The language of confusion

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?”


You can read more at and contact him a [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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  • Masha

    English teachers to indeed have a tough job, but mainly because of the inconsistencies of English spelling rather than the peculiarities of the English language. Learning to read and write English is exceptionally difficult, because the 44 English speech sounds are spelt with 205 letters and letter strings (or graphemes), 117 of which are unpredictable (speak – speech, shriek, seize, scene) and 69 have more than one pronunciation (on – only, once).
    (They are all listed on my blogs and website, for anyone who is interested in having a look at the humungous English rote-learning burden.)

    Learning to read and write Finnish used to be difficult, because it used to be spelt with a mishmash of other writing systems. In the 18th century Finland modernised its spelling system, because it wanted to give easy access to education to all children, not just the brightest. It now spell its 38 sounds with just 38 graphemes and learning to read and write Finnish is very easy. It has been at the top of international educational league tables ever since have been constructed.

  • Allan

    I agree with Masha that it is primarily the English spelling that causes the problems with English. We all need to recognize and accept that fact and then proceed to deal with it.
    Finland and Estonia both use a phonetic, single-sound-per-letter writing method and in those countries children learn to read in a month or two. Once they learn the sound of each letter, they know how to sound out words. And once they know how words are pronounced, they know how to write them.
    Why not use their excellent spelling methods as examples for fixing the English spelling? We use that process in science and engineering. Skype was invented in Estonia. Now Skype is used all over the world.
    The instructions for doing it exist already. Two books have been published on Simpel-Fonetik writing method and how to apply it to English. Please see the website for further information.

  • Masha

    I am not sure that after centuries of letting English spelling drift from bad to worse, it is feasible to make it as simple as Finnish or Estonian, but it could easily be made much better.

    One of the messiest areas of English spelling is short and long vowel marking. The basic idea of long open vowels (sale, hole) and closed short ones (sally, holler) is brilliant and simple, or would be if applied consistently. It isn’t, because hundreds of words don’t have double consonants after short vowels (calendar, colony), others have them needlessly (roller, stroller) and dozens have surplus –e endings (have, give, imagine). They make the spellings of over 1,000 words unpredictable (which is nearly a third of the 3,700 common words with unpredictable spellings). And they make learning to read harder than need be too (define – imagine, hero – heroine). Yet this particular mess could be very easily rectified. Just dropping the pointless –e from around 200 words would be a start.

    The pamphleteers of the English Civil War (1642-9) made quite a good start on it. Prior to that far more words were encumbered by redundant letters (e.g. olde fissche shoppe). They got rid of most of them, because they wanted to squeeze the maximum of propaganda onto a single page, but those that escaped their cull have nearly all survived. At no time since the early beginnings of modern English in the 14th century, which we know mainly from the writings of Chaucer, has there been a single concerted, co-ordinated attempt to change English spelling for the benefit of learners. Most have deliberately made it worse (frend – friend, erly – early, seson – season).

    In his famous dictionary of 1755 Sam Johnson declared,
    “Every language has its anomalies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things… being once incorporated, can never be afterward dismissed or reformed”.

    His view has prevailed unchallenged ever since, and children, parents and teachers all over the world continue to pay a heavy price for it.

    We don’t have to revolutionise English spelling to make learning to read and write English easier. Just doing what H W Fowler, the much consulted 20th century authority on English and English spelling recommended in 1922 would help enormously:
    ‘substitute for our present chaos … a phonetically consistent method that did not sacrifice the many merits of the old spelling’. …. here a little and there a little as absurdities become intolerable, till a result is attained that shall neither overburden schoolboys, nor stultify intelligence, nor outrage the scholar”.

    What we should not carry on doing is ignoring the inconsistencies of English spelling and the learning difficulties they cause.

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