July 30, 2014

Articles: the Grammar Series

To begin this series, I thought we'd tackle one of the lesser-known rules of grammar that not very many people pay much attention to but is, in my opinion, pretty important.


Articles are those tiny words in a sentence that help to determine how many of a thing are being talked about.  We have three articles in the English language - 'the', 'a', and 'an'.  

The article 'the' is called definite, meaning, it refers to something specific.  The book.  The car.  The movie.  When you use 'the', it's clear exactly which thing you're talking about.  It refers to something you can point at or touch.

The articles 'a' and 'an' are called indefinite, meaning, they refer to something general.  A bug.  A song.  An elephant.  An uncle.  When you use 'a' or 'an', you can't point to or touch the thing you're referencing, because it could be any number of things in a group.

If I have a bunch of grapes, I can offer one to you.  I would not ask, "Would you like the grape?", unless I had picked one single grape out of the bunch and were handing just that one grape to you.  That would be silly, though.  Instead, I would ask, "Would you like a grape?"  In that case, I'm holding out the bunch of grapes toward you, and you are free to choose whichever grape from the bunch you would like.

How do we know when to use 'a' and when to use 'an'?  Can we just choose whichever we like, willy-nilly?  No, there are rules that determine when to use which article.  

The simplest way I can think to remember these rules is to remember your vowels and consonants.  Vowels being 'a, e, i, o, u' and consonants being the rest of the letters of the alphabet.

The article 'a' is always used when the word that follows it begins with a consonant.  A dog.  A fig.  A yam.

The article 'an' is always used when the word that follows it begins with a vowel.  An oval.  An egg.  An umbrella.

As with most rules, though, there is one exception.  Even though the letter 'h' is a consonant, the article 'an' is often used when the word that follows it begins with 'h'.  An honest man.  An hourglass.  An historical fiction.

What about words like habit, or happy, or hospital, or harpoon.  It sounds clumsy to say 'an habit' or 'an happy'.  

The secret lies in the syllables.  If a word beginning with 'h' is said with the emphasis on any syllable other than the first, you will always use the article 'an'.  An hotel.  An humongous mountain.  An habitual coffee break.  If, however, the emphasis is on the first syllable, you'll use the article 'a'.  A happy man.  A hardened criminal.  A hankering for cheese.

Honestly, though, the 'h' rule is becoming outdated.  Following the 'h' rule often leaves your speech and writing sounding clunky and odd.  It's acceptable to use your own judgment here.  If you feel silly saying, "Let's go find an Halloween costume store," then, by all means, use the article 'a', instead.

If you found this post useful, or if you have any questions about it, please do leave me a comment.  I'll be posting several more in the Grammar Series, and if I've helped just one person, then it will have been worth it.

Next Post:  That, Which, Who

Previous Post:  The English Language: does it matter?

July 29, 2014

The English Language: does it matter?

I received a request from a few women in the Hip Homeschool Moms community on Facebook to begin a post filled with spelling and grammar tips, tricks, and rules.  Knowing this is a weakness for them, they desire to learn in order to better teach their own children.  What follows, then, is an introduction to a series of posts I'll be making in which I offer just that - tips, tricks, and rules for spelling and grammar.  I hope you find it helpful, and, if you have any to add, or if you feel I've made a mistake, please feel free to post a comment.

Ana Lucia

In the heart of Spain lives a 14-year-old girl named Ana Lucia.  Born and raised in Spain, her family tree traces back far into Spain's history.  She and her family speak only Spanish.  In school, though, she learns of an opportunity for high school seniors to become foreign exchange students.  This piques her interest.  Tales of life in the United States have always fascinated Ana Lucia.  She decides at that moment to become a foreign exchange student to the U.S. when she reaches her senior year.

What do you suppose is the most important thing Ana Lucia must learn over the next 3 or so years in order to best function in the unfamiliar American culture when she arrives?  Mathematics?  Chemistry?  Art appreciation?  Music theory? 

No.  Ana Lucia must learn the English language.  Without a firm grasp of English, she will struggle as a student in America.  Over the next few years, Ana Lucia must learn word meanings, spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and more. 


In the United States, a 14-year-old boy named Alex begins his sophomore year of high school.  Born and raised in Ohio, Alex's family tree traces back to the Pilgrims.  He and his family have never been out of the country.

Alex has a full schedule in school.  Algebra, Biology, English, World History, Art, Band and Choir, Phys. Ed., Health, Home Economics.  He isn't planning on going anywhere.  His plans involve graduating with the classmates he's had since 7th grade, and he's been thinking about attending Ohio State afterwards.

Which subject in Alex's course load is most important for him to learn?  One might say it depends on what his future plans are.  Does he want to be a graphic designer?  Art should be his focus.  Does he want to be an accountant?  He should take all the math courses available. 

No.  Alex must learn the English language.  Without a firm grasp of English, he will struggle as a student and potential employee.  Over the next few years, Alex must learn word meanings, spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and more.


The longer I home school, the more I realize that people in the U.S. don't place much importance on the English language.  Maybe because we speak it.  We write it.  It's not something we have to think about.

More than not thinking it's important, though, many people are offended when it's suggested they ought to place more importance on it.  For reasons I have yet to figure out, when it's said that "your" and "you're" aren't interchangeable, or that "are" and "our" are not the same thing, or that "I seen a cat" is not acceptable, people bristle. Why is the English language any less important for native speakers to study than it is for a foreign exchange student?

Not everyone can have impeccable spelling and grammar, for various reasons.  Dyslexia, being one.  Just as not everyone can recite their times tables from memory, or name all the elements on the periodic table, or remember the names of all 50 United States.  And everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.  I am horrible at math.  I rely on a calculator.  BUT.  But.  That doesn't mean we can't all at least try our hardest.  And it certainly doesn't mean it's not important to learn or to teach our children.

Spelling and grammar errors on a resume' aren't going to impress a potential employer.  On a college application essay, they're not going to impress the admissions staff.  In an interview, you won't need to multiply 8 by 23.  You won't need to label a map.  You won't need to describe the water cycle.  While those things may be pertinent to the job you're applying for, the only thing that will really matter during your interview is whether or not you are able to communicate clearly.  Can your potential employer understand what you've written on your application?  Do you sound like you know what you're talking about when you answer their questions?

A set of twins sees a "Help Wanted" sign outside a restaurant.  In need of employment, they enter the business and ask for the manager.  The twins are well-dressed in khakis and button-down shirts.  They're clean-shaven and well-manicured.  By outward appearances, they seem employable.  When the store manager appears, Twin A says, "Me and him seen the "help wanted" sign out there, an we need jobs.  Can we get a application?"  Twin B says, "My brother and I noticed the "help wanted" sign out front.  We're seeking employment.  May we have an application, please?"

Which twin do you suppose the manager would be more likely to consider for the job?  The way we speak (and write) does matter.

We, as homeschoolers, ought to desire to better ourselves in all areas in order to best teach our children.  Most of us have faced a situation in which a non-homeschooler questioned our ability to teach our children.  Why lend credence to such claims by writing and speaking poorly?  After all, our words are what the non-homeschooling world see and hear before anything else; therefore, that's what they judge us by.

The English language is the most important thing for a foreign exchange student to learn before coming to America.  Why should it be any less important for those of us who are native English speakers?

Next Post:  Articles