There are no hard and fast rules in writing. But even if an experimental poet or an avant-garde novelist has dispensed with capitalization or written an entire novel without the letter E (yes, a novel like this really exists!), this does not mean that you should follow suit. Your personal statement is not the place to defy the conventions of grammar. Instead, it is the place to display your knowledge of even the most obscure rules—the rules that others often break. If you can keep from making these two common errors, your writing will stand out.
1. Do not use a plural pronoun with a singular subject.
“The person crossed the street, and then they ran away.”
“Someone paid your bill, but they prefer to remain anonymous.”
“The person crossed the street, and then he or she ran away.”
Or: “The person crossed the street, and then she ran away.”
“Someone paid your bill, but he or she prefers to remain anonymous.”
Or: “Someone paid your bill, but she prefers to remain anonymous.”
What’s going wrong
The antecedent (that’s a fancy word for the word to which a pronoun refers) is singular, but the pronoun is plural. In the sentence “The person crossed the street,” one person is crossing the street, but the pronoun “they” refers to more than one person. The sentence makes it sound as though the person crossing the street has multiplied by the time he or she runs away!
How to fix the mistake
Read through your sentences, identify the pronouns (it can help to circle or underline them), and identify their antecedents (it can help to circle or underline these words too). Then, ask yourself if the antecedent and pronoun match: make sure that if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun is singular as well.
In the olden days, go-to singular pronouns were masculine. When writers in past centuries wrote about a person crossing the street, they always referred to this person as “he” in subsequent clauses. Nowadays, many prefer to use “she” as a way of correcting for historical prejudice. You may use “she” or “he or she.”
There is one exception to this general rule. If the person in question is trans and takes plural pronouns, you should use a plural pronoun with a singular subject.
2. Use the subjunctive when you write about wishes and hypotheticals.
“I wish I was an opera singer.”
“If he was rich, he would donate more money to charity.”
“I wish I were an opera singer.”
“If he were rich, he would donate more money to charity.”
What’s going wrong
In English sentences about hypothetical states of affairs, we use the subjunctive mood when we conjugate our verbs. While the ins and outs of the subjunctive could be the topic of a whole post, a good rule of thumb for personal statements is that it often crops up in two circumstances: in statements with the verb “to wish,” and if-clauses about hypothetical states of affairs (these are usually followed by conditional clauses, which use verbs like “would”). In these cases, we conjugate the verb “to be” as if it were plural. Instead of saying “I was,” we say “I were.”
Note that you should not use the subjunctive after an “if” that can be replaced with “whether.” For instance, because we can rewrite the sentence “I will be there if I am sick or if I am well” as “I will be there whether I am sick or whether I am well,” we do not need to use the subjunctive here.
How to fix the mistake
Read through your sentences and circle every instance of “if” and “wish.” Determine if the sentences containing the word “if” require the subjunctive, as per the rule above. Then, ensure that the verbs in any first-personal statements are conjugated correctly.
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