The King’s English


Be forewarned: This blog contains possibly mind numbing discussion of English grammar.

English is a magnificent language with a proud history. It was the first language in the western world to develop a literary tradition. It is thought to have more words than any language on earth. It is the only subject in school you are required to study every year.

So why is it people have so much trouble with English? I hear it misused daily just about everywhere I turn. Native speakers of the language don’t seem to know the fundamentals, things like subject-verb agreement, pronoun case or even the difference between words like its and it’s, your and you’re, and there, their and they’re.

It’s easy to just say people are ignorant or lazy, and that might partly explain it, but I think there’s more to it than that. The truth is that English is a difficult language to speak correctly.

Don’t believe me? Think you have a pretty good knowledge of the language? Consider this direct quote from Wikipedia, elucidating pronoun case, specifically the nominative, subjective and objective cases:

“Generally, when the term subjective case is used, the term objective is used for the oblique case, which covers the roles of accusative, dative and objects of a preposition. The genitive case is then usually called the possessive form and often is not considered as a noun case per se; English is then said to have two cases, the subjective and the objective. This view is an oversimplification, but it is didactically useful.”

Huh? Useful for whom? Not me, and I actually try to speak good English.

Don’t despair, though, or question your intelligence. It’s just that English is more convoluted than a barrel of snakes. It’s not your fault. There’s a logical explanation.

It’s because England is on an island. That’s an oversimplification, but that’s at the heart of it. When you live on an island, you get invaded a lot, in this case by succeeding waves of Celts, Germanic tribes, Romans, Vikings, Scots, Normans and more recently Indians and Muslims. Each of those groups brings with them their own language and mixes in some new words and new ways to say things.

The result, English is a Heinz 57 language, a mongrel, a hodge-podge, a combined effort. While other languages have managed to remain relatively linguistically pure, English has been inbred with half the languages in Europe. So while the rules of a language like say French are fairly straightforward, English grammar is like trying to make rules for a game which combines chess, poker and hopscotch.

Everything from spelling to syntax is inconsistent, because the rules jump around every time you come to a word or phrase that came from another language. The attempt to even formulate a set of rules for English is dizzying, given that you’re trying to make one size fit all.

That’s why English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. That’s why people who have been speaking the language since birth don’t understand it completely.

Being a bastard language leads to problems, springing from some awkward design features that invite people to misuse English. Here’s one example. If you look at one of the most common verbs in English, to be, there are contractions for is not and are not, and they are widely used. But there’s no contraction for am not. There just ain’t. Or, more to the point, there is ain’t, which is an attempt to fill in a gap in the language. Why isn’t there a contraction for am not? There should be one. Am’nt. Did the founding fathers of the language have a little too much to drink when making up the contractions? Isn’t this an obvious oversight? What the hell, language creators. Couldn’t you foresee we’d need a contraction for am not?

Here’s another one, which is causing people to have subject-verb problems out the wazoo. There’s a contraction for there is, but not for there are. So what are people doing? Since no contraction was provided, they now just use there’s for every situation. Having to say “there are” is just too much work. That extra syllable is exhausting. So now, there’s more and more “there’s” and hardly any “there ares.” But can you blame folks? Shouldn’t somebody back in antiquity, when all these rules were cast in stone, have created a contraction for there are? Couldn’t they have figured that one out? It’s not right that there’s a contraction for one and not for the other. It’s more than we can bear. We’d rather misuse the language than live with this design flaw.

And then there’s pronunciation. Imagine you’re trying to learn to speak English. You notice there are lots of words that end with –ough. It would only make sense to assume that –ough makes the same sound in all of them, and that they would rhyme, like rough and tough. After all, isn’t written language supposed to be representative of phonetics? But the other words ending in –ough vary in pronunciation, like cough, dough, bough, and through. The letters are the same. The sound isn’t. It’s perverse.

Don’t even get me started on spelling. The spelling of English words was apparently decided by the ancestors of Bret Favre. Spelling includes totally ridiculous ideas like silent letters, and a letter like Q that require a helper to function. The spelling of some words, like Wednesday, colonel, and island bear no resemblance to the way they are said. You’re asked to just accept the weird spelling with no explanation. Your burden to bear.

One of the reasons all this craziness exists is that there is no mechanism to reform English. The language is sacred, immutable, untouchable. Just about everything else changes– fashion, laws, scientific theory, lifestyles  –all are subject to change. But not grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.

It wasn’t always this way. Before dictionaries standardized the spelling of English words, there were variant spellings. Take the work ask. In the rural South of early America, an acceptable variant was aks, which is why African-Americans whose ancestors came from the South still say, “I aks him a question.”

The truth is that we’re stuck with the weirdness of our language. Learning the ins and outs of English is a lifetime study. It refuses to conform to any sensible organizational standard. It has more exceptions than a wealthy person’s tax filing. The rules make enigmas look simple. English teachers protect it like it’s Fort Knox.

It’s one of the last things we hold on to as a society as a hallmark of our past. The Anglo-Saxon words which form much of the core of the language– words like bed, dad, fart and stone –the simple words in daily use, have been passed down from one generation to the next, an inheritance from our forebears. English could be described as a monolith, a monument, a dowry, a sacred cow, a common connection to both our past and future. We’re both lucky to have it, and unlucky to have to put up with it.


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