English teachers have a tough job, mostly because teaching our native tongue is an exercise in herding cats. Like a bad middle school excuse, it seems there are exceptions to everything. We are a mutt language, an amalgam of so many others that we end up chasing our own tails when trying to figure out the rules. The more we encounter the inconsistencies that riddle our language, the number we become to the number of objects to which we object.
When teaching pluralization, we mostly multiply confusion. Instead of “a group of crows,” for example, we have “a murder of crows.” While this seems like needless red tape, some pluralizations make a lot of sense. Anyone who’s ever owned goldfish knows that calling a group of them “a troubling” is logical. So is a “business” of ferrets, a “tower” of giraffes, a “bloat” of hippopotami, a “cackle” of hyenas, a “prickle” of porcupines, a “wake” of buzzards, a “parliament” of owls, an “ostentation” of peacocks, an “unkindness” of ravens, an “intrusion” of cockroaches, a “kaleidoscope” of butterflies, and a “skulk” of foxes.
On the other hand, we can’t have a single pants, pliers, or scissors; we can make amends but not a single amend. If we rid ourselves of odds and ends, we can never leave just one. The plural of mouse is mice unless we’re talking about computers, which have mouses. Don’t get me started on ox and oxen.
The most confusing aspect of our language resides in its pronunciation. For instance, we can blame the French for the fact that common words in our everyday language like bourgeois, chassis, corps, faux pas, and rendezvous all have plural forms that are spelled the same way but pronounced differently. However, we have only ourselves to blame for sentences like the following in which similar spelling has nothing to do with similar pronunciation: I heard some gossip in your home when I heard about your beard. I wasn’t close enough to close the door, so I went to the ballet and the box office took a mallet to my wallet.
Even a strange combination of letters like “ough” can be pronounced in nine different ways, as in this sentence: “The ploughman from Edinborough with the rough cough hiccoughed through the slough with the dough he’d stolen without a thought.” (I apologize if I’ve offended any ploughmen from Edinborough in this example.)
Pity the poor non-native speaker who must navigate the minefield that is English.
There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. A house burns up as it burns down, quicksand slows us down, we park in driveways and drive on parkways, recite at a play and play at a recital. We have noses that run and feet that smell, we fill in forms by filling them out, and alarms go off by going on. A “slim chance” is the same as a “fat chance” and “quite a few” means the same as “quite a lot,” but a wise man and a wiseguy are opposites. Boxing rings are square, there are no synonyms for “synonym,” and there are five syllables in the word “monosyllabic.”
Clearly, we have the cruelest language of all when someone puts an “S” in the word “lisp” and the word “phonetic” isn’t spelled the way it sounds. Still, that’s a different topic altogether and I won’t subject you to that subject.
Sometimes the idiosyncrasies of our language provide the perfect platform to describe current events, such as the consequences of the looming fiscal cliff that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. After all, if “con” is the opposite of “pro,” what is the opposite of “Progress?”