Commentary: The peculiarities of the English language
By Jim Schuh
We speak English – a language replete with many peculiarities and odd rules. Many of us who’ve spoken the language all our lives will acknowledge we don’t know all the rules and that we often fail to speak “the Queen’s English.” For example, do you ever say, “for you and I” or try to recall when to use “bring” and “take,” or ”come” and “go?”
Grammatical rules trip up lots of folks, and so does correct spelling. Does “recommend” have one or two ‘c’s? Is there one or two “m’s” in “dilemma?” What about “tomorrow?” How many “r’s?”
Idioms or idiomatic expressions cause plenty of trouble, too – especially among those learning English. (Idioms, by the way, are phrases that have meanings impossible to deduct by the words alone, such as “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “a hot potato” or “feeling under the weather.”) All languages have idioms, but English may “take the cake” for being the worst. Native English speakers use these idioms every day without much thought – we’ve heard them all our lives and understand their meaning. But those just learning our native tongue struggle with what they mean.
Many years ago, we hosted a university student from China who called me one morning, totally perplexed by an English idiom. He was reading a book that used the words, “blessings in disguise.”
He checked his Chinese dictionary, looking up the individual words and what he found made no sense.
He was relieved when I explained it was something that wasn’t recognized as being good at first.
If you were just learning English, consider how you’d scratch your head when someone told you, “I heard it through the grapevine.” How can you hear anything on a structure that grows grapes?
If you want to see some commonly-used idioms – those we use often – go online to Google or Bing and type in, “idioms.” You may be surprised how many of these seemingly senseless phrases you’ll recognize as being part of your everyday vocabulary.
Why would someone place a wood chip or potato chip on his shoulder? But that’s what someone studying English might ask when hearing, “He has a chip on his shoulder.”
Plenty of animals make it into our idioms. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” “kill two birds with one stone,” “curiosity killed the cat,” “Let the cat out of the bag” and hearing something “straight from the horse’s mouth” are good examples.
Now to spelling. I came across a list of the most misspelled words in every state. I can’t verify the source or how correct the list is, but it’s fun to look at. We Wisconsinites, claims the compiler, have the most trouble with spelling “tomorrow.” So do people in Arizona and Colorado.
Some folks in Alabama, Illinois, Maine, Michigan and Washington state can’t spell “pneumonia” properly. It’s a good bet that “p” at the beginning trips them up.
Minnesotans have the most difficulty with “beautiful,” as do those in California, Kentucky, New York and Ohio. “Vacuum” confounds Iowans. Some of the other word spellings that stump folks include “chihuahua,” “maintenance,“ “chaos,” “priority,” “dilemma” and “sauerkraut.”
Dictionary.com published an article by Caroline Balogna highlighting 35 things that are confusing about the English language. Readers offered words and phrases that puzzled them, for example, “their, “there” and “they’re.” You may recall that back in grade school, we learned they’re called homonyms. We native English talkers can recognize which one a speaker means when we hear a sentence. But it’s also true that some of us don’t know which one to use when we write. Have you ever seen, “We’re going over their” or “There house is for sale?”
“Their” is the possessive form of “they” as in, “Their dog ran away.” “There” designates a place, as “Let’s go over there” and “they’re” is a contraction of “they are.”
One contributor offered the sentence, “I feel like fish,” meaning he’d like to have a fish dinner. But someone just learning English might have trouble comprehending that, wondering why the speaker feels like a fish. Another person pointed to asking a question in the negative, “Are you sure you don’t want any cake?” Do we answer “yes” or ”no” to that question?
Students of English have to learn the difference between “in” and “on” in certain circumstances. If you say, “He’s on the plane” or “He’s in the plane,” you’re saying the same thing. But if you say, “He’s in the car,” it’s not the same as saying, “He’s on the car.”
Then there are contranyms – words that have opposite meanings. “Left” is a good example. It can mean “remaining” or “departed.” “Trim” is another – to decorate, as in “trim a tree” or to cut away (trim the fat).
Pronunciation is tough for students of our language. We have words, like the French, in which certain letters are silent. The simple word, “come” comes to mind. And there’s “plumber,” “uncle,” and many more. Words that begin with “X” are pronounced as if they start with “Z,” except for x”-ray.” Many mispronounce “Xavier,” saying “X-avier.”
Another question that perplexes the English learner – why do we pronounce “tough, “dough,” “cough” and “through” differently? Add “thought” to that list, too. How about “daughter” and “laughter?” “Good” and “food?” The sound of the “a” in “cat,” “cake” and “car?” “Red” and “read?”
Or even, ”read” (present tense) or “read (past tense)?” The list goes on.
If you’re trying to learn English, it’s easy to see how you might become discouraged and take up Greek, Arabic or Mandarin instead. Maybe this column will help us understand why those new to the English language don’t always pronounce words correctly or construct their sentences the way we do.
I’m just glad I don’t have to learn all the nuances of English.