The Awful Elements of English

As an English teacher in Germany, Locke McKenzie has all sorts of bones to pick with our language.

For most of my life I regarded English as a simple language. Mark Twain, The Economist, and most of the non-native speakers I teach English to would agree. Absent of complicated verb conjugations, gendered nouns, cases, or difficult plural forms, English seems like mere child’s play in comparison to other European tongues.

Spanish, for example, differentiates between masculine and feminine nouns and conjugates verbs six times in every tense (in English, we often don’t conjugate at all).

In German, verbs are just as horrendous as their Spanish counterparts, but nouns are even worse. Its arbitrarily attributed three-gender system (skirt = masculine, masculinity = feminine, girl = neuter) with four different cases, all of which require a different combination of umlauts and letters to form the plural (Kraut becomes Kräuter, etc.) is like a sixteen-tentacled kraken ready to pull you to the deepest depths of the linguistic sea.

After attempting to learn the seven cases in Polish and its absurd tense forms, I retreated to the English-language kiddie pool. I thought I was safe teaching English to non-native speakers. Little did I realize how naive such thinking could be.

Take grammar as an example. A solid grammar regiment is essential to beginner courses. Each day presents a new point until students have mastered all 145 (yes, 145) of them. Especially with a book as a guide, work like this should be brainless, but simplicity in teaching requires rules and reason, two aspects English clearly lacks.

Although a book is a quick read because I read it quickly, and a sweet smell also smells sweetly, I cannot accomplish hard work by hardly working, nor can a fast runner effectively run fastly. Completely unprepared for my first class on adverbs and adjectives, I walked into booby trap after booby trap. As I tried to untangle myself from the grammatical exceptions in which I was ensnared, my students looked on helplessly and cried out, “You’re not doing that so well-ly.

Never again, I vowed. At times I have spent an hour researching a grammar point in preparation. Unfortunately for my students, even the most well-versed scholar cannot make English grammar make sense. The word refuse, for example, is followed by an infinitive (to + verb, He refused to help), yet enjoy forces its successor to take a gerund (–ing, I enjoy baking cookies). There are lists of countless similar cases. I hope to go but I feel like going.

In an attempt at pedagogical methodology, I run my students through a selection of the forty gerund/infinitive cases I consider most important.

“What is the rule?” they ask, distraught after twenty minutes of guess work.

“There isn’t one.”

Their frustration only becomes greater as I throw out verbs like remember, which uses the gerund when recalling an event already experienced (I remember meeting him yesterday) and the infinitive when acting as a reminder (I must remember to call him this afternoon).

I am always surprised to see anyone return after this act of linguistic waterboarding, but they do. Perhaps it is one of the residual effects of WWII guilt, but they still try to tell me that English is easier than German.

You can lecture me on the absurdity of German cases or noun genders all you want, but these problems are trifles in comparison to the English system of tenses, where we constantly nitpick an action’s exact relevance and length. We not only differentiate between the past (I worked), actions relevant in the present that occurred in the past (I have worked) and things that began in the past that are still on-going (I have been working), we also draw a line between short term and long term actions in the present (I am living vs. I live), and the amount of planning that has gone into actions in the future (I will meet, I am going to meet, or I am meeting).

For the most part German is simple. The German expression ich gehe, for example, has six English options, depending on the context: I go, I am going, I have gone, I have been going, I will go, or I am going to go. I don’t blame my students when they create the sentence I am living in Hamburg for the last five years.

“But I’m living here now!” they cry.

“Yes, but you started the action in the past, so you have to say I have lived or I have been living. Besides, you could only say I am living if you plan to leave at some point. Normally living is a permanent situation which requires us to say I live.”

It’s not only the grammar that is often senseless. The English system of spelling is also a problem. Anyone who has tried to write English vocabulary on a white board without a spell checker will tell you what an impossible task this is. This spelling test will be sure to remove all doubt.

Pronunciation is no better. As Mark Twain pointed out with the word bow, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set it off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies.” The same is true of read and tear.

Then come words like boot, blood, and foot. All three contain oo, yet the two o’s in boot are long like hoot, blood sounds more like mud, and the o’s in foot take the same pronunciation as the u in put. How can this possibly be? For non-native speakers it is beyond comprehension, making my days full of fewt and blewd.

My life as a grammar teacher was proving pointless; so I decided to move to translation, where I only ran into more problems. While I always believed commas to be an art form (sorry Nick and Kevin), the absence of editors or proofreaders to fix my ignorant mistakes forced me to take them more seriously. I turned to William Strunk:

…clauses introduced by which, when, and where are non-restrictive; they do not limit the application of the words on which they depend, but add, parenthetically, statements supplementing those in the principal clauses. Each sentence is a combination of two statements, which might have been made independently.

Restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas… [which means] the relative clause restricts the application of the word to a single person.

Despite the examples he provides, I had to read these lines five times to understand this one point correctly, and I was only on the third rule of the book! Thank god Strunk believed in brevity, which is not an easy thing to accomplish when focused on the English language. With helping verbs and noun-preposition combinations prevailing, concise sentence formulations are near non-existent.

In the most recent translation I did, I came across the word sportrechtshandel. This single German word requires seven in English.

“There was a reason that German was the language of philosophy before WWII,” said Peter, a retired German teacher. “Our vocabulary is exact.”

When the correct term doesn’t exist, German has the flexibility to combine words in order to create it. These new words illuminate the page with an exactness I could only dream of in English, leading me on twenty-minute expeditions to find a comparable English counterpart. Despite our Germanic and Latin roots, we can rarely compete with German’s brevity. Looking back on sportrechtshandel, we can see that the buying and selling of sports rights is hardly as graceful.

While most languages initially seem impossible and only begin making sense much later, my experiences have taught me that English actually becomes more confusing. We have a mongrel language that has taken on words and rules unnecessarily, adding bits and pieces of whatever we like until there is no sense of order at all. Our language is slowly dissolving into nonsense. Poets and creatives should be appalled. It isn’t good for anything but business and politics, the only sectors where the more cryptically you talk, the better your chances of striking a deal.

I hope my German gets better soon.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.