I am editing a 5th grade paper. He has autism as well as some learning difficulties. He wrote:

Medicine is good when your family gives it to you not when your friend gives you one or when you take it by yourself.

This is how I think I would edit it:

Medicine is good if your family gives it to you, but not if your friend gives it to you, or if you take it by yourself.

It still sounds kind of strange. Is this sentence correct? If not, how could he rewrite it so that it makes sense (still using similar wording).

I know the sentence isn't very sophisticated. I realize that just because someone is a family member, doesn't mean that they are responsible to make such a decision. However, this child understands things in a very basic manner. I don't want to intervene too much as the response is supposed to be in his perspective (What he learned from DARE). I just want to make sure that I edit it correctly.

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    Your edit is grammatically fine. The semantics leave a lot to be desired, however. Unless "your family" is composed of doctors trained and licensed to prescribe medicine, the sentence is nonsense. The quality of the medicine is not affected by whether your family, your friend, or you yourself give it to you, especially if it's the same medicine. Good grammar doesn't mean good writing or good sense. – user21497 Jan 8 '13 at 1:48
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    @BillFranke Come on, this is a seven-year-old. "Don't take medicine unless your Mom gives it to you. Don't accept it from a friend; don't go rummaging around in the bathroom for it on your own." – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 8 '13 at 2:14
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    (For older children, you might consider replacing the last or with nor.) – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 8 '13 at 2:27
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    @BillFranke Well, he was a seven-year-old. He seems to be growing up fast! – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 8 '13 at 2:34
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    @BillFranke Er, the semantics are fine, too, unless you are claiming you can't understand the meaning. It seems you simply disagree with the statement, but that is not a matter of semantics. – Mark Beadles Jan 8 '13 at 2:57

I think what the child means by on is actually one: he means a friend gives you one pill (or other dose of medicine).

I would resist the urge to edit and simply ask him what he means. Go over the sentence with him and get him to "approve" your edits. But keep them light. Ask him if he sees any natural divisions in the sentence. Talk about punctuation and how it breaks up the sentence into parts.

You might arrive at something like:

Medicine is good when your family gives it to you — not when your friend gives you one or when you take it by yourself.

A simple dash (and adding an e to on to get one) leaves you with his words and a perfectly understandable and even grammatical sentence.

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  • Rem acu tetigisti. Well spotted. – coleopterist Jan 8 '13 at 4:22
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    A semicolon would be even better, but that may be a step too far for a seven-year-old. – Tim Lymington Jan 8 '13 at 12:14
  • +1, I think the original sentence was not disfluent, and your proposed solution shows that well. – Mark Beadles Jan 8 '13 at 12:14

I have no objection to "when" in this context. As a matter of fact, I prefer it to “if” – it’s more concrete, not merely hypothetical, and your student is speaking of concrete situations: "When is it OK to take medicine?".

The only problem I see is that "on" – it doesn’t suggest any idiom I can think of, and if I were a teacher I would immediately stop and wonder “Where did that come from?”. I suspect it's just a misspelling of "one" and that your student has been exposed to some sort of safety program that included a situation like this:

So really, what's the big deal? You have a bad headache and your friend gives you one of their migraine pills, they have migraines and it works for them, why wouldn't it work for you? – The Gable Health Center, “Dangers of Sharing Prescription Medications”

[And now you've added the DARE reference. Bingo.]

I'd congratulate the student, and suggest that it's even more effective if all three of his examples use the same words as much as possible:

when your family gives it to you, but not
when a friend gives it to you, and not
when you take it by yourself. (or “on your own”, if the student seems receptive to enlarging his authorial universe).

He's got a sense of rhythm. Encourage it!

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To me the sentence sound perfectly grammatical. Your edit seems to have kept things in order by changing one to it, which might sound better in some circumstances, but wouldn't really be a big deal– specially when uttered by a 5th grader. As a side note, a dash, as suggested by Rob, will make the sentence more readable.

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