• Chelsea Hartlen

English, Why Are You Like This?!

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

*peeks around the corner*

*walks into the blog page and stirs up a massive cloud of dust*


Hello, pals.

I've been staring at this section of the website (unpublished, of course) for some time now. All the cool kids are writing blogs on their websites, and I suppose I ought to be as well. I have a lot of useful stuff floating around in my head... I just don't know what to do with it or how to organise it.

Thankfully, one of my students had a great idea, and I'm going to run with it!

I'm a busy person who usually wears a lot of hats, so spending time on writing a blog seemed like a lot of work. I'm a PhD candidate with 20,000 words to go before I have the first draft of my dissertation. I provide writing support to students at the University of Guelph as a teaching assistant in the library. I freelance as an editor for academic writers. I also like to garden, play video games, make candles, knit, read as much as possible and make sure my giant dog gets enough exercise.

Adding a blog to all of that? Egh...

A recent consultation changed my mind, though. I have a lot of regular students signing up to get my advice on their papers. They tell me that they wait until midnight or 1 AM - when next week's appointments open up - to make sure they get a spot with me (WHAT?! Sleep is precious - don't do this!). Given that I have a tenuous (at best) grasp on my self-esteem, this is always shocking to hear, but generally heartwarming. It also means that I see the same dedicated few over and over. I love this because my students and I have a good rapport, and the consultations always flow naturally; we both know what to expect from each other. Sometimes, though, this situation compounds with the reduced hours of the summer semester to prevent me from seeing as many students as I would like.

This week, one of my favourites nabbed a spot on my schedule, and I was so happy! You have no idea how much I love working with this person. For confidentiality reasons, I can't say much about them. I will say that they are an EAL student who is as curious about the hows and whys of language as I am. We always have so much fun going down linguistic rabbit holes during our consultations that I can't believe I didn't think of this myself.

Introducing ...

English, Why Are You Like This?!

Indeed. Why, English? Why?

This is a question common to native English speakers and EAL learners alike. English is weird. There is a particularly good joke floating around out there about how English accosts other languages in dark alleys, stealing random bits of grammar and style before disappearing into the night.

While it's not that simple, the metaphor is apt. English tells you to do things one way and then pulls the rug out from under you when you least expect it. Example: 'I before E ... except after C ... oh and also when it sounds like 'ay' as in neighbour or weigh'. A lot of our rules go like this. One might wonder why we bother with conventions in the first place when there are so many exceptions.

English borrows words from many other languages. The way we write is not the way we speak. The way we write blog posts is not the way we write academic papers, or novels, or newspaper articles, or anything else. The best (read: worst) part of this is that not many of us actually learn how to write in grade school. We are thrown into university with minimal competencies in the five-paragraph essay. No one explains how the brain processes language, how to write effectively or how precise diction can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

You're not likely to get writing education at university either unless you take a lot of courses in English or History. Why not? Because, chances are, your professors and TAs aren't the best writers.

There. I said it.

You wouldn't believe how many academics struggle with writing (it's a good thing I suppose, or I would be out of work). No one teaches us: we muddle through trial and error and mimic the good writing we see in publications. Even if we manage to become good writers, a lot of what we know is intuitive. We don't have the language to explain why we write the way we do. We leave unhelpful comments on papers like 'vague' and 'awkward' because we know something is off about what the student wrote, but we can't explain why.

Enter me: writing support TA, editor, language nerd and lover of analogy, metaphor or whatever else will get some weird writing convention to stick in someone's brain.

I'm not a linguist. I'm not certified by TOEFL or IELTS. I explain North American academic writing as a set of Point-Proof-Explanation matryoshka dolls. Most of my teaching comes straight out of my 🍑 with a little help from Grammar Girl and the ongoing training I receive as a writing TA and yet...

The student mentioned above thought it would be a good idea for me to get some of these tips and tricks out into the world. They believe that other language learners and writers can benefit from my unique (eccentric? weird? ridiculous?) approach to explaining how English works and why.


  • if you are wondering whether 'please' should come at the beginning of a sentence or the end;

  • if you are interested in why 'reviewed elsewhere' sounds more confident and informed than 'reviewed somewhere else';

  • if you need an easy formula guaranteed to make writing conclusions infinitely less painful and terror-inducing;

  • if you would like to know why I think the participial verb form is the devil's conjugation...

Watch this space!

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