13 times the English language trolled its speakers

English is a messed up language

I often wonder how anyone learns English as a second language. Although I write in it daily and am constantly elbow-deep in trawling its deeper intricacies, I am always muttering “that’s messed up”.

We all know about the difficulties with “you’re” and “your”, “it’s” and “its”. There are whole books dedicated to people hating on the butcher’s apostrophe and “i” before “e” abuse. But this post is about my favourite Englishisms that are slightly more obscure, but just as irritating.

They remind me I am slightly anti-grammarian in nature, especially when the rules make little sense. Enjoy (as much as you can, under the trying circumstances).

Stupid conventions in English 101

1. Alright, already!

Always, altogether, almighty, alone, albeit, almost, also, although… you can see why some people might want to spell “all right” as “alright”. But editors, literary pros and professorial types absolutely DETEST this method of saying everything is good in the hood.

But since “alright” has been “attested in print by 1884” (Etymonline)  maybe it’s time.

(As a sidebar, “all”+”word” is not the same as the “al” from Arabic used in alchemy, algebra, alcohol. That is a definite article prefix, a bit like “el”. Or Al as in fresco, the Italian loanword usage. Neither is it the same as the Latin (and French) “at” usage that can be found in words like “alert” “allow”, “allocate” and possibly alarm, all though this route is muddied with the possibility it could be “all arme”, so might just work with the first meaning. And just for completeness, I should include words that have “all” and then a dash: all-star, all-time, all-inclusive etc. Yep. Typical English!)

2. An upsetting setup

Face palm

Compound words like those in this section’s heading have an almost mystical protocol. Should you hyphenate? Should there be a space?

Set up is a verb. E.g. – “I’m going to set up the game now.”
Setup (US) or set-up(UK) is the noun or adjective. E.g. – “What kind of amateur set-up do you call this?”

However, upset, whether or a verb, noun or adjective is one word. Check these, all different forms, all the same. Freaking. Word.

“He’s going to upset the apple cart.”
“She looked really upset.”
“What an upset!”

Others for you to ponder: “stake out” vs “stakeout”, “hold up” vs “holdup”, “every day” vs “everyday”. I bet most of you use these pretty much correctly without thinking, if you are a native speaker.

Still, at least our compound words aren’t as bad as the Germans’. “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften” is a common word meaning “legal protection insurance companies”. The reason for English compounding is thanks to the Germanic origins of English. The willy-nilly implementation of this is probably because we got invaded by the French. And then we forgot to care.

3. Meaning with emphasis

Sometimes it’s all in the pronunciation. You can’t even see the difference in the written word except if you completely understand the rules of grammar already. No help for you!

For example, the difference in these pairs:

ApPROpriate – adj
appropriATE – verb

CONsole – noun
conSOLE – verb

PROject – noun
proJECT – verb

If you have studied Chinese or similar languages, you’d understand that different pitches and emphasis change meanings with sometimes hilarious consequences, but as a native English speaker, we never really appreciate this nuance in our own language. Emphasise the last syllable, it makes it all verby! At least that’s the rule of thumb. But don’t get comfortable. English has other ways of stabbing you in the back.

4. Hyphen-nation

Hyphenation makes all the difference

Some nouns are written separately as noun phrases, but hyphenated when turned into adjectives. For example,

“It was in the deep sea that we found deep-sea fish.”

Alright, there is a logic here, it helps when reading to make a visual differentiation between a fish that was in the deep sea, and a really, like, DEEP (man), hippy kind of fish. (I wonder if it would like reefer? Sorry.)

In the picture above, if you remove the hyphen it sounds like an instruction for some vehicular mayhem.

Other hyphen fun times are things like “It was a well-written piece”, where you hyphenate a compound adjective where it modifies a noun. But not if it has “ly” at the end of the modifying adjective, so, “It was a well-written piece, but it was not quickly written” – all fine as far as English grammar is concerned. But you could also say “It was well written”, without any hyphens, because you’re not modifying a noun directly, allegedly… Give. Me. Strength.

5. Adjective order

Chinese Lion Statues to illustrate a quirk of English

You’re not taught this, but you know it, O blessed native speaker.

“Six enchanting little old green Chinese jade decorative lions”

could never be

“Six decorative green Chinese old little jade enchanting lions”

or even

“Old jade decorative six Chinese green little enchanting lions”

and don’t even get me started on

“Green old lions enchanting six decorative Chinese jade little”.

The thing is, most native English speakers, again, would put these words in the right order, or at least know there was something wrong if it was presented differently. You could muck about with some of them and get it mostly there, like,

“Six enchanting little old decorative Chinese green jade lions”,

but that would probably only work in spoken vernacular. You can almost hear an antiques show presenter starting off, getting lost halfway, then battering on to the end anyway. The truth is, it starts getting a bit hazier the more adjectives you rack up. It’s a lot easier with a short phrase, like,

“Red big ball”.

See what I did there? 😉

6. Everyone’s favourite: ough words

Oh. You. Gee. Aitch.

Ploughs shivers down the doughtiest tough.

The rough trough hiccoughed its way through the boughs and into the Slough borough lough, though, I thought.

I think I’ve said enough.

7. See your place name? It’s not right.

world map

Here’s a list of countries and places you’ve never heard of… because this is what the locals call them.

  • Hrvatska – Croatia
  • Suomi – Finland
  • Zhongguo or, more correctly, Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó – China, or the People’s Republic of China
  • The beautiful Stara Planina is what we call, prosaically, the Balkan Mountains in Srbija (Serbia)
  • Göteborg we call Gothenburg, and that’s in Sverige (Sweden)
  • Al-Iskandariyya – Alexandria, is in Masr (Egypt)
  • Köln – Cologne in Deutschland (Germany) as is München, which is Munich to us, for… reasons
  • Wien – Vienna. People who live in Vienna are, and I sh!t you not, legitimately called Wieners. And we let this one go!

Transliteration of places and words into an English form was done many moons ago by people who may or may not have had a vested interest in putting their own boot marks all over other people’s language, for reasons I couldn’t possibly comment on.

But even today you will get a funny look from a native English speaker if you say Paree instead of Parisss when you’re not French.

8. Numbers

learning numbers in English

It’s been said that the English (and other European) way of counting actually holds us back in maths at a young age. In Asian systems, it’s often the case that you start with 1 to 10 as a set of numbers, then eleven would be “10-1”, twelve is “10-2” etc. Then twenty is “2-10”, twenty-one is, “2-10-1”, “2-10-2”, and so on up. It sounds more complicated but that’s just because we didn’t learn it this way. In fact it makes calculating a lot easier. Think abacuses.

Contrast learning that with the numbers “eleven” and “twelve”. Then that sudden bait-and-switch of a scheme at thirteen. When you’re a kid learning this, it feels like a betrayal. I remember distinctly how it made no sense at the time. “Why isn’t it ONE-teen and TWO-teen?”

Once you get to “twenty” things go smoother, with fewer dick moves until just after “ninety-nine”. Show me a kid who hasn’t said “ninety-nine, tenty” when learning. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

9. We ran out of decades

Remember the eighties? I do. Remember the nineties? Yes! (Well, mostly). The noughties?

Okay, I’ll come out and say it. Nobody wants to call this current decade the TEENSIES! So we just… try not to mention it. But when we get to the Twenties, we’ll have to start calling them something, otherwise how else do you refer to it? Remember the… time after the noughties and before now?

We’ve refused to name an entire decade because we’re EMBARRASSED.

Teensies. You have been warned.

10. “Your gender is my business, dammit!”

English is an incredibly dynamic language, able to absorb words like “selfie” and “laughing with tears in my eyes emoji”.


But apparently, we still haven’t officially come to terms with talking about people behind their backs without referring to their junk. See: he / him / his / she / her / hers.

There are not any standardised, accepted gender neutral pronouns for an individual that you are addressing indirectly. You could use “they”, which is what I tend to do, but it does lead to ambiguity since it’s also used as a group pronoun. People have been gamely trying to come up with alternatives such as ze and zir. But none have become standardised, yet.

11. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I will confess to just really wanting to use that quote! But there is a nasty streak of horribleness in the English language, where it likes to torture its users.

Flammable and inflammable have the same meaning, but totally sound opposite. To bone and debone a chicken – either circumstance would result in a skeletally challenged fowl. And try not to tell a non-fluent speaker of English that they are invaluable unless you immediately explain that it doesn’t mean what it sounds like.

And in a neat flip of that convention, I give you “literally”. “Literally” was used wrongly by so many people it now is also included in dictionaries with the exact opposite of its original meaning.

“I was literally blown away when I found out!”

12. Nouns and adjectives that make you tense

closed sign

Open -> Closed

One in this paring is present tense. The other is not. But also is. “The door is close”, is not a thing. No, that means the door is a short distance from you. This is just craziness.

Can anyone explain why it’s called a “building” and not a “built”? I understand notions of old high Germanic but if you can explain why it is still called that today?

Others to think about in their noun form: morning, painting, wedding, booking.

13. The essence of esses

This comes down to the very heart of how illogical English can be. Look at this:

One dog. Two dogs.

“S” means plural when you’re grouping things, right? Great. Now check this out:

They run. He runs.

What? There is only one “he”, but he’s got the “s”! And there are (presumably) many referred to with “they” and they’re a singular form! If English had any logic at all, it would be he run, they runs. But no. That would be too easy.

“Words, words, words” — W. Shakespeare

That’s the trouble with a language that has such an organic history. Unlike the French Academy (founded by Cardinal Richelieu, no less), no one has had the courage to really set out rules and take this mishmash in hand. And I am, believe it or not, happy that is the case. There are so many beautiful nuances to it, it’d be a shame to set it in shackles now.

To anyone who has learned English as a second language, I salute you. Welcome to this fucked-up club.

And finally…

As an author, I’m obsessed with my language, naturally. As a science fiction author, I have the ability to look into its future. I’m going to throw my hat into the ring with one of my next pieces of work. I want to try my own take on a gender neutral pronoun. Why? Because I think it’s the right thing to do.

So if you want to find out what my take was, please join the email list to get information about upcoming works!

What’s your favourite crazy English? Let me know in the comments!

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