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The English Language Is Crazy!

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Have you ever studied a foreign language? If so, you have probably encountered enough vocabulary items or idiomatic expressions to know that there are things about a language that are inexplicable to speakers of other languages. If you are an English speaker who hasn't studied another language, then imagine trying to explain some English expressions to foreigners learning English. For instance, if you were to tell someone, "keep your nose to the grindstone," how would you explain that you mean that you want the person to keep working hard, and not to do an activity that would be not only stupid and unnatural, but also extremely painful and messy?

Being a French professor, former German professor, and having studied a little Spanish and Chinese, I have done my share of trying to understand some basic idiomatic expressions for myself and of trying to get others to understand them. As hard as it is sometimes to get my French students to accept and use certain idioms in French, I must say that the two summers my wife and I taught English in China were far more difficult. The differences between our cultures and our languages are so great that the gap is hard enough to bridge already. But then compounding that with the hundreds of inexplicable things in the English language makes the task all the more daunting!

Below is something I've pieced together, using various things in my files. You English speakers (anglophones) out there need to read the following with an eye towards being the one who has to explain all this to non-anglophones.

The English Language Is Crazy!

If we English speakers thought about it, we would have to admit that English is a crazy language. The reasons for that statement are almost endless. There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. A mushroom is not a room where we eat mush. English muffins weren't invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We simply take English for granted. Yet if we explored its paradoxes, we would find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese? No. Just as we can have one mouse, two mice and one louse, two lice, but not one house, two hice. Crazy!

Doesn't it seem odd that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If a teacher has taught, has a preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue? And try to explain verbs like sing, sang, sung, ring, rang, rung, but not bring, brang, brung. Or better yet sink, sank, sunk, drink, drank, drunk, but not think, thank, thunk?!

Should English speakers all be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane? In what other language 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? Park on driveways and drive on parkways? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike?

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Have you ever met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly, or peccable? And where are all those people who *are* spring chickens or who would *actually* hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on. And when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up a speech, I end it.

And then English teachers seek to enforce and reinforce all these things! They tell us not to use a double negative in English because a double negative forms a positive. If an English teacher told me there is no language where a double positive can form a negative, my reply would be "Yeah, right!"

In some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. In fact in French, you can have more than two negatives, and it's still just fine. "Personne ne fait jamais rien pour moi" is a perfectly acceptable sentence in French, but an English teacher would insist that the literal translation "No one never does nothing for me" would be better rendered "No one ever does anything for me." I somehow prefer the French on this one since the correction just sounds too positive.

So, do you agree with me that English is a crazy language?


Our German house guests, Uwe and Diana, arrived last evening, and so far we are having a great time together. Diana speaks some English, but Uwe's English is stronger. I can say far more in German than I thought I could, but we've already talked about all kinds of things where my German vocab was either weak or non-existent. Trying to get our ideas across to each other has been challenging, but fun also. I'll give an update in a blog post next week.

I mentioned above that French fries weren't invented in France. Some people almost go into a panic when they hear that, but fries were invented in Belgium. The French don't mind that we call them French fries, even though the French tell Belgian jokes in the same way that Americans tell Polack jokes. In fact, in France I've told many Polack jokes, substituting "Belge" for "Polonais," and the jokes fly! Several years ago one of my cousins from France sent me the following funny picture of a bloody battle in Belgium.

War in Belgium (la Guerre en Belgique)...

picture of French fries in a bloody battle

(Click on the image for a larger version of it. In case you still can't tell what it is, it's fries with ketchup on some of them.)

I would love to hear some of your thoughts on our crazy English language and/or your funny mistakes in grappling with idiomatic expressions in another language. I've made my share of mistakes through the years!


"God's plan in our trials is not to make us more self-sufficient. It's to make us more dependent on Him." - Alan Benson

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21 Comments on “The English Language Is Crazy!”

  1. #1 Donna
    on May 7th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Foreign Student A, after final exam, “I am so tired!”

    Teacher, “You haven’t been up with a baby yet, have you?” (His wife is expecting any time now.)

    Student looks puzzled. Teacher tries again, “Your wife is not in labor, is she?”

    Student still looks puzzled. Foreign Student B, trying to be helpful, “clarifies,” “Your wife is working, yes?” Which was the exact opposite of the “labor” that I had in mind! English IS a goofy language.

    (Of course, I think I have commented before that the goofiest of all to me is that ravel and unravel mean the same thing.)

  2. #2 Tony
    on May 7th, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    A German professor once told our class about a German exchange student who went on her first date with an American boy. When he brought her back home, she said to him “You may come inside, but you must not.” He gave her a puzzled look and then left. The poor girl had no idea what she had done wrong!

  3. #3 Vikki
    on May 7th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Ya gotta love the English language – it can be very amusing! I especially love to be around someone who hasn’t spoken it for very long. The quizzical looks you get when you try to explain some of the idioms to them, like the difference between “pretty bad” and “awfully good”. It makes no sense that they should be opposite of each other.

    And homonyms? There, their and they’re. To, too, two. So, sew, sow. Hear, here. Or our spelling rules – i after e, except after c except for the words receive, ceiling, thief, friend … And try to explain how to pronounce “oo” – is it look, blood or coop.

    All I can say is I’m thankful I was born in an English speaking county!!

  4. #4 Jonathan
    on May 7th, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    My wife was pondering that since she was no longer in the lime light that she must be in the sublime light.

  5. #5 Rob
    on May 7th, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    @Donna – That’s funny. Your conversation sounds as if it was labor intensive! It reminds me a little of Labor Day – a day when many people don’t have to work.

    @Tony – Did she mean to say, “…but you don’t have to”?

    @Vikki – I like the expression “pretty ugly” myself. And ah yes, homonyms! I think most language must have those. Now the i before e spelling rule was simplified wonderfully for us by my fifth grade spelling teacher. She told us to remember the word “lice” – the spellings in words would be li and ce … believe, relieve, etc. and perceive, conceive, etc. I think the first two exceptions in your exception clause in your comment (receive and ceiling) actually follow the rule, rather than being exceptions. I personally have fits with seize and siege. Another one I have make myself spell correctly is gauge – I think of gauze and think that gauge cannot be spelled right with the au.

  6. #6 Rob
    on May 7th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    @Jonathan – Your comment came in while I was replying to the other comments. So I guess you were also in the sublime light? Great pun from your wife, by the way!

  7. #7 Carrie
    on May 8th, 2009 at 2:03 am

    My first grader often groans when learning his spelling. We’ll be going over a word family, and he brightly announces another word that belongs in that family since it rhymes. When I inform him that it’s actually spelled differently, he sighs and says, “Why did they do that?!”

    Carrie’s last blog post..Why Do Ants Have Antennae?

  8. #8 Rob
    on May 8th, 2009 at 6:00 am

    @Carrie – Poor Samuel! I share his pain.

  9. #9 Vikki
    on May 8th, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Rob, you passed the test! I was wondering if you would catch them . . . Ah, proofing your work after hitting the “submit” button is never a good thing.

  10. #10 Rob
    on May 8th, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    @Vikki – Thanks, but don’t congratulate me too quickly. A reader wrote to let me know that Polack has only one “l” instead of the two I’d put in it. My problem is that I know a family whose last name is Pollack (pronounced pah-luck). I guess that’s what this post is all about….

  11. #11 David McGuire
    on May 9th, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Some observations:

    (1) I remember a Bible translator who spoke at Pillsbury many years ago. He gave us several examples of humorous idioms that were difficult to translate. One of the funniest examples was, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” I then remembered the “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson. It showed a lady running into her house hysterically screaming that “it was raining grand pianos outside.”

    (2) And the problem with homonyms is that you can say something like, “There are three (to’s, too’s, two’s) in the English language.” But how do you write such a sentence?

    (3) And you did hear the one about the college freshman who was having a bit of a problem with his freshman English class—he became so frustrated with the grammar, spelling, and syntax that he complained to his academic advisor that somehow English had become a foreign language requirement!

    David McGuire’s last blog post..Transition

  12. #12 Rob
    on May 9th, 2009 at 6:38 am

    @David – Ah yes, Gary Larson’s “Far Side”! Occasionally the humor is so far on the far side that it is lost on me, but most of the time I just howl at what his mind has put together. And idiomatic expressions were great fodder for his humor. I have a post I plan to do shortly as a follow up to this one on English homonyms. One of the sentences in it has the dreaded to-too-two combination, along with two uses of another English word (close), each use having its own pronunciation and each being a different part of speech — “The two of us were too close to the door to close it.” I joke with my French students sometimes that I know that for some of them English is a foreign language … only that’s not always a joke since we have quite a few foreign students at BJ. 🙂

  13. #13 b.j.
    on May 11th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    To help Vikki, (unless it was a mistake): the saying goes “i BEFORE e (not after) except after c, or in sounding as AY, as in neighbor and weigh”

    Hope this helps!

  14. #14 Rob
    on May 11th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    @b.j. – Thanks for the clarification. When I read what you posted, I remembered having learned it that way too.

  15. #15 Vikki
    on May 12th, 2009 at 8:15 am

    B.J., you pass the test too. I’ve quoted that a million times and I KNOW that it’s “before”. I had to go back a reread my post. AUGHHHHHH!!!! Why I put “after” is beyond me. Last Thursday wasn’t a good day for me – I should have stayed in bed. I could make a nice loooooong list. Oh, well, thanx for catching it and setting the record straight.

  16. #16 Sarah
    on May 12th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I teach music in Puerto Rico, where we also have a college with students from all over the world. I was outside one night talking with some girls from the Dominican Republic, when one of them told me, “Look at the moonshine-isn’t it beautiful?” I had a hard time explaining why when the sun is shining it’s sunshine, but when the moon is shining it’s moonlight.

  17. #17 Tony
    on May 12th, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Rob, you are correct about my earlier comment. In English, “must” always implies coercion of some kind, whether it is positively or negatively expressed, but this is not true in German (not sure about other languages). So:

    In both English and German, “you must” (“du mußt”) means “you are required to”;
    In English, “you must not” means “you are required not to”;
    In German, “du mußt nicht” means “you are not required to”.

  18. #18 Rob
    on May 13th, 2009 at 8:57 am

    @Sarah – I had to laugh at your comment. We’re currently working on the song “Fairest Lord Jesus” in choir at church. I have to make myself sing the right words at one point – “Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight.” From you comment, you can guess what I want to sing at that point. :-/

    @Tony – Thanks for the confirmation. It seems that the verb of obligation is a problem in many (if not all) of the Indo-European languages. My students have absolute fits with the meanings of the verb devoir which depend entirely on the verb tense. In the present “je dois” can mean “I must” or “I am to.” In the conditional “je devrais” means “I should.” In the compound past “j’ai dû” can mean two widely divergent things – “I had to” or “I must have” (as if questioning it afterwards). Fascinating stuff, huh?!

  19. #19 Donna
    on May 13th, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I thought of one more when I was talking to my son – he used to come in talking about his shirt or pants and call it a “clo” (if plural is “clothes,” then the singular must be a “clo”) Kids have such a logical approach to language!

  20. #20 Sarah
    on May 20th, 2009 at 7:56 am

    I remembered another one the other night in church, when they announced a church fellowship and asked us to bring finger foods. I remember a couple of years ago the same announcement was made, and a friend had a really weird look on her face thinking we were going to be eating fingers.

  21. #21 Rob
    on May 20th, 2009 at 8:07 am

    @Sarah – That’s funny. Just the other day I ran across a picture online that I need to add to a blog post in the future. In the meantime, I’ll put it here. It’s a picture of a hot new food item in Germany – Obama Fingers!

    picture of Obama Fingers