
    While sharing your narrative of personal growth and accomplishment, avoid the rags-to-riches story. Essay readers see far too many “life-changing moments” and “total 180s.” Describing your overnight transformation from self-absorbed jerk to community hero might have the opposite effect. Instead, be authentic and still young on life’s journey. As a corollary to my advice above about staying positive, don’t end the essay without any sense of hope for the world or drive for your future.
  • Write your resume in paragraph form.
    The offending sentence looks like this: “Becoming an Eagle Scout, which is the highest rank a person can achieve in the Boy Scouts of America program based on merit badges, leadership, and a final service project to help members of the community, changed my life.” A personal narrative about how you earned one of those merit badges will be far more successful. In general, don’t repeat information listed elsewhere on the application unless it’s absolutely essential to the story you’re telling.
  • Quote famous people.
    Forget that advice from 9th grade English class about opening with a quote. The truth is that you have a limited word count to display what makes you tick. Don’t fill up that space with lines from Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr.—they already went to college. If you absolutely must, quote your mom or grandma to at least make it personal. Always, always avoid “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘obstacle’ as…” Colleges already have dictionaries; they’re deciding if they should admit you.
  • Sound unnatural.
    It should go without saying to proofread for errors, but some essays manage to tip the scale too far the other way. Using six-syllable synonyms from the thesaurus or allowing your Ph. D. parents to suggest a more complicated syntax could end up working against you. Remember, it’s about relating through your humanity, not showcasing your book knowledge. Don’t bring your fine caviar to the backyard barbecue. It’s a personal essay, not a spelling bee.
  • Ignore the directions.
    This is “just be yourself” in a bad way. If the instructions ask for a 600-word essay, don’t think you’ll win fans by writing 1,000. Opening lines like “instead of a traditional essay, I decided to write a series of limmericks” or “I’ve attached an abstract painting to supplement this writing” should be red flags. Be creative within the constraints, and those constraints are the prompt.

    Questions? Thoughts? Comment below or contact me here. Thanks for reading!

 

 

The Best Books for Middle School

Finding engaging, age-appropriate reading material for middle schoolers can be hard.

As a middle school English teacher, I often receive questions about finding the best books for middle schoolers. Parents want reading material that’s challenging, educational, and suitable for young minds; students want books that are interesting, relatable, and entertaining enough to finish. In an ongoing project, I’ve asked teachers and students to contribute to this list of the best books for middle school. Whether it’s for a class book report or some fun summer reading, scroll down to find twentieth-century classics, contemporary hits, and a few you’ve never heard of in all genres. I keep it updated, so let me know if there are titles you think should be added to the list.

Best Books for Middle Schoolers:

Low Fantasy (Magic/Myth in the Real World)

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan
The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud
City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
The Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans
The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

High Fantasy (Set in Alternate World)

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Redwall series by Brian Jacques
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
The Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
Dragon Run by Patrick Matthews
The Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull
The Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
The Everworld series by K.A. Applegate
The Selection series by Kiera Cass
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

Science Fiction

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner
The Infinity Ring series by James Dashner
Dissonance by Erica O’Rourke
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Virals by Kathy Reichs
Maximum Ride series by James Patterson
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements
Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh
I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Historical

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Book Thief 
by Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Mystery / Thriller

When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddox
Stolen Children by Peg Kehret
Dead Girls Don’t Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Do You Know the Monkey Man by Dori Hillestad Butler
The Compound by S.A. Bodeen
The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
Need by Joelle Charbonneau
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Literary

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Eleven by Tom Rogers
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce

Biography / Nonfiction (YA Editions)

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
No Summit Out of Sight by Jordan Romero
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
March [graphic novel] by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George
Black Pioneers of Science and Invention by Louis Haber
Mud, Sweat, and Tears by Bear Grylls
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Classics – Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 
The Giver
 by Lois Lowry
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Classics – Historical and Literary

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Hardy Boys series by various authors as Franklin W. Dixon
The Nancy Drew Mystery stories by various authors as Carolyn Keene
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

100+ titles for The Best Books for Middle School
Know any novels that I should add? Contact me to add them to the list!