As I write and edit, I constantly find myself scratching my head about American English and wondering how anyone manages to communicate or, moreso, how someone learns it as a second language.
The job of an author is not easy. Let’s skip over the plotting and character development and structure… all the easy things. Let’s assume all that is perfect. Then comes the part of putting it down on paper. The words an author uses have to convey his/her thoughts. And that’s where it gets hard. The picture is of James Joyce’s editing effort on just two pages from Finnegans Wake. That’s insane! If he had been working on a computer, the delete button would have been worn out.
But I think an author has an advantage over someone trying to have a conversation. The author gets to use the delete button, or a red pen. When we are speaking, we can’t delete the words. How many times have any of us said, “Well, that’s not what I meant.” And how many have led to arguments? …just because of miscommunication.
And those instances are between people who speak the language. For those who are trying to learn it, the following examples are on my list of headscratchers. See if you agree. Some are interesting rules. Where grammar is an issue, and not just a lack of any sense, I defer to Webster and/or the Chicago Manual of Style.
Consider this: “I’m going to mow the backyard first. Then I’m going to do the front yard.”
My point is made, and I should just stop there, but I’ll continue because… well, I’ve been making this list and I might as well.
The rule for words that are prefaced by re is interesting. Common usage is to insert a dash after the re, as in re-occur. But that is incorrect… most of the time. The exception to that is if not inserting the dash creates a word with an alternate meaning, such as re-create. Without the dash it could mean to have fun rather than to make again. So… re-create and reoccur are both correct, as is re-sign.
Let’s check on checking in. Check-in is a noun and check in is a verb.
Put them together or split them apart? I hope you fare well. I’d like to go and say farewell.
If you want to give donations to the poor you give them alms. But what if you want to just give them one? You can’t give them an alm… the word doesn’t exist. Perhaps that’s purposeful. Don’t be a cheapskate… give them two!
What’s with those silent letters? …as in psalm and pseudo.
I don’t want any more advice. I’m not taking your advice anymore. You figure it out.
Then there are the historical adaptations. In the first paragraph I used the word moreso. Two words or one? The conventional usage has been two words, but one word gained ground at the end of the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary is the only one that lists it as one word and it says that is a US variant of the two word form.
And then there are the words that are so crazy they had to invent more words to describe them. I’m talking about heteronyms, homonyms, homographs, and homophones.
Heteronyms (when have you used that in a sentence?), are words that are spelled the same but have a different sound and meaning. “I had to tear my favorite shirt. It brought a tear to my eye.” Or, “You read it wrong. I didn’t read it wrong!”
Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. They are divided into two categories. Homographs are words that sound alike and are spelled alike but have different meanings: “To be fair, we’ll go to the fair tomorrow.” Then there’s paying the fare on the bus, which leads us to Homophones, which are words that sound alike and have different meanings but are spelled differently, like pear and pair.
See if you can put the following head scratchers into a category. Some fall into more than one. And we probably need more categories, but this is confusing enough already! If you grew up with this language you don’t give these things a second thought. But consider trying to learn it!
The word break is pretty simple. But put it together with fast and it becomes a headscratcher. But that’s only if you make one word out of it—breakfast. If you leave it as two words, meaning to end a fast, the sound is still the same (break fast).
How about ain words? You know how to pronounce curtain or certain. But what’s with the a? In every country western song they spell hurtin’ without the a. Of course! Who stuck that a in there? You do pronounce the a in plantain. Somebody decided to fix the a problem but some lobbyist for the i lovers got that i added. When it came to gasoline, they finally got it right. They kicked out the i lobbyists and left it as octane.
And then there’s the ough words, such as cough, tough, and though. Sure, go ahead, try and learn this language as a second language!
Then there’s the Popeye variant, “I love to go swimmin’ with bald-headed women…” If women sounds like swimmin’, why not spell it wimmin? And you can throw woman and women into the party. Change the a to an e and the o sounds different. What?!
And I can’t leave out the two words that fit under this heading but are also a common grammar mistake. I’m talking about past and passed. “I walked past the barbershop and also passed a drugstore.”
And people complain about having to learn Latin. Cheers!