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Online Writing Support site surpasses 1 million hits

Can you diagram a sentence? Do you know what a compound predicate is? What about semicolons—where are they really supposed to go? And what was that dash thing in the last sentence?

Towson University’s Online Writing Support website has now answered those questions and others like them more than a million times.

Margaret Benner created the site about ten years ago, working on her own to help people inside and outside the TU community become better, more efficient, more grammatically correct writers. The retired director of the writing support program wrote the site herself. Since its inception, the site has fielded questions from the TU community and all over the world. For example:

In the following sentence, what would the word “freaking” be? “I feel like freaking John Lennon.”

Yes, that was a real question. No, “freaking” is not a verb here. “Feel” is the verb. If the writer had meant “freaking” to be an action word, it would have been a gerund.

OWS is part of Towson’s Writing Center, a program where undergraduate and graduate students help other students, faculty and staff find their way through mazes of mangled sentence structure and out of grammatical paper bags. The student tutors, who work on the fifth floor of the Liberal Arts building, are recommended by faculty and come from more than a dozen academic disciplines.

The Writing Center, located in LA 5330

The Writing Center, located in LA 5330

They’ve almost answered 1,082,000 questions online so far.

(Did you catch that? It was a misplaced modifier. It should have said, “They’ve answered almost 1,082,000 questions so far.”)

“The [people] who have lives and responsibilities outside the university can’t always make time to physically visit,” says Jacob De Coursey, one of the student tutors at the writing center.

So they send in their questions by the hundreds of thousands. Here’s another example:

Is it correct if a preposition comes at the end of a sentence. e.g. Earth is the only place where we can live on

That’s a direct quote. Let’s skip the parts about the absence of a question mark and other messes. Here’s the answer:

Technically, one should not end a sentence with a preposition. If you think about it, a preposition is so named because it is a word that is always “positioned” in front of (“pre”) a noun or pronoun that functions as its object.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have probably argued with that: “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put,” he once answered wryly when criticized about his penchant for ending sentences with prepositions.

(pedantry [ped-n-try]: noun. slavish attention to rules, details, etc.)

Of course, sometimes things are best explained face-to-face, and that’s the way De Coursey prefers to work. “I’m still a fan of face to face tutoring, and I recommend students go that route first. It’s more personal and allows for a more ‘feeling your way to a solution’ approach.”

Students like to work that way, too. More than 200 students seek the writing center’s help each week. Whether it’s enhancing a descriptive narrative or boiling things down to the basics of language, getting help from writing tutors makes a difference in the final grade. The writing center helped student Pei Ge figure out the best ways to string her recently-learned words together, and find the most effective ways to present her points and organize her writing around them.

“For me, the hardest part is grammar and limited vocabulary,” says Ge. “I am from China, and in my language, I don’t need to change verb tense when I talk about something in the past time.”

By the way, courtesy of OWS, here’s the answer to the “freaking John Lennon” question:
Freaking is a present participle in [this] sentence. “Like freaking John Lennon” is a prepositional phrase. The object of the preposition “like” is “John Lennon.” Modifying “John Lennon,” the word “freaking” is a present participle (-ing verb form doing the work of an adjective).

Click here to find answers to all the other grammar stuff you haven’t been able to figure out yet.