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My friend is writing a paper for his Criminal Justice class and has asked me to take a look the the rough draft and point out any grammatical errors that I can spot.

The first thing that jumped at me was the subject of his paper: "How and why child is become criminal". I suggested that he instead write: "How and why a child becomes a criminal".

He told me that nothing was wrong with the way the subject is written. It has been submitted to and approved by his Professor, reviewed by his entire class and none pointed that out to him. He refered me to the Openheimer quote of the Bhagavad Gita and some Bible verses to support his point. Still I find it difficult to believe that this is the proper way to use the verb become in Modern English.

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Related: “Is become” vs “has become”. –  RegDwigнt Sep 29 '10 at 16:12
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Out of curiosity, where is the University attended by your friend? –  Dave Sep 29 '10 at 17:41
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“is become” is definitely archaic usage. You cannot use it anymore unless in poetry or for deliberately affected archaic style. –  nohat Sep 29 '10 at 17:53
    
To say “How and why {a|the} child is become criminal” would be correct English; “child” must be determined. It is unnecessary to give “criminal” a determiner, however, since it is more likely a predicative adjective. I'd lean towards the definite article, if you are referring to children in general. The other option would be a plural: “How and why children are become criminal”. That's all if you insist on using the awesome is-auxiliary. –  Jonathan Sterling Jan 2 '11 at 6:38
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The vast majority of native English speakers who encountered that title would immediately conclude that the author was not a native English speaker. –  David Schwartz Jan 24 '12 at 4:02
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4 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Provided that we accept the archaic is become as grammatical use of the present perfect—which I would not use for something so prosaic as a paper for a criminal justice course—there are still two problems with the proposed title: (1) present perfect is not right in this context for a paper title and (2) the subject noun phrase is not properly determined.

I am assuming that the paper is about the general principles by which children become criminals. For a title like this, you can’t use a past construction, such as the present perfect or the simple past. Generalities about how a process occurs must be described in the simple present tense, as this sentence does. If you use the past or present perfect, you necessarily are discussing a particular instance of something or a process which is no longer occurring: “How and why a child became criminal” or “How and why a child has become criminal” would have to describe a particular instance of a child becoming a criminal.

Second, the subject “child” is not determined. It would be fine as a plural—“children”—or with a determiner—“a child”. The original questioner’s suggestion to determine “criminal” as “a criminal” is fine, but so is leaving it as a simple adjective “criminal”. Any of the following would be grammatical:

  1. How and why a child becomes a criminal
  2. How and why a child becomes criminal
  3. How and why children become criminal
  4. How and why children become criminals
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Personally, I must say I prefer #4 –  waiwai933 Sep 29 '10 at 22:36
    
I like 1, set off with commas: "How, and why, a child becomes a criminal." –  David Schwartz Jan 24 '12 at 4:00
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No, it's not correct. Your version is correct. No question.

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Agreed, the original sentence is not correct. It's a matter of subject/verb agreement. "Become" is for plural subjects. Your version is correct. –  michaelkoss Sep 29 '10 at 16:38
    
I agree with this answer, but I can't help but feel it'd be more useful if you explained why the OP's version is correct. –  user867 Feb 17 at 1:40
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@Nohat and @gkrogers have already given excellent answers for correcting the grammar of the mentioned title. I'd like to suggest completely changing the title, though:

The Making of the Criminal Child

This has much more punch to it. Variations on plurality or definiteness would work fine. There's an even more minimalistic title available, too:

Child Criminals

Or you could play up the change from one kind to another, rather than how the base creature simply gains an attribute:

When Children Become Criminals

A lot of artistic variation is available here. In my mind, "How and why children become criminals," while adequate and certainly descriptive, somewhat misses the opportunity for a great title.

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Going along the tangent of artistic variation and great title, I would understand "is become" to indicate a complete and total change, i.e. the child can do nothing but commit crime. Though an article would be required before 'child'. Then again perhaps that's just me thinking the archaic form always exaggerates things because it is usually used in modern language for emphasis or to add colour. –  John Ferguson Sep 29 '10 at 22:31
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If you place child in quotation marks, then it would make sense as the use of the word "child" as in How and Why "Child" is Become Criminal, meaning it has somehow become illegal to use the word. However, I find the subject as named rather ambiguous to say the least. I would definitely change the word is to has.

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