Pen & Chisel Q&A: Tackling Subjective Grammar Issues in the Personal Statement

Eileen ConnerHere at The Girl’s Guide, we get tons of questions from law school applicants about how to best frame their application story. Rather than making stuff up that may or may not be right, we’re bringing in the big guns!

Please welcome Eileen Conner, founder of Pen and Chisel, who has agreed to serve as our resident expert on law school application writing. Eileen is here to help with any law school application questions you might have — including personal statements, diversity statements, addenda, and any other items you need to submit.

Got a burning law school application question? Just send a note and maybe it will be answered in a future column!

Q: I think I’m done with my personal statement! What should I watch out for while I’m polishing it up?

Congratulations! A final draft is a real achievement. Now it’s up to you to find and fix any lingering grammar, usage, or spelling issues. By proofreading thoughtfully and well, you can solidify your essay and make a positive impression on the admissions committee.

Most proofreading problems will be straightforward and easy to solve. However, you may find that some present more complex challenges.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few more subjective grammatical issues.

Consistency is Key

In some situations, multiple accepted usages, spellings, or grammatical structures may be available. In this circumstance, you can generally choose the usage you like best — as long as you make a thoughtful decision and stick with it. If you’ve used a particular structure once, continue to use it consistently throughout your entire essay.

For instance, consider the use of commas in a list. The Oxford or serial comma — a comma placed after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items, immediately before the conjunction linking to the last item — has fallen in and out of favor at various times.

For example:

  • Oxford comma: “Eggs, coffee, and toast.”
  • No Oxford comma: “Eggs, coffee and toast.”

Either of these usages is acceptable in contemporary written English. This means you can choose whether you want to use the Oxford comma or simply leave it out. However, mixing and matching the two usages throughout your essay can make your proofreading look sloppy and careless. It’s far better to choose one usage or the other and use it in every list. This will make you look conscientious and highlight your attention to detail.

Questionable Grammar

Of course, sometimes you’ll come across usages that have not achieved full grammatical acceptance. Since English — and all languages — change gradually as people speak them, there are always going to be different bits and pieces phasing in and out of style.

For example, here are a few uses that have become common in contemporary English, but that are still considered questionable:

  • “Alright” vs. “all right”
  • Using “their” as a 3rd person singular gender neutral pronoun
  • Starting sentences with conjunctions such as “and” or “but”

Faced with a grammatically questionable situation, which usage should you choose?

On the whole, it’s safer to err on the side of conservatism, since law is a conservative field and academic opinion tends to change slowly.

Older, more established grammatical structures will generally be considered correct. Consult a reference such as Strunk and White or the Chicago Manual of Style to double-check whether a given usage is accepted.

In the examples above, this would mean choosing “all right” over “alright,” replacing “their” with an appropriately gendered pronoun or rephrasing the sentence to work around the issue, and avoiding the use of conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence.

However, in circumstances like these, the final choice really rests on your personal judgement. Just make sure that you’ve identified potential problem areas and made a considered decision instead of just letting the chips fall where they may.

By making a real effort to be careful and thoughtful with your final proofreading, you can produce a highly polished personal statement that will make an excellent impression on the admissions committee.

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Thanks, Eileen! Got a burning law school application question? Just send a note and maybe it will be answered in a future column.

More about Eileen:
Eileen Conner is the founder of Pen and Chisel LLC, where she specializes in helping law school candidates perfect their application essays. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious creative writing MFA program, Eileen is the former Senior Editor for Law at Revision Editing.

Read On:

As you embark on your law school application journey, you might want to bookmark Applying to Law School 101: What You Need to Know to Succeed.

Then check out some of the rest of the Pen & Chisel Q&A:

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