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The Wonderfully Awful English Language

by Jim Slaughter

…and how does anyone ever learn to speak, read, or write it?

If you can honestly say that you speak English fluently, you must be a genius and this piece is probably not for you. If, however, you have ever felt stupid or inadequate reading or speaking in front of a group of people, you're in good company, and I invite you to read on.

One of the main reasons that native, as well as non-native, speakers have such a difficult time learning our lovely language is because it's not good at all at following rules. And this especially applies to pronunciation. English grammar is a whole other can of worms. In this little treatise, I have put together some of the problem areas I encountered when I was teaching high school English in Texas and California and ESL (English as Second Language) at the community college here in Springfield, MO. I wonder how many of you, dear readers, will be tripped up:

  1. The nurse wound the bandage around the wound.
  2. The farmer wanted to produce produce.
  3. The dump was so full it had to refuse any more refuse.
  4. The maid had to polish the Polish furniture.
  5. He'll have to get the lead out if he wants to lead.
  6. The soldier was undecided if he should desert his dessert in the desert.
  7. There is no time like the present to present your present.
  8. He painted a bass on his bass drum.
  9. As the hunter shot, the dove dove into the bushes.
  10. He did not object to the object.
  11. The adjustor said the insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  12. College oarsmen sometimes have a row about how to row.
  13. She was too close to the door to close it.
  14. A buck does strange things when the does are around.
  15. The sewer dropped her thread into the sewer line.
  16. The boy thought it would be fun to teach his pet sow to sow.
  17. The wind was so strong we couldn't wind the sail.
  18. After a number of injections, his jaw got number.
  19. The woman shed a tear when she discovered a tear in her favorite blouse.
  20. We must subject the subject to more tests.

And here are some other interesting conundrums that were challenging to explain:

  1. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
  2. English muffins did not originate in England, and French fries are not French.
  3. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread.
  4. Quicksand works rather slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is not from Guinea and is not even a pig.
  5. If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth?
  6. It is peculiar, is it not, that one can make amends in the aggregate but not make one amend by itself?
  7. If you have a number of odds and ends and lose one of them, which is missing, an odd or an end?
  8. If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
  9. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  10. In what other languages do people recite at a play and play at a recital, ship by truck and send cargo by ship, have noses that run and feet that smell?
  11. How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, yet a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
  12. It is indeed a tribute to the unique lunacy of a language in which a house can burn up as it burns down, you fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm goes off by going on.

The list goes on and on, but we must appreciate, all of us devoted lovers of English, that our beloved tongue was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects in all its glory the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. And that, in conclusion, is why when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible.

And one last quick question I never could answer to anyone's satisfaction: Why doesn't Buick rhyme with quick?

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