Things Your English Teacher Never Taught You (or maybe you just slept through that class)

Over the past 12 years or so, I’ve come to realize that we didn’t all attend the very same English class.  Our English teachers didn’t all go to the same class either.  This statement of the obvious accounts for the fact that there are little common issues that I point out to my students on a regular basis, whether they are my college students or my ICL students, or my own kids when I review their homework.

English – being the contrived, mangled, conglomerated mess that it is – is filled with all kinds of hidden rules and guidelines that English teachers either assume you’ve learned by osmosis, forget to cover, run out of time to cover in class, or (as is often the case) we slept through that particular lesson.  In my case, it was probably a run with some friends to the local Taco Time drive through for a late lunch.

So periodically, I’ll post one of these mini lessons just as a little “a-ha!” in you day.

Let’s start with something I call “Names vs. Titles” –

When do you capitalize the word mom, and when do you leave it lower case? This poses quite a problem for some students.  Many will always capitalize a familial term, while others will never capitalize it, and some will select randomly when to use the shift key and when not to use it.

The general rule goes something like this: if you are using the term in place of a name, it is capitalized.  For example:

“I looked at Mom, dressed in her orange sweats and fuzzy slippers, her hair shoved up on one side of her head.”

Instead of inserting a name, the familial term is used to identify the person. If that term were preceded by an article (a, an, the), or by a possessive pronoun (her, your, my, their, etc.), then the familial term becomes an identifying title and it doesn’t need to be capitalized. For example:

“I often wonder if my mom dresses this way in an attempt to ruin my social life completely.”

If you just remember to look for the article or pronoun, you’ll know whether you need to capitalize or not.

See – that wasn’t so hard now, was it? Until next class . . .


6 thoughts on “Things Your English Teacher Never Taught You (or maybe you just slept through that class)

  1. Amy Lavin says:

    Hi, Kim! This is Amy from West Jordan High School. We’re getting ready to do another Poetry Slam, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to judge again this year. (I’m sorry about contacting you this way, but my laptop was stolen in November, so I don’t have my old contact list information.) Would you please email me or call me at the school if you’re interested?


  2. sweetbrista says:

    Sometime between kindegartern and 2nd grade, I came to accept the fact that W was a vowel.

    A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y and W!

    I swore up and down in to my 3rd grade teacher that YES! W was a sometimes vowel! YES! It was!

    No. It’s not.

  3. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  4. PiterKokoniz says:

    Hi !!! 🙂
    I am Piter Kokoniz. Just want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Thank you:)
    Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

  5. Kim Justesen says:

    To Raiul and Piter –

    When English is your second language, it is twice as difficult to learn and use. The rules of Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, Italian, French, and German, make much more sense and are far more consistent than English is. You have no reason to apologize for your English. I hope you find this information useful. And yes, this blog is my hobby, but I teach English and writing professionally, as well as I write professionally.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    And Sweetbrista –

    My little cousin couldn’t pronounce the letter Y when he was young. They all sounded like Ws, so in a way, you are vindicated.

  6. Frigidaire says:

    What a marvelous post! I am just starting out in community management/marketing media and trying to learn how to do it well – resources like this web site are incredibly helpful. As our company is based in the U.S., it’s all a bit new to us. The example above is something that I worry about as well, how to show your own genuine enthusiasm and share the fact that your product is useful in that case.

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