Five English Absurdities Native Speakers Take For Granted

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Perhaps you have seen this before:

 

Oh yes, even back when Twitter was 140 characters, you could sum up how maddening English can be in one tweet.

But beyond how ou doesn’t follow any sensible rules for pronunciation, proven by the above example’s repetition of th before it and gh after it, it only gets worse.

Oh so very much more worse.

As a Level 1 ESL teacher, I have the privilege of introducing the insanity of basic English to about 50 horrified faces each year. I’m quite fascinated by my students’ reactions to what I’m about to share with you. But I’m supremely fascinated by the reactions of native English speakers who happen by my class and catch a snippet of a lesson. Their reaction is generally the same: “I never thought about how hard introductory English is before.” To be honest, I didn’t either.

But now I think about it all the time. So much that I love writing about it. Today I present five everyday aspects of English that drive second language learners crazy that native speakers don’t often think about.


1. Negations No Are Easy

If you want to negate a sentence in Spanish, you know what you do? You add the word “no” before the verb. Doesn’t matter the tense, the subject, or the verb used, it doesn’t get more complicated than that.

Do you know what English does to make negatives?

Well, in present tense we say “don’t” for I/you/we/they (I don’t go) but we say “doesn’t” for he/she it (He doesn’t go). The verb with he/she/it doesn’t have an s even though the positive does. We say “he goes” yet it’s not “he doesn’t goes” but rather “he doesn’t go”. Which is a riot to announce in my class after three weeks of browbeating them that he/she/it adds an s to the verb in present tense. Yet, with the verb “to be” we do not say “don’t” or “doesn’t” but instead “not”. And this time it’s after the verb, not before. Past tense has a new negative word–“didn’t”–but its the same for everybody and has no alternative form for he/she/it. But we also put the verb form back in a present tense form, meaning we say “I went” as positive and “I didn’t go” as negative instead of saying “I didn’t went”. Verb “to be” still adds the word “not” after the verb. Helping verbs such as “will” and “can” follow the same pattern as verb “to be” by adding the word “not” after the helping verb but before the actual verb. And for nearly all of these, there are two forms: a contracted form and a separated form.

Forming questions involves almost identical issues so no need to rehash that disaster of grammatical verbiage.


2. Hook-ed on P-honics Work-ed for me!

Is there any language in the world that has less consistency in how a word looks and how it sounds? I mean, look at the word one. Or two. Those are the two most basic numbers and English spells them about as weirdly as possible. We should have spelled “2” something like “xrz&n”, just to make it even more outrageous.

Or how about those silent letters? Like the i in business. Or the first r in February. Or the d in Wednesday (and really the second e as well). Or plumber, sign, wrist, Christmas, aisle, column, honest, receipt, and knowledge.

It’s completely nuts that ed sounds like t in some verbs, as with the Brian Regan phonics joke above.  It’s bonkers that ch sounds like k in mechanic and like sh in machine, neither of which are its regular sound. It’s cuckoo that final –le in many words (like candle, table, and apple) really sounds like el (or ul). And it is preposterous that –tion sounds like shun.

Can you imagine learning the English alphabet and then having the word eight put in front of you? EH-II-GA-HU-TU.

No, silly. It’s pronounced AAAAT.


3. English Vowels Behave Like Johnny Manziel

If you have a vowel-consonant-final E pattern, the vowel sound is long, as in the words save, five and stove. Except when it isn’t, in words like have, give and move. The diphthong ea can be Long E, Short E or Long A, as in read, head and great. (Except when it’s none of those, as in the word create). There is no way to tell when it will be any of them, as you can see with the words break and breakfast. Same letters, different sounds. Similar is the o in both and bother (which also changes the sound of th). And for the u in student and study. And the oo in food and flood.

The sound of ei changes constantly (weight, height, either, forfeit), as does ie (field, friend, science).  The word tomorrow has three o’s and none of them are the same. The word women has an o that sounds like an i. The word money has an o that sounds like a Short U. Who has an o that sounds like a Long U. And the word business has a u that sounds like an i!

Every time I teach this my students have the same look on their faces that I had during the last season of LOST.


4. Objectionable Objects

Have you ever thought about this: We say, “I gave the pen to him” or ” I gave him the pen” but we never say “I gave to him the pen” or “I gave the pen him”?  Have you ever thought about how we say “Turn the TV off” or “Turn off the TV” but when we replace TV with “it” we do say, “Turn it off” but we do not say “Turn off it”.

Trying to teach objects to second language learners makes me want to light myself on fire. I’m kidding. I love it. It’s like playing paintball in a Community episode.


5. Verbs Gone Wild

Have you ever noticed that we say “I have an appointment on Friday” but that we say “I’m having a party on Friday” and to use those two verbs tenses backwards sounds weird? Until I taught English I never thought about how odd it is that English speakers say “I got it” when they mean, “I’ll get it,” as in catching a ball or answering the phone. We use the past tense to communicate the future. What?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about verbs that my students have pointed out is that we add s to make nouns plural (usually) but then with verbs we add s to a singular form. To the mind of other languages, it’s completely backwards that we say “the dog eats” but that “the dogs eat”.

We also often have two verbs that translate to one verb in other languages that make it very hard for learners to know the difference. “Do” and “Make” are so similar that they both often translate to hacer in Spanish and robić in Polish, yet they are almost never used interchangeably in English. We typically don’t make homework or do a decision. Nike didn’t tell us to “Just make it” and I will never say, “The music does me dance.”

The funniest thing that ever happened in my ESL Class was once I was teaching my students the difference between “say” and “tell” because both translate often to the same verb in Spanish, decir. And I explained that “tell” will have a person a its first object and “say” won’t. It’s “Tell you” or “Tell me” but never “Say you” or “Say me”. And one of my students belted out, “Say you, say me, say it for always, that’s the way it should be” with perfect ’80s ballad passion. All I could think was that another perfectly good English lesson was ruined by Lionel Ritchie.


I get it: Other languages have similar issues. Just looking at my Polish notes and seeing that there are like 30 different translations of the English word “you,” I’m reminded daily. Yet English is no doubt among the craziest.

Are there things about English you find odd or frustrating? Are other languages you know like this? Share below!

 

 

 

 

 

Gowdy Cannon

I am the pastor of the bilingual ministry of Northwest Community Church in Chicago. Our church is intentional in trying to bring English and Spanish speakers together in worship and community. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married three years. I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to adult immigrants in my community. I am, at times, a student at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

14 thoughts on “Five English Absurdities Native Speakers Take For Granted

  • February 16, 2018 at 10:51 am
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    In the defense of native English speakers, many of the examples you mention in (2) are the result of people being lazy/ignorant in their pronunciation when they speak and they have become accepted as standard. Current examples that I hope never reach the critical mass of formal acceptance include writing “could of”, writing “alot” (which my grammar checker is flagging as I type), and saying “fill” when you are using the word “feel”. There are, of course, a plethora of other examples, and we haven’t even started talking about how my fellow Texans pronounce words like “Bexar” and “Refugio”.

    Which leads me to another defense: so many of our words in English come from more than just Latin or Greek, so they maintain some elements of the rules of the language in which they originated, which makes them inconsistent with words from other sources. That doesn’t make it any easier for people to teach the language; it’s just an explanation of why it’s so.

    All grammar-nerding aside, I really enjoyed this one. Thanks!

    Reply
    • February 16, 2018 at 11:24 am
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      I honestly have no idea which examples in (2) are a result of English speakers being lazy or ignorant. I assumed all of them are correct and just inconsistent with phonics and spelling because of the reasons you gave about where we get our words from. (Which is totally reasonable and I recall once Hannah Postlewaite, fellow English teacher, sent me a huge document that explained a lot of why English is weird…I even changed some of my phrasing from “Why do we do this?” to other phrases because there are reasons why. But as you say, this is to come at it from a 2nd language perspective and my students come from languages where vowels never or rarely change so it is quite frustrating).

      Anyway I’d be curious what those examples from 2 are. The only thing above that isn’t correct English to my knowledge is the “I got it” thing, which is so common I have stopped fighting it and teach it as slang in my class. I will almost certainly never ever get there with “Could of” or “alot”.

      Reply
      • February 16, 2018 at 1:23 pm
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        Calling it “lazy” may have sounded a bit harsher than I intended, and in hindsight (another phonetic favorite) I shouldn’t have said “many” of the examples, but here are some examples from (2):

        (a) We don’t pronounce the “t” in Christmas because it’s easier to skip over it, even though it’s obvious what the root word is and we pronounce its “t”; in fact, the phonetic oddity there isn’t the “silent T” but the Short I in Christmas compared to the Long I in Christ. The “b” in plumber is in a similar category, though we barely say the “b” in the root word plumb.
        (b) The first “r” in February is similarly skipped not because it’s supposed to be silent but because it’s just easier to say that way (though my favorite teacher in middle/high school always pronounced every letter in the name of that month, so it can be done), and over time we’ve accepted that as the norm.
        (c) The examples of -ed, -le, and -tion are also in this category, as we just naturally allow ourselves to say -t, -ul, and -shun, but that doesn’t mean that’s how the words were originally crafted (not “craft-t”). And anytime I hear someone pronounce “Uh-LEE-see-uh” (not “Uh-LEE-shuh”) Silverstone, I’m reminded that we can usually pronounce as many details in our words as we want to. We just often don’t want to pronounce any more than we have to (which may or may not be the same as being “lazy” in our pronunciation).

        Just some food for thought.

        Reply
        • February 16, 2018 at 1:44 pm
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          That’s interesting. Since I teach from curriculum and modern dictionaries I had no idea. I should have read your first post more carefully since you did acknowledge these are correct today. I would be amiss to teach my students to say table as it looks, and it would probably hurt them in job interviews. LOL. I hope sincerely that “could of” and similar things never make it to dictionaries.

          The whole adapting pronunciation to what it is easy is weird though because I absolutely teach my students that English speakers (wrongly) say many words with t or tt in the middle as d sound: when I say “little” or “thirty” or “bottle” they clearly sound like “liddle,” “thirdy” and “boddle”. I tell them, and this is an assumption on my part, that this happens because it is easier to say d in the middle of a word than t. Yet I cannot imagine dictionaries ever adapting to that. But I’m not a student of English history so I could be way wrong. Also fascinating is the reverse of what I just said is true for words like “second”. My students sometimes come to class thinking the word is “secont” because of what they hear. They also think husband is “husban” but I feel like i hear that final d more than I don’t. The “ears” of language are as interesting as anything in the world to me.

          Reply
          • February 16, 2018 at 5:17 pm
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            I think you’re correct in your description of little, thirty, and bottle, along with the concept of ending sounds. (Ask the right New Englander how to pronounce “Cuba” and “car” and he’ll switch the word that the “r” belongs to, to “Cuber” and “cah”, or he’ll make the host country of the current Olympics sound like “career”.) Being commonly acceptable doesn’t necessarily mean that the dictionary has adopted it, though. Merriam-Webster has a listing for “irregardless” (I cringe as I type it, especially since my grammar check isn’t flagging it), but they basically say that you shouldn’t use it. All of which is to say that the premise of your OP is correct; English is hard. :)

  • February 16, 2018 at 11:03 am
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    Agreement with indefinite pronouns that are singular. Anyone?

    Reply
    • February 16, 2018 at 11:25 am
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      I have learned a lot of terms for grammar having taught it but I’m not positive I know what you mean. Is this anything like the REO guys having a 25 response discussion over whether we should say “Five Movies Our Staff Love” or “Five Movies Our Staff Loves”?

      Reply
      • February 16, 2018 at 11:28 am
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        That was fun…

        Reply
      • February 16, 2018 at 11:55 am
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        Subject-verb agreement with collective singular nouns as subjects is tricky, too, which is what you guys debated.

        Examples of indefinite pronouns that are singular: everybody, everyone, each, either, neither, etc. (“EACH of the students IS required to bring identification.”)

        Other indefinite pronouns are either singular or plural, such as “all.” (“ALL of the snow IS melting” and “ALL of the teachers ARE excited for spring break.”)

        The ACT has errors for these rules that students have to recognize, and often the right way sounds wrong because we speak it incorrectly.

        Reply
        • February 16, 2018 at 12:08 pm
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          Ah. that is fascinating! I have not encountered this to a great deal in my classes but I have had students get extremely frustrated that we say “Everybody is” instead of “are” because I typically teach he/she/it as 3rd singular and then they say, “Everybody isn’t he, she or it!” And they’re right. However, with Spanish students they have similar phrasing. You can say in Spanish “the whole world” for “everyone” and it wil be the 3rd singular. Similarly, they get frustrated when “family” is 3rd singular because it’s a “they” concept but singular grammatically. Yet, in Spanish you always say “Mi familia es” and not “Mi familia son”. So at least in those cases I can make it make sense. “Each” and “all” sound intimidating.

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        • February 16, 2018 at 1:26 pm
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          I love these examples. I always have this mental editing in my head when I’m reading the sports page and someone writes that “the Miami Heat won its (not their) game” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide is (not are) appearing in another championship game”. The British treatment is that even words we treat as singular are actually plural if they refer to a group of people (“Liverpool are excited about their next match”). I find it fascinating, but I’m a grammar nerd. Amy has provided great examples and explanations.

          Reply
  • February 16, 2018 at 1:01 pm
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    Pretty sure most people just toss together a passel of random words and punctuation and hope for the best.

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  • February 17, 2018 at 9:28 am
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    And I have the task of teaching small children all of these rules and how/when they don’t apply. And then hope that once they can read, they understand what they read. It’s a lot! ‍♀️

    Reply

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