Awkward Phrasing

by , under Grammar

The Virtual Writing Tutor has thousands of rules to catch grammar errors and word choice errors, but only just a few to catch awkward phrasings. The reason is that an awkward phrasing is not necessarily incorrect. It is, well, awkward. As such, unless the awkward phrase is really jarring or really common, I usually let it slide.

Anyway, it is sometimes difficult to know what exactly is meant by phrases such as, according to my memory, he proposed to me, a car that is a gift, my big parent’s house, and it hurt my heart. The Virtual Writing Tutor grammar checker is, after all, a machine. It doesn’t understand you. It merely scans your sentences for patterns in its database of error definitions. It don’t want it to misinterpret what you have written and give you bad feedback.

However, here are a few awkward phrasings I couldn’t let slide. You must admit, some readers would be left scratching their heads by these surprising sentences.

According to me/my memory

AWKWARDAccording to me, the best way to get downtown is to take the train.
BETTERIn my opinion, the best way to get downtown is to take the train.

AWKWARDAccording to my memory, my most spectacular success has to be back when I was 10 years old and I won a sword fighting championship.
BETTERWhen I think back on my life, my most spectacular success has to be back when I was 10 years old and I won a sword fighting championship.

EXPLANATION:  The phrase “According to X” means “If what X says is true.” It is strange to doubt the truth of one’s own memories. You may often suspect that you have forgotten one or more details, but only mentally deranged people have memories of things that never happened. If you are concerned that you might have might have remembered a detail incorrectly, you can say, “If memory serves me well” or “If I am not mistaken.” When you say “according to me,” you sound crazy.

Proposed to me

AWKWARD:  While I was walking, I saw my friend and he proposed to me to embark in his car.
BETTER:  While I was walking, I saw my friend and he proposed that I embark in his car.
BETTER STILL:  While I was walking, I saw my friend and he invited me to get in his car.

EXPLANATION:  The most common context in which we use the phrase “he proposed to me” is when we wish to say “he proposed that we get married.” It sounds very formal. Otherwise, companies might propose solutions, as in, “my company had proposed to me that I could come back to work after having the baby” which you can find in the BNC-COCA corpus here. In any case, the phrase “he proposed to me” sounds overly formal for most contexts.

A new car that is gift

AWKWARD:  She got a new car that is gift from her parents.
BETTER:  She got a new car as a gift from her parents.

AWKWARD:  Sarah got a job that is nurse.
BETTER:  Sarah got a job as a nurse.

EXPLANATION:  A relative clause following “that” helps us identify which one is being discussed. You might say, “I bought the dress that was on sale.” It tell us, “not any dress but a specific dress.” Since we already know in our example sentence that she got a car, we don’t need to ask “Which car?” We already know. Rather, what we want to know is why she got the car or how she got it. In such a case, “as a gift” tells us more useful information.

Similarly, we know in our second example that “Sarah got a job.” Which job is obvious. It is the job that Sarah got. What we want to know is what kind of job. “A job as a nurse” provides the information we don’t already know.

My big parent’s house

AWKWARD:  I went to my big parent’s house early in the morning.
BETTER:  I went to my eldest uncle’s house early in the morning.

EXPLANATION:  Only a Korean or somebody who is familiar with Korean culture would understand what a “big parent” or a “big father” or a “big house” is. English does not have a word for the patriarchal head of the family in this way, so you must specify that you are referring to your father’s eldest brother when you write in English. Otherwise, it sounds awkward.

It hurt my heart

AWKWARD:  When I saw the dogs in their cages, it hurt my heart.
BETTER:  When I saw the dogs in their cages, it made my heart ache.

EXPLANATION:  While the meaning will be clear to most readers, “it hurt my heart” is not a common expression in English for the emotional pain we feel when we see something sad or pitiable. Instead, we say “my heart aches for X,” or “it made my heart ache to see X.”

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