Making sense of English


I used to find English class one of the most boring of all the subjects I suffered through in elementary and high school. I wanted nothing to do with it, even more so than those hated math classes.

It wasn’t the teachers; it was the subject matter. The only part I liked was diagramming sentences, definitely the exercise all my classmates detested most. I was, and still am, a contrarian at heart.

As a side note my wife taught language arts (a blatant subterfuge to hide what the subject matter really is) to grades two through eight in her career and she included diagramming as part of the instruction for older students. One former student, after getting a high school graduation gift from us, wrote his thank you note in a diagrammed sentence. That warmed the cockles of her teacher’s heart.

The problem remains that English has to be the most difficult language for someone to learn, especially for those who try to do it as an adult. Even most native speakers can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence, let alone spell every word correctly. Just listen to any conversation today. Extra credit if you can identify the dangling participles.

Languages do change over time and informal speech sounds too awkward if rigorously held to grammatical purity. We all end sentences with prepositions in everyday speech but really shouldn’t in writing, at least not if we want to get an A.

I will give a pass to sentence fragments such as the one I used a few paragraphs above, sentences ending in prepositions or beginning with conjunctions, and other informalities that don’t detract from meaning. My personal sensibilities scream stop to run-on sentences, commas separating a noun and its verb, and noun-verb disagreement.

Still, something needs to be done to restore grammatical sanity to the English language. The current potpourri of exceptions and special cases doesn’t pass muster and needs to be brought up on charges before a linguistic supreme court.

Any bill of indictment of the English language will contain the following accusations at a minimum:

Irregular verbs. Why do so many verbs violate the “-ed” ending for the past tense? Eat, ate; sleep, slept; speak, spoke; ad infinitum.

Homophones. If they are spelled differently, why aren’t they pronounced differently? Wood, would; hour, our; eye, I.

Heteronyms. Now let’s spell them the same way but pronounce them differently. When you see the word “lead” do you think of having followers or a base metal?

Spelling-phonetic idiosyncrasies. Do we really need both “f” and “ph” to create the same sound? Why is the letter “g” pronounced two different ways? Try tutoring first grade beginning readers some time as they try to sound out new words. I have.

Contranyms. This is my favorite category of nonsense — words that also mean their exact opposite. If flammable means likely to catch fire, then inflammable should mean not so. Wrong. Forget all those Latin prefixes you learned. This category has even done damage to the Bible. When God created Eve and said a man will leave his parents and “cleave” to his wife, I’m reasonably certain He meant just the opposite of what one would use a butcher’s cleaver for.

Noun-verb disagreement. Since English is not a gendered language, the masculine has been commonly understood to take the place of unknown or mixed gender, at least until a group of busybodies decided such usage was potentially offensive to somebody, somewhere. I’m pushing for a constitutional amendment to prohibit using they as the noun when a single person is meant.

Did I mention irregular verbs?

Here’s my modest proposal to bring rationality back into the English language: Whenever a toddler has his second birthday, assign a Ph.D. in English to follow him around for a full year, making notes of everything he says and the way he says it. All this data could then be analyzed by other highly educated people in computer science or mathematics or some such discipline. There are about four million 2-year-olds in the United States so this will provide gainful employment to a lot of people.

The result will be an English language that is no longer a memorized list of exceptions to rules that are confusing enough already. English classes will no longer be exercises in self-flagellation.

Rather, in my brave new world our language will have a few simple rules that are always followed. The overarching principle is this: If that’s the way a 2-year-old first says it, that’s the way we all will say it for the rest of our lives.

Best of all, it will sound the death knell for irregular verbs. Requiescat in pace.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected]

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