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Copyright © Dorian Scott Cole, 1998

English is confusing even as a first language!

I used to be really interested in the etymology of words and had access to a great dictionary that gave the history of the word.  Most English words actually came (come? have come?) from elsewhere: Greek, Latin, German, French, and a host of other languages. Looking up the etymology worked well for me because I was terrible at learning other languages. So we have inherited 500 different ways to construct language and to be perfectly correct we must know every one of them. Right?

In elementary school I spent days conjugating verbs. I became so good at conjugating, I hardly had to pay attention. One day as we went around the class doing a very simple conjugation. Sing: sing, sang, sung. The person ahead of me did ring: ring, rang, rung. My turn. Bring. Bring, brang, brung. I burned while the entire class laughed at me. 

I learned ancient Greek. They had cases we don't even know about. The Imperfect tense (past) involves both a prefix and a suffix on the verb. While Durative is a repetitive past action (one that continued), Imperfect means it may not have been completed. For example, in the Biblical phrase, "In the beginning was the Word...," the word was doesn't refer to a moment in the past, but to an indeterminate period of time. The average ancient Greek kid took until age twenty to learn all of the language. Verb conjugation was durative and imperfect. 

All of this is very important, right? Well, when I tried to put "will have done" in a tutorial, the editor threw it out. In fact, when I put "The program will automatically catch the error..." the editor advised: "The program automatically catches..." Hmmm. I became so learned in elementary school that I nearly learned myself out of the writing profession. Verb conjugation? Skip it - it can be hazardous to your career. 

We make endless rules for English, then post exceptions, then exceptions to the exceptions, like the fine print in a legal document. "I before e, except after c; except in weird, which is... weird." 

Ie. Internet Explorer? Latin: that is (i.e.)? Letter pairs? Maybe Wittgenstein can clarify. But how do you pronounce Wittgenstein. I look at German words and names with ei and ie in them and have no idea how to pronounce them. Is stein pronounced stine or steen? English has me so confused I could never speak German. The French have caught on and have legislated against importing the English language with its corrupting influence. Purity. We need a language summit. 

We create grammatical rules apparently just so we can break them. For example, teachers teach, and past tense is taught. But preachers have preached. Why then haven't preachers praught?  Well, some of them do "prate" (Old English, I think), which is to talk idly and at length. But then, all of us "prattle" a lot. Why not just ask the language gods to change past tense endings to "ed?" Teached?

Well, even that would get us in trouble. Ed doesn't always mean past tense. For example, you can be left-handed, right-handed, redhanded, righted, and yellow-bellied, but just try being red-headed.  If you are red-headed, the dictionary doesn't admit that you even exist.  Go tell that to a red-headed woodpecker. (But don't ever tell a red-head she is wrong. In fact, I'm probably in trouble already;)

Someone on the Internet reported James Kilpatrick said in a speech to them, "Why do we write? There is one purpose only: to communicate an idea ... clearly and understandably." Yep.

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