English:The Rule-Breaker’s Paradise -5 Ways Our Language Defies Logic

English, the renowned language of Shakespeare’s eloquence and the boundless depths of the internet has a reputation for its flexibility and adaptability. It’s a linguistic chameleon, but with such adaptability comes a curious quirkiness – it loves to defy its own rules.

Whether you’re a native speaker or a newcomer to this intriguing language, you’ll find yourself in head-scratching moments when English gleefully breaks its own rules. Join us on a journey through this linguistic labyrinth as we uncover five ways the English language revels in its rule-breaking paradise.

1. Tenses don’t respect times.

Consider this: “So this guy walks into a bar…” We know a story is about to unfold, and it’s about something in the past. However, the word “walks” is in the present tense.

This is called the “historical present,” and it’s like the storyteller is making you relive that moment, adding drama and immediacy. Surprisingly, it’s not against the rules. Tenses typically tell us the time of a situation, but tenses are grammar, and time is real. They don’t always have to match up.

For example, in the sentence, “If it rained tomorrow, I would stay home,” the past tense “rained” talks about a future event. Instead of saying “in the past,” it means “I don’t think this is likely.” When a fancy restaurant waiter asks, “Did you want to see the dessert menu?” using “did,” the past tense of “do,” they’re not asking about something in the past. The past tense here shows politeness or respect. Just like words, tenses in English can have different meanings.

2. Definites can be indefinite.

The word “this” usually points to something specific and known. For instance, if someone says, “This is the right one,” they believe you know exactly which one they mean. But in the story that starts with “this guy walks into a bar,” “this guy” doesn’t have to be someone the speaker thinks you should know. In fact, it might not even be about a particular person.

They could’ve said, “A man walks into a bar” using “indefinite” like “a.” So, once again, the way words work in grammar doesn’t always match their meaning.

The same goes for “the.” When David Attenborough says, “The female harvest mouse is at home among the grass blades in a wild meadow,” he uses “the,” making it sound specific. But Attenborough isn’t thinking of a particular mouse that he believes we’ll recognize. He’s using the “definite” article in an “indefinite” way.

3. Dummy Pronouns Act as Subjects

Normally, personal pronouns like “I,” “you,” “she,” “him,” “their,” and “it” replace noun phrases. Instead of saying, “Thank you for the use of your pen, I put your pen back,” we say, “Thank you for the use of your pen, I put it back.” In this case, “it” stands for “your pen.” These personal pronouns are like definite words, similar to “the” or “this.”

However, in sentences about the weather, like “it’s snowing” or “it’s sunny,” there’s no specific thing that “it” is replacing. What does “it” stand for in “it’s snowing”? The sky? The clouds? Linguists call this “it” a “dummy pronoun.” It’s a stand-in that English requires in the subject position, even though it doesn’t replace a specific noun phrase. It’s just there to fill the spot.

4. Objects can be “raised.”

At first glance, sentences like “She persuaded them to try it” and “She intended them to try it” seem similar. However, they have different structures. In the first one, “them” is the object of persuasion. But in the second, “them” isn’t really the object of “intended.”

Follow along: In the first sentence, “they” were persuaded, so “them” is indeed the object. But in the second sentence, it’s not about “intending them” but rather intending the action. So, we can rewrite the second sentence as “She intended that they try it.” We can’t do the same for the first sentence, like saying “She persuaded that they try it,” because the focus is on the people who were persuaded.

Linguists call “them” in the second sentence a “raised object.” It’s technically the subject of “they try it,” but it’s been “raised” into the object position (and changed to “them”) for a verb that doesn’t usually accept this type of object.

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5. Number Agreement Can Be Tricky

Usually, in a sentence, the verb agrees with the number (singular or plural) of the subject. For example, “the mouse eats,” and “the mice eat.” This rule also applies when the subject is connected by “and,” like in “the male and female harvest mouse eat.”

Now, think about the sentence “Bacon and eggs is a common breakfast.” The subject “Bacon and eggs” is coordinated, so shouldn’t it be “Bacon and eggs are”? Well, not so fast. Here’s where form and meaning don’t quite match up. Even though “bacon and eggs” is grammatically plural, we think of it as a single dish. But if we say, “bacon and eggs are ingredients in a breakfast burrito,” it’s different because here we’re talking about individual components of a dish.

On the flip side, there are collective nouns like “the team,” which for some English speakers is grammatically singular but semantically plural. This can lead to sentences like “the team works well together.” So, in English, sometimes the way we use numbers doesn’t neatly match up with what we actually mean.

6. Understanding Words and Numbers in English

Talking right can be a bit tricky, especially when it comes to words and numbers agreeing. Normally, if you have one thing, the word that goes with it (like ‘eats’ or ‘is’) matches. Like, “the mouse eats,” and “the mice eat.” Easy, right? But then comes the twist.

Imagine saying, “Bacon and eggs is a common breakfast.” Seems off, doesn’t it? Even though ‘bacon and eggs’ sounds like more than one thing, we treat it like it’s just one meal. It’s like saying “pizza is yummy” instead of “pizzas are yummy.” But wait, if you switch gears and say, “bacon and eggs are ingredients in a breakfast burrito,” now you’re talking about each piece separately, so ‘are’ fits better.

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And there’s another curveball: words like ‘team.’ Even if it looks singular, like in “the team works well together,” it’s kind of like saying a bunch of people are working together. So, sometimes in English, the way we say things doesn’t exactly match what we mean. It’s a bit like a secret code, but with words!