The Art of Articles

An article is a word which is always used before a noun. In English, there are only three articles – a, an, and the. When you see an article, a noun will follow; however, the article may be followed by an adjective – such as “the tired dog,” or “the pretty girl.” The article-adjective-noun may also include an adverb, such as “the very tired dog,” or “the extremely pretty girl.”

Technically, an article is considered an adjective, as the article modifies the noun just as an adjective does. Articles are also referred to as “determiners” as they determine whether something is specific or nonspecific. Articles in English are either definite (specific), or indefinite (nonspecific).

THE = Definite Article

The is a definite article, which refers to something specific. For example, “Let’s go to the movie,” refers to a specific movie. If the sentence stated, “Let’s go to a movie,” it could mean any movie, or a nonspecific movie.

Other examples of definite articles:

I want to go to the party. (a specific party, not just any party)
Can a have the cookie? (a particular cookie, not just any cookie)
I want the coat on sale. (a particular sale coat)

Definite articles are also used before names of educational departments, buildings or institutions, such as

I want to go to the University of Nebraska.
He works in the Department of Gerontology.

Definite articles also precede bodies of water and mountain ranges:

I have heard the Great Lakes are beautiful.
Have you been to the Rocky Mountains?
I want to ski the Swiss Alps.

Other notes on definite articles

If you are referring to a country that is only one word, you would not use an article:

I am from Africa. (not the Africa)
I have visited France. (not the France)

You would use an article before the United States, but not America.

You would not use “the” for planets:

Incorrect: The Pluto is the smallest planet.
Correct: Pluto is the smallest planet.

Finally, omit “the” before cities, towns, states, continents, names of streets, languages, nationalities, sports (football), and academic subjects.

But DO use “the” before rivers, oceans, seas, specific points on the globe (the South Pole), geographical areas, deserts and forests.

A and An = Indefinite Articles

A or An are indefinite articles, which refers to a non-specific noun. For example, “Can I get a dog?” refers to any dog in general. In contrast, “Can I get the dog,” is referring to one specific dog.

The beginning letter and sound of a word will determine whether you’ll use A or An.
A singular noun beginning with a vowel will use “an”: an orange; an airplane; an opera. Also, an will precede a noun with a silent “h” such as hour. However, if the “h” is not silent, you would use the article a, such as a horse or a hobby.

A singular noun beginning with a consonant will use “a”; a car; a boy; a tornado. “A” is also used with a singular noun that has a consonant sound, such as university, which begins with a “y” sound, a consonant.

Other examples of indefinite articles:

I’d like to go to a university. (any university will do)
Can I have an apple? (any apple)
I want to see an octopus. (doesn’t matter which one)

We do not use an indefinite article with plural nouns and noncount nouns:

She was wearing red shoes. (shoes is a plural noun)
She has long brunette hair. (hair is a noncount noun)
I want to wear denim jeans to work Friday. (jeans is plural)
I have so much homework to do! (homework is noncount)

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Now you try!

Fill in the blanks to the following sentences.

  1. There are ____ observers who believe that collecting is America’s fastest-growing hobby.
  2. According to Miller’s Fashion Doll, ­­­­­_____ popular magazine for doll collectors, dolls are second only to stamps as ­­­_____ most popular collectible in America, and Barbie is by far _____ most popular collector doll.
  3. While _____ people do make money selling the dolls, most simply have _____ large collection of Barbies and _____ interest in keeping her legacy alive.
(exercises from Bedford St. Martin Exercise Central)

For English Language Learners, visit these resources to learn about articles and for practice:

http://www.eslcafe.com/grammar.html
http://www.usingenglish.com/
http://www.esl-lounge.com/student/index.php

 

 

 

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All About Absolute Phrases

Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we learned about independent and dependent clauses, and the 4 sentence types – Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex. Now that we know about clauses and sentence types, we’ll look at absolute phrases.

An absolute phrase combines a noun and a participle with accompanying modifiers or objects. Noun + Participle + Optional Modifier(s) and/or Object(s)

Absolute phrases modify entire sentences, not just one word. They are optional in sentences and can be removed without damaging the grammatical integrity of the sentence, and are always set off with commas (and sometimes dashes).

 Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the class not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

Revising with Absolute Phrases

Incorporating absolute phrases into your writing works to break up short, choppy sentences. The example below has combined two sentences by omitting “were” in the second sentence, turning it into an absolute phrase:

The hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

Their boots were caked in mud.

Their boots caked in mud, the hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

In the example below, three sentences are combined:

I went snorkeling in Mexico.

The water was warm.

The sun was bright.

The water warm and sun bright, I snorkeled all afternoon.

In the above example, The water warm and sun bright modifies the independent clause, I went snorkeling in Mexico.

As you can see, absolute phrases are a great way to incorporate variety into your writing. They are especially useful in narrative writing when description is necessary, and when you want to break up short, plodding sentences.

 

 

 

 

 

Tighten Up! Omit Needless Words & Phrases from your Writing

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Many writers, beginning and experienced, often inflate their sentences with unnecessary words, but strong writing is not complicated or wordy writing. Good writing is tight, concise, and to the point. Inflating your writing with superfluous words will lead to confusion in not only your sentences, but can also lead to a confusing message in your essay. Read on to learn how to tighten your writing and improve your sentences.

Eliminate Wordy Phrases

One of the easiest fixes to tighten your writing is to eliminate wordy phrases. Read over your essay to see if a wordy phrase can be reduced to a word or two without changing the meaning:

At the present time  Today our business has no deficit.

The end result is tragic if a patient is not treated swiftly.

The final outcome will be difficult to determine.

Because of the fact that NASA has cut funding, the space missions are in jeopardy.

 

Eliminate Empty or Meaningless Words

Read each sentence carefully to locate words that offer no essential information to a sentence. Some of the most common empty words in student essays are very, really, and definitely.

They were really trying hard to get the bill passed.

The paper was very interesting. 

The research definitely shows that meditation reduces stress.

If you find you use very or really a little too frequently, it’s often a sign that the sentence needs to be rewritten with stronger language. Note the changes in the revised sentence below:

They were struggling to get the bill passed.

The paper was fascinating.

The research confirms that meditation reduces stress.

 

Omit “It is” Constructions

One of the most common sentence constructions found in student writing is beginning a sentence with “It is” or “There are,” both of which create a subject-less, and often confusing, sentence. Look at the sentences below and consider what the “it is” might be referring to:

It is possible that the cause of her headaches is stress.

Revised: The cause of her headaches is stress.

It is worth pointing out that both governors were incorrect.

Revised: Note that both governors were incorrect.

It is clear that research supports his findings.

Revised: Clearly the research supports his findings.

It is often the case that initial experiments fail to prove anything.

Revised: Often initial experiments fail to prove anything.

 

Tighten sentences beginning with “There are” to clarify meaning and improve style by locating the real subject of the sentence. Below, the real subject of the sentences is underlined:

There are numerous reports of widespread corruption.

Revised: Numerous reports suggest widespread corruption.

There are only two questions left to answer.

Two questions are left to answer.

There are numerous studies that show the opposite is true.

Numerous studies show the opposite is true.

 

Before you turn in your final draft, take some time to work on eliminating any redundant, excessive, or unnecessary words or language from your sentences. Your ideas will communicate more clearly, writing will flow more smoothly, which means your ideas will be taken more seriously.

Considering Pronouns and Antecedents

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A pronoun takes the place of a noun, and usually refers to a word used earlier in the text called an antecedent (ante=before).  In the sentence, “The teacher brought her dog to class,” the word her refers back to teacher, so teacher is the antecedent of the pronoun her. It would sound awkward to repeat the noun, “The instructor brought the instructor’s dog to class.” In simple sentences like this, it’s clear what noun the pronoun is replacing.

The pronoun’s antecedent must agree in number, either singular or plural form, with the noun to which it references:

The boy wandered off the path, and he became lost. (singular noun = boy; singular pronoun = he)

The instructors must administer their exams before Friday. (plural noun = instructors; plural pronoun = their)

Of course, the previous examples are simple sentences, and pronoun-antecedent agreement becomes more complicated with more complex sentences.

PronounImage2

 

Effective writing communicates clearly, and the overuse of pronouns can lead to confusing sentences. Beginning writers often overuse pronouns when using the noun would help clarify the sentence, as in the examples below:

EX:

CONFUSING            After Dave studied with John, he realized he still did not understand   trigonometry.

CLEAR                      After studying with John, Dave realized he still did not understand trigonometry.

CONFUSING            After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered they were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the flowers were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the potting soil was full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that both were full of insects.

 

Avoiding Indefinite Use of It and They

Indefinite pronouns refer to a non-specific person, place, or thing. It and they are often used to make reference to people or situations, but in writing, they sound vague and can lead to confusion. To solve this particular error, name who “they” is:

EX:

VAGUE                      It is said that the unemployment rate is declining.

CLEAR                      The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is declining.
VAGUE                      They said that the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

CLEAR                      MIT researchers said the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

 

As you can see, the revised sentence is much clearer when the noun is used.

Now you try!

Below are some sentences with pronoun-antecedent problems. Correct the underlined error:

 

______________1. Both the computer monitor and the refrigerator door have its shiny surface smeared with dog snot from our curious puppy Oreo.

______________2. The new and improved laundry detergent restored Hector’s mud-stained pants to its original condition.

______________3. After feeding several quarters into the gumball machine, a person learns that they have little chance of receiving the miniature camera in the display.

______________4. Mrs. Carson, like every other American literature teacher, has their own interpretation of the symbols in Moby-Dick.

______________ 5. A person who eats too many jawbreakers risks loosening their fillings.

 

(Above quiz courtesy of Grammar Bytes)

 

Pesky Prepositions

(This post originally appeared Jan. 2014)

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Prepositions are important structural words that create a relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of a sentence, expressing a relationship between time, space, and other senses. Prepositions are one of those parts of speech that garner little attention, but can cause all sorts of trouble, especially for English language learners.  We say we are at a café to visit a friend who was in the hospital. We watch a show on TV but at a movie theater. They sit on the couch, while he sits in the chair, but she lies in bed!

Below is a list of some of the most commonly used prepositions:

about, above, after, against, along, among, around, as, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, despite, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, out, over, past, since, through, to, toward, under, until, up, upon, with, without.

What makes prepositions so confusing is that many prepositions have a wide range of meaning, depending on how they are used in a sentence. Note in the following example how English uses in and on:

The apples are in the bowl.
The apples are on the table.
I spilled apple juice on my dress.

Many languages don’t use prepositions at all, and some languages, such as Spanish, would use the same preposition (en) in all of the previous examples.

I learned to remember space-related prepositions by thinking about what a squirrel can do to a tree. A squirrel can go
around a tree
behind a tree.
below a tree.
beneath a tree.
in a tree.
onto a tree.
over a tree.
toward a tree.
up a tree.
under a tree.

In the squirrel examples above, the preposition shows the relationship between the squirrel and the tree (object of the preposition).

The squirrel prepositions are, as noted, space-related prepositions, as they show the object (tree) in relation to space. Prepositions can relate to time, place, and movement.

Prepositions for Time:

In                     In January, 1978, the Midwest suffered a terrible blizzard.

On                   On Monday, we’ll begin a new unit.

At                    At midnight, the ball will drop in Times Square.

For                  He waiting in line for two hours.

Since             I haven’t been back home since 2008.

When referring to a month or year, we don’t use “on,” unless the specific day is given:

On January 21, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Prepositions for Place

In                     We were riding in the car.

On                   Leave the book on the table.

At                    She is waiting at the entrance.
You could also ride on a car, but that means you would literally be on the outside of the car:
The beauty queen rode on the car [in the parade].

You could leave the book in the table, if you are placing it inside a drawer:
Leave the book in the table[’s drawer].

You could be waiting in the entrance, which would mean you are inside:
She is waiting in the [theater’s main] entrance.


Prepositions for Movement

To                   He went to the movie. OR
He came from the movie.

Into                 She stepped into the bathtub. OR
She stepped out of the bathtub.

Toward         The baby crawled toward his mother. OR
The baby crawled away from his mother.

One of the most common problems with prepositions occurs when prepositional phrases are strung together to create an overly complicated sentence:

It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats (from writing.wisc.edu).

Too many prepositional phrases create plodding prose and a confusing sentence. Can you identify the subject and verb in the previous sentence? I’m not sure I can!

Revised: People with heart problems should avoid high fat foods.

The subject (people) and verb (should avoid) are much clearer in the revised example. The best writing is concise writing, and prepositional phrases often are crutches we lean on a bit too heavily that create wordiness and confusion.

Placement of Prepositions

You probably learned in high school that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of those grammar rules that cause disagreement among grammarians. It’s not always so easy to rearrange the concluding preposition to another place in the sentence. Try rewording the following sentences to move the concluding preposition:

1)    The dress had not been paid for.

2)    Tell him he is taking too much on.

3)    We are such stuff as dreams are made of. (William Shakespeare)

4)    All words are pegs to hang ideas on. (Henry Ward Beecher)

5)    That is nonsense up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

As you can see, even some of our great writers break the rule. Consider this rule a writer’s choice. Whether one considers it right or wrong is a debate we won’t go into. (!)

This is only a tiny bit of all there is to know about prepositions and their uses. As you can see, it takes patience and practice.

Practice!
Fill-in each sentence with a preposition from the list.

Along; down; across; beyond; underneath; after; against

1. I looked ______________________ the hill at the many houses below.

2. Make sure to check ______________________ your bed for your shoes.

3. __________________ we go to the movies, we will go eat at a restaurant.

4. I leaned ______________________ the side of the wall.

5. Can you walk ______________________ with me as we go shopping?

6. If you look ______________________ those trees, you will see a cabin.

7. We will walk _______________________ the street when it is safe. (from englishlinx.com)

Some examples from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/prepositions.htm

Write-Speak: Correcting Faulty Sentence Constructions

 

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When I was an undergrad writing major, I was told “Write like you talk.” If I were writing a work of fiction that needed realistic dialogue, writing like I talked worked great. But in all other forms of writing, if I were to write like I talked, it would look something like this:

“It’s like where you go. . . I mean. . . it’s when you turn left. . . like. . . up in the house when the corner turns . . .”

Or

“I can’t believe my Royals. . . Like. . .Oh my gosh! They were all going crazy. . . like, when they won. . . I was where I couldn’t talk, I was so excited!”

If you listened to just about any casual conversation, you would hear patterns of inconsistency (and really bad grammar!). Many, if not most, of our spoken sentences would be fragments or incomplete sentence structures. We talk it bits and pieces, and mix sentence constructions without even knowing it. Many of us intersperse our spoken sentences with numerous “filler” words, such as “like” in the examples above. So you can see how difficult it becomes to maintain consistency in our writing. Recognizing these patterns of inconsistencies is the first step to editing these incomplete structures.

Inconsistent Subjects & Predicates

Identifying the subject and predicate can be the first step toward identifying sentence inconsistencies. In the examples below, the subject and predicate don’t fit together grammatically or just don’t make sense:

EX.
From all his hard work helped Karl graduate.

When you read the sentence, you might “hear” something is wrong, but might not be able to identify the problem. The sentence begins with the prepositional phrase, From all his hard work, which acts as the subject of the verb. This is not a grammatically correct construction.

Revised:

All his hard work helped Karl graduate.

That sounds better.
______________________________________________

Look at the following problem example, where you’ll see an issue with inconsistent subject/predicate:

EX.

A characteristic that I admire is a person who is generous.

The subject of the sentence is “characteristic.” The verb is “admire.” But “a person” is not a characteristic, so this statement isn’t logical.

Revised:

A characteristic that I admire is generosity a person who is generous.

“Generosity” is a characteristic that can be admired in a person.

 

See if you can catch the faulty predication in the following example:

EX.

A compromise between the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

If you said that the subject of the sentence – “compromise” – cannot be an “ideal place,” you would be correct. It isn’t logical.

Revised:

A place combining features of the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

OR

The ideal place to vacation would be a location combining features of the mountains and the beach.

___________________________________________________

Keep Consistent Grammatical Patterns

Mixed Structures

One of the most common inconsistencies is what is referred to as a mixed construction. In mixed constructions, the grammatical pattern used in the first part of a sentence is not carried through in other parts of the sentence, creating an illogical sentence. The speaker of the sentence sets out to say one thing and switches to something else, resulting in confusion:

EX.

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

The subject of the sentence, The fact, is followed by a dependent clause, that I get up at 5:00 a.m.; a predicate (verb or verb phrase) is needed to complete the independent clause. However, the sentence is mixed with another dependent clause, a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening, which creates a fragment.

Revised:

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., explains a wake-up time that why I’m always tired in the evening.

OR

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

Another mixed sentence can occur with is when and is where, as in the following examples:

An examination is when you are tested.

An examination is where you are tested.

Think about what the subject actually is in this sentence. Examination is a test. Examination is not a time or place. When should only be used when referring to time. Use where only when referring to a place.

Revised:

An examination is a test of what you know.
___________________________________________________________

The ability to identify subjects and predicates is helpful in avoiding faulty sentence constructions, but sometimes we just know something doesn’t sound right when we read it. Carefully reading through your sentences to see if they are logical is the first step to editing out sentence-level inconsistencies.

Examples from http://wps.ablongman.com and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference.

Improving Sentence Style

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Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.

Avoid Using Vague Nouns

The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:

  • factor
  • aspect
  • area
  • situation
  • consideration
  • case

Examples

Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.

Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.

Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.

Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.

Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.

As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Incorporate Absolute Phrases

If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.

What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.

Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

(S)                                                                                         (V)
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

 

Eliminate Wordiness

Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

Consider the following redundancies in italics:

Ex. 1:

It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.

If something isessential,” can it be any more essential withabsolutelyin front of it? Probably not.

Ex. 2:

The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.

You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?

Ex. 3:

In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.

Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?

Ex. 4:

The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.

The outcome of something is always final, right?

These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.

Avoid Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.

To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:

Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.

Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).

 

Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable and your style will be the envy of your peers!

 

(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)