Thursday, March 9, 2017

Article Usage, Pt. II: "Oh, *the* places you'll go!"

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about basic article usage in the English language.

In this week’s post, the focus is on the.

We already know that the is a definite pronoun.

But what we haven’t learned is when the is necessary. The following examples clarify when to include the.

Geographical Use

There are specific rules about when the is used to modify a geographical place. Do not use the with:

Names of most countries and territories: France, Germany, Bangladesh

Do use the with: the United States, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United Kingdom

Names of cities, towns, or states: Champaign, Charleston, Illinois

Names of streets: Lincoln Avenue, University Boulevard, Main Street

Names of lakes or bays: Lake Charleston, Green Bay

Do use the with grouped lakes: the Great Lakes

Names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji

Do use the with mountain ranges: the Appalachian Mountains or the Andes

Names of continents: Asia, Europe, Africa

Names of islands: Maui, Key West

Do use the with island chains: the Bahamas


There are also a few geographical places where the is definitely needed. These include:

Names of rivers, oceans, and seas: the Dead Sea, the Pacific Ocean

Points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole

Geographical areas: the Middle East, the West

Deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Amazon Rainforest, the Gulf of Mexico, the Iberian Peninsula


Article Omission

Some nouns don’t need any article at all. These include:

Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, German

Exceptions include referencing the population of the nation: the Russians, the Italians

Names of sports: basketball, baseball, volleyball

Names of academic subjects: history, biology, composition, business management


As always, if you have a question about article usage, feel free to call or visit the Writing Center. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

What in Procrastination?



As we near midterms, many of us feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of writing we have to do, and sometimes we cope by pretending our work does not exist. But you are not the only writer out there struggling to get motivated, so there are plenty of tools online to help you stop procrastinating.



But first, take a minute and try to identify why you’re procrastinating. If you can figure out why you are pushing off writing, you can probably figure out what you need to do to overcome your struggle.

If you have to write about something you aren’t interested in, try to find some connection to your life or interests. During college, I took a course about molds. Not even joking. Molds. For our big essay, we had to make an argument about something we had discussed in class. Well, I wasn’t going to just talk about molds for 15 pages.  Are you kidding? So I thought really hard about how I could connect that to something I enjoy thinking about and ended up writing about mushrooms in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  If you can find something within your topic that relates to your interests, your paper will be much easier to write.



If your writing assignment is a big project that seems intimidating, try breaking the assignment down into smaller pieces. Brainstorm possible topics, do some preliminary research and read until you figure out what you want to argue or write about. Then break down your paper into smaller chunks. What do you want to talk about first? Brainstorm and outline before you even start writing. Once you have an idea what lies ahead, the workload will feel much more manageable.

Finally, if you’re struggling with how to start in the first place, feel free to ask for help. Your professor will be happy to answer any questions you may have. Even a classmate can help you work through possible ideas (and may have questions you can help them with). Or you can come visit your friendly neighborhood writing center at Coleman 3110 and talk things over with a consultant!



But if your main issue is focusing, this list has some great websites that can help you.

Write or Die seems to be a fun one.

Keep Me Out is pretty much your typical procrastination blocker.

Coffitivity helps you if you work best with background noise, like in a coffee shop.

Again, the writing center is always here to help at every step of the way. Feel free to call for an appointment (581.5929) any time from the moment you get your assignment to after you’ve received it back with comments. We can help you break through your procrastination.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Go-To Guide: English Articles, Pt. 1


When working with students that speak English as a second, third, or even fourth language, we frequently discuss the use of articles in standard written English.

Articles are some of the smallest words in English — the, a, and an —and as a native speaker, articles are something I take for granted. But in many of the languages students bring to the Writing Center, these little indicators are already built into the word, usually revolving around whether the word is masculine or feminine. For example, cat is considered a feminine word in German, hence the built-in article is "die." When speaking about "the cat," one would use "die katze." Similarly, "the dog" is considered masculine, so "der hund" is used.

When attempting to explain why the student needs “the” in front of a word, I’m often at a loss for a clear and technical explanation. I never had to think about why these words were so important — at least until now.


The English articles include the, a, and an. The is used to describe a specific noun, whereas a/an describes a non-specific noun.

In grammar terms:

The = definite article
A/An = indefinite article

Here’s an example:

“Let’s pet the dog.”

In this sentence, the refers to a specific dog. Perhaps the speaker sees a friendly dog on the street, or visits a shelter with a friend. The speaker might not know the dog’s name, but using the indicates a specific dog.

In this same example, perhaps the speaker does know the dog’s name. By replacing “the dog” with a proper noun —the dog’s name — the article would be unnecessary (ex: “Let’s pet Rufus.”).

Here’s the next example:

“Let’s pet a dog.”

In this sentence, a refers to a dog, but not a specific one, as a could be referring to any dog at all. An works the same way (ex: “Let’s pet an elephant.”).

In these sentences, a/an indicates that we don’t know the specifics on which dog or elephant we’d like to pet.

One of the hardest parts about articles is figuring out if we need to use a or an in a sentence. Despite both being indefinite articles, choosing which one to use relies on the sound following the next word.


If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a consonant, use a:

a girl; a truck; a motorcycle; a park; a cat

If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a vowel, use an:

an eggplant, an olive; an eagle; an anteater

If the word following the article is a singular noun that begins with a consonant sound, use a:

      a unicorn (sounds like “yoo-nee-corn,” begins with a consonant “y” sound, so a is used); a university; a unicycle     

If the word following the article starts with a silent “h,” use an:

      an hour; an heir

But if the word following the article starts with a pronounced “h,” use a:

      a horse; a haircut

These guidelines are the foundation of a/an usage in written English. Questions? Please feel free to share below. 

In my next post, we’ll take a closer look at how the definite article works, as well as what to do in situations where article usage isn’t clear or isn’t needed at all.



Friday, February 10, 2017

Listening to Writers Talk About Writing

Two weeks ago, I got to go to Eastern Illinois University’s annual literary festival, Lions in Winter, and do what I love most: listen to writers talk about writing.   


If it were possible, I would spend every hour of the weekend at literary festivals listening to writers talk about writing.  Given the choice between going to a literary festival to listen to writers talk about writing and going out for a pizza and a movie with some friends, I most definitely would choose to go to a literary festival and listen to writers talk about writing.  

Unfortunately for us all, literary festivals don’t come around frequently enough. So where are we to go if we want to listen to writers talk about writing?  There’s nowhere else, right? 

Wrong. 

I recently stumbled across a podcast produced by The New Yorker, which features the most prominent writers of our time talking to Deborah Treisman, their fiction editor.  The podcast, simply called “Fiction” has a whole lot of what I lovmost. 


What makes this podcast stand out is that the featured author talks about the writing of an author they admire, not their own writing. Jonathan Franzen talks about the writing of David Means; George Saunders reads and discusses Grace Paley and Barry Hannah; and Jhumpa Lahiri chats about what she loves in the fiction of William Trevor.  If you want to listen to writers talk about writing, this podcast is the place to do it. 

I’ve learned a lot about the craft of fiction by listening to these writers talk about writing.  Saunders' insightful analysis of the characters in Grace Paley’s story, “Love,” taught me how narrative ambiguity can be used to make a fictional world seem more realistic.  From Jonathan Franzen’s interview on the writing of Veronica Geng, I learned about the humor inherent in repetition.   

The Fiction podcast is typically about an hour long and is released monthly. If you'd like to learn more about Lions in Winter, you can find out more information on their website