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English: is it really that hard?

September 7, 2011

English speakers don’t know how easy they have it.

Have you ever tried to decline a Latin noun, or conjugate a French verb? Well I have, and it’s tricky. You need to know a bunch of different endings. You need the right gender for each word. Adjectives need to agree with the gender of nouns. Oh, and in Latin, you need to know which words are subjects and objects and whether they’re direct or indirect.

When you put it this way, English sounds pretty easy right? Yes, I thought so (barring all those pesky irregular verbs). So why does everyone get it so damn wrong?

I’m in France at the moment, trying out my dodgy French language skills on the unsuspecting locals. It’s a hard gig, especially since my French is rather rusty. (I did some calculations and discovered, to my dismay, that it’s more than 12 years since I packed up my French textbooks. Yes, I am very old).

Anyway, I reckon English is pretty easy. Obviously, it’s my first language, but even then: it doesn’t have tricky tones like Chinese; it doesn’t have genders for nouns;  it doesn’t have complex characters like Japanese. So why does everyone screw it up so often?

Here are some basic mistakes I see over and over:

  • Using ‘then’ to compare (instead of ‘than’) – ‘I like this better then that’ – are you serious? I am in a constant state of shock that educated adults do this. Don’t believe me? Check out Facebook any day of the week.
  • Apostrophes are for possessives, not plurals – I even have signs around my office saying this, and people still get it wrong. ‘I like to go out on Saturdays‘; ‘That will affect all members‘, ‘Australians love a good barbecue’ – NONE of these  need an apostrophe – yet they’re often randomly assigned one.
  • The only possessive that doesn’t need an apostrophe is ‘its’ – ok, I admit this is a quirk of English. I recently explained this to a guy with a university degree, and he was gobsmacked. Yep, when you say, ‘The dog ate its dinner’, or ‘The car had its tyre changed’, you don’t need an apostrophe. It’s counterintuitive, but who cares? It’s the rule – suck it up.
  • Using commas where you need something else. It’s hard to explain where you should use a comma, ‘and’, a semi-colon or a full-stop,  without getting all technical about clauses and phrases. So, I’ll sum it up like this: a comma is a power nap, a semi-colon is a siesta and a full-stop is a good night’s sleep. If you read your sentence aloud, how long is the pause?
  • The past tense of ‘to lead’ is ‘led’. It’s not ‘lead’ – that’s a metal. It’s not that hard people: Napoleon led an army, his bullets were made of lead. Got it? Ok, now go tell all the editors who constantly miss this one.
Why does all this matter? Well, as I said in an earlier post, “a lot of decision-makers care about these things as much as me. And if you can avoid diverting their attention with your errors, you have a much higher chance of your real message being heard.”
Oh, and the fact that bad English really just annoys the crap out of many people.
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  1. I hate really bad English. I also hate read bad writing in my native language.
    Unfortunately, I’m not a native speaker of English and thus make many mistakes, too. The hardest thing for non-native speakers is probably the tenses in general, and to decide which tense to use in which kind of sentences or contexts.

    Something I don’t understand is the fact that so many native speakers get the most simplest things wrong.
    Like, when to use “there” instead of “their” or “they’re”. Because these things are so obvious and logical, even for non-native speakers. It annoys me to no end to read such things, but it happens alot, especially on the internet.
    Or people using “of” instead of “have”. I mean seriously, how stupid can you get? “It might of been cool” doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s the way you pronounce it in certain areas, not the way you write it.
    Neither does using “it’s” instead of “its” make any sense. It’s obvious, really. People just need to use their brain.

    Thanks for the post, Belinda, it’s good to know that someone else cares about these things, too.

  2. Gigi permalink

    I used to always forget that the possessive “its” doesn’t have an apostrophe until I learnt this gem: Think of it grouped with “his”, “hers”, “ours”, “yours” and “theirs”. Possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes. It makes it seem more of a rule and less of an exception.

    Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) I was taught this by someone who is not a native English speaker.

    • I guess non-native speakers have been taught a different way, and have a better handle on grammar than a lot of us who came through the no-grammar-lessons schooling system. And it’s a good tip!

      • Gigi permalink

        Definitely. I noticed a big improvement in my grammar in English after learning French.Until taking French class I don’t think I had ever stopped to think about whether something was the subject or the object. I don’t think I even knew what that meant.

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