A Word, Please: A grammar quiz for the college-bound

August is a time when soon-to-be college freshmen are “preparing” for school. For just about any red-blooded American teenager, this means shopping, shopping and more shopping.

But a worn-out credit card does not a prepared freshman make. So, for all you “shop-worn” parents of incoming college students, here’s an item that won’t cost you a dime and could just provide the most important back-to-school prep of all.

It’s a quiz for the student.

Read the following passage aloud and have your student write it down:

It’s the Thomases whose house can weather the effects of time, rather than the Williamses’ house, because its foundation lets in a lot of air and because they’re the ones who got a new roof in the 1990s, replacing a roof built in the ’40s and thus positively affecting their home’s durability, which has led to a higher assessed value.

If your student’s version doesn’t look like this, have him read this list of common errors and how to avoid them.

1. When “its” is possessive, it takes no apostrophe. The “it’s” with an apostrophe is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” It’s time the dog got its vaccinations.

2. “Whose” shows possession, but “who’s” does not. It’s a contraction of “who is” or “who has.” Who’s going to be at the party and whose car will we take to get there?

3. To form the plural of a word that ends in S, including proper names, add ES. Mr. Thomas and Mrs. Thomas together are the Thomases. Unless it’s possessive, this takes no apostrophe.

4. To form the possessive of a singular noun, add apostrophe and S. The house’s roof. You can do this even if the noun ends in S. Thomas’s hat. To form the possessive of a regular plural noun, add only an apostrophe. The two houses’ roofs.

5. “A lot” is always two words.

6. “Then” refers to time or sequence. “Than” is for comparison. I discovered I was taller than Kareem, then I tried out for basketball.

6. “Weather” refers to the temperature and precipitation outdoors. It can also mean to withstand. “Whether” refers to possibility: “I don’t know whether I can weather this weather.”

7. “Let’s” is a contraction of “let us.” Use it when inviting someone to do something with you. The “lets” with no apostrophe is the verb “to let” conjugated in the third-person singular: Let’s just say he lets his hair down at night.

8. “Affect” is usually a verb, “effect” a noun. Caffeine doesn’t affect me, but for others has an unpleasant effect.

9. “Led” is the past tense of the verb “to lead.” Today he leads the troops. Yesterday he led the troops. Don’t confuse it with the metal “lead,” which is pronounced the same as “led.”

10. Most experts agree no apostrophe goes in decades: the 1990s. But use an apostrophe to stand in for any omitted characters: the ’90s.

11. “There” refers to place, “their” shows possession, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are.” They’re taking their car there.

12. For help with commas, check out the punctuation chapter in the “Chicago Manual of Style,” which is available in many libraries.

If your student noticed logical or structural problems in the passage, including the length of the sentence, give him or her extra points. It’s not a good sentence — just an awkwardly constructed vehicle for all those common typos.

If, on the other hand, your student got a lot of these wrong, repeat the exercise until he or she gets them all right. After all, every minute you spend working on writing skills is one more minute your credit card isn’t burning up the mall.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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