10 Crazy things about the English Language
While procrastinating the other day I came across a brilliant Guardian article about immigration, cultural assimilation, and learning English. It began by challenging the classic adage: “If you come to this country, you have to learn English”, a sentiment echoed throughout generations and across borders of various English speaking countries, generally to the sound of murmured approval. And in doing so it raised a number of important questions about the practicalities of thoroughly, or at least functionally, learning the language.
English is widely regarded as being quite an easy language to learn, and it is in many ways. Its grammar system is very simple – almost every verb has only three forms; four if you count adding an “s” to the end of third persons (“he”, “she”, “it”) and it doesn’t assign gender or demand word agreement. It’s also universal, the lingua franca, the go-to language should people from France, Mexico, China, and Italy, for example, come together and have to find a common tongue.
Difficult to learn? Probably not, especially given the amount of resources (literature, music, film etc.) out there. Difficult to master? Absolutely. Precisely because of the depth and breadth of the English language, it’s a limitless void or cultural and national differences articulated through a bastard mix of Germanic, Anglo-Frisian, French, and Latin amongst others. And it’s also a language many of us speak but with which most of us are surprisingly unfamiliar.
I don’t think I’m overgeneralizing when I say that, for most of us, we don’t learn about our own language until we start learning another. For me, it was learning Italian that opened my eyes to the ridiculousness of English, and it was while subsequently training for a language teaching qualification that my knowledge of its madness became solidified. Here are 10 examples of English at its most barmy and brilliant.
10It has no future.
Something that makes our language quite unique is that we don’t have a future tense, only a present and a past. This needs a bit of clarification. To be defined as a tense, the ending of the verb has to change. So if, as an example, we take the verb ‘play’, we can talk about the present (I play football every week) or the past (I played football when I was younger). To talk about the future, however, we need to add an auxiliary verb: I will play / I’m going to play / I shall play.
The problem is, each of these auxiliaries express slightly different meaning. And whereas we’re used to using them correctly, people learning the language often get caught out. Most English learners believe that using “will” works perfectly well when talking about the future. But this isn’t the case. If we’re talking about intentions we use the form “going to” followed by the infinitive form of the verb. So instead of saying: “This summer I will visit my friend in Spain” you’d say “this summer I’m going to visit my friend in Spain.” That is unless you’ve already booked the tickets and made the arrangement, in which case you’d use the present continuous and say “This summer I’m visiting my friend in Spain”.
Likewise, you wouldn’t say to a friend: “what will you do tonight. You’d ask: “what are you doing tonight.” Again, it’s a present tense we’re using to talk about the future. And the reason for this is that we’re subconsciously assuming that they’ve made an arrangement involving other people. We actually only use ‘will’ to talk about future predictions (I think 2017 will be a turbulent year) and when we make future decisions at the present moment – for example when you hear the phone ring and say “I’ll get it!” Want to check? Ring your own house phone if you live with someone else and listen out for the response.
9You can’t always count on it.
When we produce English, we subconsciously differentiate between nouns, or objects, that we can count and nouns that we can’t. These are called countable and uncountable nouns. If we can count it, it can have a plural form; so there’s “house” – “houses”; “car” – “cars”. If we can’t count it, it’s always singular: so ‘water’ but not ‘waters’, ‘news’ but not ‘newses’ (instead, you’d have ‘items of news’, because we consider items something you can count).
Then we have modifiers that describe the quantity of a noun; words like “much”, “many”, “some”, and “any”. We use these words hundreds of times a day, but every time we do so we have to make them agree with either a countable or uncountable object. For native speakers this comes naturally. For people who don’t have English as their native language it’s very, very difficult. And this isn’t just a matter of agreement; in some languages, things we consider countable are uncountable (like news, for example) and vice-versa.
To illustrate, let’s assume you’re at a dinner party and someone offers to refill your glass of wine. You accept on the basis that you don’t have much wine left in your glass. You wouldn’t say that you don’t have many wine left in your glass because wine, as a liquid form, is uncountable. However, a few hours later at this party the host has to make a run to the shops because he’s realized he doesn’t have many bottles of wine left. You wouldn’t say he doesn’t have much bottles of wine left because a bottle, as an object, is countable. As has been drilled into us from infancy by that song.
8Our order of adjectives is one big ridiculous age-old mess.
When we use two or more adjectives to describe a noun, we must put them in a specific and rather rigid order. It’s called the Royal Order of Adjectives, and nobody knows a) what on earth makes it royal and b) where on earth this rule comes from. But it’s here to stay and, again, we should be grateful that we do this instinctively and haven’t had to sit down and study this frankly absurd rule for hours upon hours. So here’s the order:
Determiner – Observation or Opinion – Size – Shape – Age – Color – Origin – Material – Qualifier
Cast your mind back to Tarantino’s classic “Pulp Fiction” and you might remember the scene where Christopher Walken’s character hands the young Butch a beautiful small circular early 20th century bronze Tennessean wrist watch that had been passed down through his family since his great grandfather, and stored most recently up Walken’s ass during his internment in a Japanese POW camp. The scene would have played out somewhat differently had Walken’s character instead waxed lyrical about a bronze circular Tennessean early 20th century small wrist beautiful watch. He’d have sounded a little deranged in fact (or at least more deranged than he sounded already during that scene).
But then again, pairing so many adjectives to a noun makes you sound pretty deranged anyway. As a rule of thumb in English, we tend not to use more than three adjectives otherwise it becomes rather arrhythmic. A crazy arrhythmic formless modern spoken English, you could say.
7We have to put up with phrasal verbs.
Phrasal verbs are verbs combined with particles (often directional words like ‘up’, ‘down’ ‘towards’ or ‘through’). And they’re a nightmare for English learners firstly because they completely change meaning with each particle and secondly because we have so many of them. Let’s take the verb “break” for example. Easy right? You break a leg, you break your phone, you break a promise. No. To help illustrate the fact, here’s the unfortunate tale of Johnny Robber.
Johnny Robber was a very unlucky man. After breaking up with his girlfriend (it was her that broke it off), he broke away from society, broke into a bank, and ended up in prison. It was here where he had a breakdown. After some months, Johnny decided to break out. At first he had no idea how to do this, but then he had a breakthrough. Taking inspiration from “Breaking Bad”, he broke into the role of the prison’s most dangerous prisoner, eventually persuading his inmates to help break him out.
Johnny Robber just couldn’t help himself though. On his way back home, he broke into the first shop he came across, breaking through the shop door. But again, luck wasn’t on Johnny’s side. Realizing he’d broken into a pet shop, he broke out in spots, at which point the alarm went off. Making a break for it, Johnny hotwired a car outside. But unfortunately the car broke down. So, well and truly a broken man, Johnny Robber returned to prison.
6We have a tense that’s neither past nor present yet claims to be “perfect”.
If someone asked you to explain the difference between “I went to Paris” and “I’ve been to Paris”, what would you say? If you’re anything like me during the interview for my first ESL teaching job, you’d stumble for a while, fluff your words, and ultimately give an answer that would fail even to convince a dim but curious eight year-old.
The difference is that the first tense is what we call “past simple” and the second is what we call “present perfect.” – formed by adding the auxiliary “have” followed by the participle. The past simple tense is friendly. We use it to describe completed past events, and it often comes with a specific time referenced in the sentence. For example “I went to Paris in 2014 and ate my body weight in baguettes and cheese.”
The present perfect, on the other hand, is far from friendly. And far from perfect. Not quite a past tense and not quite a present tense, it’s used for a variety of situations. The first is when we talk about a past event for which the time it took place is unimportant. For example, “Yes I’ve been to Paris before, what a fantastic city!” In this sentence when exactly I went to Paris is unimportant, what’s important it’s a city I’ve visited. Therefore, present perfect.
But it’s also used to describe events that happened in the past and continue now. And this is where it gets confusing. To read this article, you’ve turned on the computer (present perfect). And the fact that the computer is still on justifies this tense. BUT if we wanted to make a sequential order, we’d instead use the past simple: before reading this article, you made a coffee, turned on the computer and opened up this page. Confused? You’ve seen nothing yet.
5Even our simple tenses are far from simple.
In general, we use the present simple to talk about routines and things we do regularly: “Every weekday I wake up at 7:00 a.m. and wish to myself it were instead Saturday.” We also use it to sequentially layer a series of events: “Before I leave the house in the morning, I brush my teeth, shower, have breakfast, and wish to myself it were instead Saturday.”
We use the present continuous (formed with the verb “be” followed by another verb ending in “-ing”) to talk about things we are doing right now: “At the moment you’re reading a list article about the English language” and to describe several actions happening at the same time “You’re reading a list article while your friend’s desperately trying to get you to look at memes on Facebook.” Well done for resisting; kudos for your perseverance.
But, as always, there are exceptions. If we’re talking about a habit someone has that annoys us, even if it is regular and routine, we’d use the present continuous to emphasize our irritation: “She’s always checking her Instagram over dinner! / He’s always leaving the toilet seat up!” And then, when we’re feeling particularly mean, we use the present simple to talk about the future. You wouldn’t say, for example: “tomorrow my train will leave at 4:30 p.m.” You’d say: “tomorrow my trains leaves at 4:30 p.m.” This is because the train is running on a schedule. And for schedules in English we use the simple present tense. Simple hey!
4The idioms are just the icing on the cake.
Every language has its own corpus of idiomatic expressions: expressions in which the meaning wouldn’t be deducible from the individual words, but which as a whole convey a particular intelligible idea. In English – perhaps owing to the depth of its vocabulary – there are between 10 and 14 thousand of these. Here to provide a narrative example of idiomatic English in use is Johnny Robber’s distant cousin, Johnny Foreigner (I know, I could have chosen a more imaginative name).
Johnny hasn’t been learning English for long and finds the language difficult. He sees no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of his progress, and, adding insult to injury, has bitten off more than he can chew by accepting a job in sales. He said yes to the job in the heat of the moment, but also at the drop of a hat as he was finding work hard to come by. There are no cutting corners in Johnny’s new job though: with a difficult boss and demanding customers, he’s constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place. No wonder he feels out of his depth.
But every cloud has a silver lining. Fortunately, when not at work Johnny’s also a bit of a couch potato and is on the ball when it comes to picking up the language by watching TV. In fact he finds this way of learning English a piece of cake. Eventually he wants to work as a professional translator, but, without wanting to beat around the bush, he hasn’t acquired enough of the language yet. He’ll have to cross that bridge when he comes to it. So, as all his friends keep telling him, until he’s mastered the language he shouldn’t give up the day job.
3Some of our verbs are an absolute state.
There are many English verbs that we almost always use in a simple rather than a continuous form. They relate to:
State (“be”, “fit”, “mean”);
Possession (“have”, “own”);
Sense (“taste”, “feel”, “smell”);
Feeling (“love”, “hate”, “prefer”, “enjoy”);
Cognition (“believe”, “understand”, “think”)
Let’s tease this out with an example. You’d say “this chocolate tastes fantastic” because you’re describing the sensory quality of the chocolate. You wouldn’t say: “this chocolate is tasting fantastic” as it would sound plain wrong. However, you would say: “the chocolatier is tasting the chocolate to make sure it’s up to scratch” because you’re describing an action rather than a state.
A mother tongue English-speaker would say: “I don’t understand the complexity of English grammar” not “I’m not understanding the complexity of English grammar”, because they’re talking about cognitive ability. Likewise, they’d say: “I have dark hair” not “I’m having dark hair” because we’re talking about possession (hair, by the way, is considered uncountable in English; an Italian, on the other hand, would say the plural: ho i capelli castani – “I have dark hairs”).
We would, however, say: “I’m having a shower” because – you guessed it – we’re talking about an action. And in case you’re thinking, yes: McDonalds’ “I’m loving it” is 100 percent grammatically wrong. Not that I imagine they lose too much sleep over that…
But our verbs are in a complete state in another way too: their irregularity. English verbs have three forms: infinitive (“play”), past simple (“played”), and past participle (“played”). Some, like “play”, are regular – you just add a “-d” or an “-ed” to the end. Others, like “eat”, are irregular but just need some getting used to, like “eat”, “ate”, “eaten”. And then there’s “read”. “Read”, “read”, “read”; spelt the same but pronounced differently. Cruel hey? Oh yes.
2We have to make do with “do”.
Every language has its auxiliary verb of choice. In Italian it’s either essere (“be”) or avere (“have”). In English, although we also use these too, the award has to go to the verb “do”.
We use “do” to make questions; the most common of which when you first meet someone (“what do you do?”) sounds fantastically Teutonic when you think about it. We also commonly use it before the main verb to make negatives: “I don’t understand where the use of ‘do’ comes from, but I do like how it sounds.”
We also use “do” to talk about things that we… well, do – often in terms of actions, obligations and repetitive tasks. You do your job, for example, you do the washing up, or you do your hair before going out. But we also use “make”, and the difference between the two is so subtle that it’s a constant stumbling block for English-language learners.
Put simply, we use “make” when we talk about constructing, building, or creating something. If you like, it’s the result of the action that we do: “I did some DIY around the house: I made some repairs to the bathroom” or “I was doing my math homework when I realized I’d made several mistakes.” And then there are those instances where you can use both but with different meanings: to make good a bad situation, for example, but to do good within society. Anyway, that’ll have to make do for now as we turn to the big baddie – the final boss – of the English language: pronunciation.
Ask any student of English the thing they find most difficult, and chances are they’ll say it’s the pronunciation. Some languages are phonetic, meaning that the way in which they’re written corresponds closely to the way in which they’re pronounced. In Italian, when you see “ch”, you know it’s going to be pronounced as a hard “c”, while when you see “c” followed by “i” or “e” you know it’s going to be pronounced like the English “ch”. Counterintuitive, I know, but at least it’s a stable rule. Unfortunately there’s nothing stable about English.
In 1922, the Dutch writer and linguist Gerard Nolst Trenité published what was arguably his magnum opus: “The Chaos”. Here’s a short excerpt:
Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
English seems to thrive on its repository of unpronounceable vocabulary. The standard advice given to learners is to check their pronunciation by talking to, or checking with, a mother tongue English speaker. But I, like many others I’d imagine, hold my hands up to sometimes coming across a new word and feeling at sea when it comes to its pronunciation. But you can give it a try yourself. Have a go at reading the sentence below which contains eight different ways of pronouncing the sound “ough” and then listen here to see whether you’ve nailed it:
A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.
The English language has evolved, and indeed simplified, over thousands of years to become the beautiful mess that it is today. It’s a global language, with as many as two billion speakers – making it the third most spoken language on the planet after Mandarin and Spanish. And it’s undoubtedly beautiful: whether in its archaic Chaucerian or Shakespearean incarnations or in the slang-filled spoken English that fills the streets of countries across the world.
It’s also a fiendishly difficult language in its own way, its very richness being to a large extent its downfall. Whether in terms of its formless future, its phrasal verbs, its infinite list of idioms or its painfully problematic pronunciation, it’s a tough customer among the multitude of languages spoken across the planet.
But it is our language, and hopefully this has gone some way in highlighting some of its weird and wonderful idiosyncrasies. Continue to learn, continue to read, and continue to use it well in whatever manner you choose. And when you’re speaking to someone for whom English isn’t their native tongue, think about the difficulties inherent in learning a language and always remember to be patient. It is, after all, a virtue