Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Trouble With English


I have an English degree. This leads a good number of people to assume that I have above-average knowledge of grammar, and these people are not wrong. However, I think the link between an English degree and knowledge of grammar is a lot more tenuous than most people think. The number of college courses that taught me grammar was exactly zero. (Only one grammar class was offered and I didn’t take it.) I know a lot of grammar because I’ve studied other languages; such study requires more of a structural approach than kids take when learning to talk.

Having struggled with Russian, French, and Latin, I came to appreciate what was easy about them and what was not. My general impression has been that whatever difficulty I had, these languages are easier to learn than English (though French is impossible to pronounce). In this post I’ll examine just a few of the things that make English so hard: the absurdity of English spelling; the impossibly vague unwritten rules; and the challenges of pronunciation, slang, and jargon. Along the way I’ll offer up some examples of warped English sentences, mainly for your amusement.

Is English really that hard?

Yes, it is. Consider the following insert that came with an electric mosquito repeller my mom bought back in 1992. (Yes, “repeller” actually is a word, even though my word processing program flags it as a misspelling.)

Mosquitoes frequently infect you place in Summer, especially at night, They are externely irritating as they disturbed our sleep and the most annoying of all is the difficulty in getting rid of the itch & soreness. After, ordinary mosquito‑increase or "Electrified Mosquito Killer" are used. However the odour is unbearable and the abuse of some of them may become dangerous. . . . According to the research of insect ecology, most of biting mosquitos are female ones in spawning period. A Spawning female mosquito is very disgusted at the approaching of male mosquito. Therefore, the trequency of Repel‑It' is made to imitate the sound signal of male mosquitos to repell female mosquitos away.

Beyond its laughable gaffs, that passage struck a chord with me because I once lost a spelling bee because of the word “mosquito,” which I thought was spelled “misquito.” (Another time I lost on “maize,” not understanding the clue “The Indians called it maize.” Had my pugnacity been fully developed back then, I’d have said, “Excuse me, but whether you mean Native Americans or persons from India, they’d have used a word from their own language for whatever they were talking about. That you couldn’t have meant ‘labyrinth’ is not at all clear and I deserve a new word.” But I digress.)

In the repeller insert, “they disturbed our sleep” seems ridiculous, but then, whom are we talking about, anyway? I’d have used a different verb and the pronoun—“they disturb your sleep”—but this formation is also easy to find fault with. To somebody new to English, the use of the present tense to imply habitual behavior is far from obvious, and “your” suggests that the writer of the insert has met the reader, which of course isn’t the case. The unwritten rules of our language seem so sensical, and yet they’re completely arbitrary. And that word I just used, sensical? Of course it’s not a word. How come things can be nonsensical, but not sensical? Because. Just because.

The absurdity of English spelling

As I note my children’s various misspellings I appreciate afresh how easy it is to guess wrong at the spelling of an English word. At school my daughter Lindsay was assigned to draw a monster than then write about it. She wrote, “He is Rushen.” When I first read this I thought, gosh, my daughter sure is stupid! But then I thought, wait, why does “R-u-s-s-i-a-n” make any sense? That ought to spell “Russ-ey-an.” Lindsay’s spelling actually makes more sense.

Now, my more patriotic readers might try to blame this crazy spelling on the Russians themselves, but of course they would spell it “русско,” which is pronounced “ROOSE-koh.” And it’s spelled totally phonetically: the “р” makes an “r” sound, the “у” makes an oo sound, the “с” makes an “s” sound, the “к” makes a “k” sound, and the “о” makes an “oh” sound. These letters always make these sounds; the Russian “с” is always an “s” sound, never a “k” or “z” sound, and so on. None of this “-tion” or “-sion” nonsense for the Russians; they have a letter, “ш,” that makes the “sh” sound. Latin is similarly consistent in its spelling; in fact, if you see two “u”s together (e.g., in the handy phrase “ignis fatuus”), you pronounce both the “u”s: “ig-nees fat-oo-oos.”

Next in my exhibit of hopeless English spellings is the street name “Gough” in San Francisco. Nobody I knew when I lived in that city could produce a definitive pronunciation of this street name. It could rhyme with bough, through, cough, tough, or even the second syllable of “borough.” It could be “Gow,” “Goo,” “Goff,” “Guff,” or “Go.” All we can say for sure about “Gough” is that the second “g” doesn’t make a “g” sound. I mean, why should it, right?

My final evidence about the hopelessness of English spelling is the existence of the heteronym. A heteronym is a pair of words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like “tear” (that rolls down your cheek) and “tear” (to rend something). I know of seventy-eight of these double-words in the English language, most of which you can find on the Heteronym Homepage. (One they missed is “entrance,” the way in, vs. “entrance,” to put into a trance.) The only way to know how to pronounce an instance of a heteronym is by context.

We think of the English language as phonetic, but it barely is. Our spelling rules are really more like tendencies. In Lindsay’s classroom the teacher has posted a large collection of “word wall words”—that is, words that cannot be sounded out and must simply be memorized, like multiplication tables. Some people are better at this memorization than others—hence the many English speakers you encounter who are no good at spelling.

Impossibly vague unwritten rules

In the mosquito repeller insert was the phrase “very disgusted.” If this didn’t make you chuckle, what’s wrong with you? After all, we all know (once we stop and think about it) that “disgusted” is a word with a built-in sense of the absolute. Similarly, I know a fellow from Hong Kong who often uses the phrase “extremely delicious,” which I’ve actually adopted myself due to its delightful oddness.

Scanning a bulletin board at a Laundromat ages ago, I came across a handwritten ad for the services of a “reliable French young man.” I found it impossible, upon reading this, to prevent the song “International Bright Young Thing” from invading my head and lingering there. I can imagine that no native English speaker would let “reliable French young man” go by without at least a raised eyebrow. Surely you would immediately see that a more correct order would be “reliable young French man” or “reliable young Frenchman.” And yet nowhere in Strunk & White does it say, “Any adjective specifying nationality must be placed immediately before the noun it modifies.”

It’s also curious to note that it’s intuitively obvious that “French man” can be shortened to “Frenchman,” while “German man” cannot be shortened to “Germanman.” It really only works with French. From the standpoint of accepted linguistic forms, you can shorten Chinese man to “Chinaman,” but you never, ever should because it’s disparaging, obviously.

And even if we eliminate the “French” aspect of the Laundromat ad, there’s a right and a wrong way to order the adjectives. The phrase “reliable young man” sounds totally fine, but not “young reliable man.” The placement of adjectives officially matters in French: a word can have a totally different meaning based on whether it precedes a noun or follows it; “propre chemise” means “my shirt” whereas “chemise propre” means “clean shirt.” In English it’s assumed the adjectives can go in any order, but that’s not really the case if you want to sound like a native speaker, as the Laundromat ad shows. Is this subtlety taught in grammar class? I think not. Latin, meanwhile, offers not only the opportunity to put adjectives in any order, but every word in a sentence in any order. You could write a sentence on a piece of paper, cut the paper so each word is its own scrap, and rearrange the scraps any old way and the sentence would still make sense.

You might wonder why I capitalize Laundromat. Well, originally I didn’t. My spell-checker caught that. I looked it up, and it turns out to be a trademark, like Band-Aid. So we capitalize it, just like we capitalize Dumpster, Jacuzzi, and Lycra, even if we’re using the word to refer to a general thing, rather than a specific brand. Is this a hard-and-fast rule? No, we don’t capitalize aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, escalator, or zipper, though they all derive from trademarks as well. Why don’t we capitalize them? We just don’t. (In the case of zipper, the B.F. Goodrich company sued—unsuccessfully—to protect its trademark. Whom did they sue? I don’t know. Look it up.)

One unwritten rule that continues to confuse my kids is that verbs of desire should be rendered in the hypothetical subjunctive. Now, before you take my kids’ side on this, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Instead of “I want a snack,” they should say, “I would like a snack.” And of course they should say “please.” In my household, “I want a snack, please” isn’t good enough. The “please” in that instance sounds tacked-on. “I would like a snack, please” is close enough to “May I have a snack, please?” that I’ll accept it. Why does the hypothetical subjunctive convey humility and politesse? Beats me.

Then there are the words that only exist in certain comparative forms, as with my “sensical” bit above. For example, you can be overwhelmed, and underwhelmed, but never just whelmed. You can be overbearing, but not underbearing. You can understand something, and you can stand something, but you can’t overstand something. A library book can be due, or overdue, but not underdue. You can be incognito, but not cognito. I’m not the first person to point these out so I won’t dwell on them. I’d just like to make the point that we pretend this language is modular—that is, we can tack on prefixes and suffixes as we please—but it’s just not the case.

There are countless other unwritten rules, of course, but I just saw you checking your watch so I’ll move on.

Pronunciation, slang, and jargon

I group pronunciation and jargon together because they’re both examples of how a language can seem deliberately designed to stymie the outsider. All languages are guilty of this to a greater or lesser degree. Perfect mastery of a vernacular is like membership in an exclusive club.

I can’t say whether English is particularly hard to pronounce, at least when compared to the French who seem to speak without the use of their teeth or hard palette. The French somehow weasel out of most consonant sounds. They have a strange knack for beautifully speaking a language that sounds awful on a foreigner’s tongue. But English has its own difficulties, and not just the famous “th” sound that the French cannot make.

The most subtle (but undeniable) unwritten rule of pronunciation I can think of in English is the tendency to put emphasis on a specific word in a two-word phrase, consistently. (I describe this at length in my post about how to write a sonnet.) There is a right way to pronounce “hot,” and a right way to pronounce “dog,” and—this is the weird part—a right way to pronounce “hot dog.” You accentuate the first word, not the second: “HOT dog.” (The exception is if you’re expressing great delight and excitement: “Hot DOG!”) Another phrase like this is “boy scout”: always “BOY scout,” never “boy SCOUT.” Another is “TRASH can.” Another is “BIG time.” There are probably hundreds of phrases like this; they’re hard to come up with until you hear a foreigner get one wrong.

Obviously all languages have slang, but I suspect English could be the worst offender (or greatest innovator, depending on your perspective), because it is widely thought to have more words than any other major language. And the very existence of Cockney rhyming slang shows a willful desire to make language more complicated (but also more fun) through obscure word substitutions. (I realize that my assertion of English being more slangy is the most fragile one I’ve made, and quite possibly completely untrue. I’m baiting somebody to call me out on it.)

Slang would be no problem for newcomers to a language if the natives didn’t use it unconsciously. But we do. For example, I was watching bike race coverage recently and the Irish commentator (and bike racing legend) Sean Kelly kept using the word “ride” in a special sense I’ve only recently come to understand. “Ride” in this context doesn’t just mean to ride a bike; it means riding aggressively and pedaling really hard as opposed to tucking behind other riders and trying to conserve energy. Kelly is presumably speaking to a very wide viewing audience and may well fail to realize he’s using a highly specific connotation of a very general word here.

It’s easy for me to appreciate how subtle “ride” is in this context, but other cycling slang has become second nature, to the extent that I don’t even realize I’m using it. For example, I was talking one of my wife’s friends, a newcomer to cycling, and was surprised when she didn’t know what “drop” means, as in “I dropped him” or “don’t worry about getting dropped.” I thought everybody knew this.

The vernacular causes trouble when a writer is trying to educate a large and diverse population and, though trying to be clear, buries the reader in highly specialized terms. This unconscious use of jargon is what can make owner’s manuals and computer messages so hard to understand. Many a creator of such texts, through failure of imagination, sells short his audience. In the course of a single workday, I was nonplussed by three such puzzles. Here is the first:

What does “share” mean in this context? What would that look like? What would happen, on my screen, if I selected “Nobody”? Isn’t sharing with nobody the default behavior—i.e., what I was already doing? By the logic of this menu option, shouldn’t there be a button labeled “Simply exist”?

Check out this error message:

This was annoying because it popped up instead of whatever I had hoped would happen on my screen. (I can no longer remember what I was trying to do.) It’s frustrating, in such situations, to have as my only recourse a button to click that says “OK.” OK? No, it’s not okay! What are our children learning, through computers, about the meaning of the word “OK”? Perhaps this explains why, whenever I tell one of my daughters to do something, she says “OK” but does nothing. I always thought she was consenting to my command; now that I think about it, saying "OK" is just the non-PC equivalent of making my window go away so she can get back to what she was doing.

The last of the error messages was truly perplexing:

Whatever the difference is between the Outlook Address Book entries and e-mail addresses in contacts, it’s not obvious here. A colleague commented, “That is like saying, ‘Adding lettuce to a salad is prohibited.’” Amen.

Owner’s manuals can be even worse. (I’m not even completely satisfied with the term “owner’s manual.” Who is this mythical “owner”? Why can’t they just call it “Your manual”? After all, they go on to refer to you as “you” throughout the manual anyway. It’s not like they say “The owner must gather information about his machine…” and so on.)

When you’re reading about how to set up your new PC device, you can’t just ignore what you don’t understand—you have to grasp what you’re reading or you’ll never get anywhere. You’re depending on the comprehensibility of that manual. So it was when I set up my new printer.

(A quick note about my printer. It’s not an expensive one. The manufacturer probably lost money on it in the short term. It’s really just a delivery mechanism for very expensive ink, according to the “first time’s free, kid” revenue model perfected by Gillette. Note also that I do not have a lot of ink stashed away here: only what came with the printer. You’d be much better off breaking into the home of someone who blogs about his iPad.)

So. The printer. I was quaking with fear at the setup process, because the last time I did this, for my mom, I failed. Nothing worked right, and the manual and help menus were worthless. Printers are a bitch. (Imagine that sentence, “printers are a bitch,” from a learning-English point of view. It’s not “printers are bitches.” It’s not “a printer is a bitch.” It’s “printers are a bitch.” How can multiple printers be one bitch?)

The manual I got is actually pretty well written. The setup process is pretty complicated, but the directions didn’t generally lead me astray. But there were some very perplexing bits. For example, in the part about removing the countless bits of orange tape securing everything for shipping, there was this note: “The tape and protective materials may differ in shape and position from what they actually are.” Wait. So you mean to tell me that as intimidated as I already am about this printer, there will be shape-shifting going on? “See this tape? It’s tape, right? No, look now—it’s a flower!” (I suspect they meant to say, “The tape and protective materials may differ in shape and position from what is shown here.” But if this is the case, why didn’t they just say so?)

The next troublesome point: “A USB cable is necessary to connect the machine with your computer (USB connection only).” Normally, context can help with these things, but it’s a wireless printer. Ignoring for a moment the parenthetical part, the basic statement is that the cable is necessary. (The fact that the printer doesn’t come with this cable is immaterial; printers have never come with cables, due to the “gouge them” revenue model.) Anybody could be forgiven for being misled by this statement into thinking the cable is necessary, especially since the parenthetical bit only seems to reiterate the rest of the statement. This is the kind of tautology you could get lost in for days. If you called the help desk for advice, the conversation could get really weird:

[Consumer] “It’s a wireless printer but it says here ‘A USB cable is necessary to connect the machine with your computer (USB connection only).’ Does that mean I need a USB cable?”

[Help desk] “No, the USB cable is only necessary when you’re using the USB cable.”

[C] “But I don’t have to use the cable?”

[HD] “No, you don’t have to.”

[C] “So why does it say I do?”

[HD] “You only need to use it if you’re going to use it. If you were going to use the cable but didn’t connect the cable, you wouldn’t be using the cable.”

[C] “Which would be a problem because…?”

[HD] “Because it was your intention to use the cable.”

[C] “Was it?”

[HD] I don’t know—you tell me!”

Of course this hypothetical dialog is completely unrealistic because the help desk person, regardless of his or her nationality, wouldn’t be nearly this articulate.

The last confusing bit is this: “Additional computers on the same network It enables the computer to use the machine.” I have tried and failed to figure out where this one went wrong. My first theory is that there’s simply a period missing before the word “It.” But this can’t be, because the first sentence would have no verb—and no object, for that matter. So maybe the word “It” was put in by mistake? No, because then the subject (“computers”) wouldn’t agree with the verb (“enables”). So “It” must belong, but what’s the antecedent? Impossible to tell. And logically, what would additional computers have to do with enabling “the computer” (whichever one that is) to use the machine? Besides, computers don’t use machines—people do.

My (very patient) wife suggested that the point here is that multiple computers can share the machine over a network. Great point, but this point was already made, earlier on the same page: “If the machine is already connected to a wireless/wired connection, it can be used from additional computers on the same network.” Despite the needlessness of “already,” and the strange yin/yang of “wireless/wired,” and the use of “connection” where “network” makes more sense, this is a pretty clear statement. Why follow it up with the totally muddled one? I can only assume that the technical writer here is paid by the word.

I only wish that I were paid by the word—I’d be rich now. And on that note, I shall end this post mid-

dana albert blog


  1. Who did they sue and to whom did they send the lawsuit?

  2. There is an interesting short old rectangular black & white intangible blog post about the correct order of eight classes of English adjectives here:

    Jack Winter's "How I Met My Wife" is a humourous essay exploring English words that only have certain comparative forms:

    And finally, an article on heteronyms wouldn't be complete without an incorrect homonym usage, would it? I think you meant "palate", not "palette".

  3. Bradley Grainger, who came from New Zealand, where apparently people speak some version of English, tried in vain to post a comment. (Browser trouble.) Here is what he wrote:

    'There is an interesting short old rectangular black & white intangible blog post about the correct order of eight classes of English adjectives here:

    Jack Winter's 'How I Met My Wife' is a humourous essay exploring English words that only have certain comparative forms:

    And finally, an article on heteronyms wouldn't be complete without an incorrect homonym usage, would it? I think you meant 'palate', not 'palette'."

    I was fascinated to see the website about the order of adjectives. And I well remember the "How I Met My Wife" story. You, faithful blog reader, should immediately go read them.

    As for my "palette" mistake, I don't know how that happened. I even looked it up when I wrote the post. It has crossed my mind that I could quietly fix it in my post and omit that part of Bradley's comment. Or, I could pretend that it was a little test, to see if my readers were on the ball. But instead I must just confess that I screwed up, and take some solace in knowing it proves my point: English is hard.