The most annoying things about the English language, from people who are learning it
English is the most studied language in the world, with 1.5 billion people learning it. But just because English is popular doesn't make it easy.
Many English learners have vented about the most annoying aspects of the language in the obvious place: the internet. Their complaints range from its confusing spelling to its abundance of synonyms with barely imperceptible differences in meaning.
We looked at comment threads on Reddit, Quora, and other forums to compile 11 of the most annoying things about English, straight from people who are attempting to learn the language themselves.
English speakers say ‘an hour and a half,’ but not ‘two hours and a half’ “Hour and a half. Two and a half hours. I usually slip and say ‘two hours and a half’ because it’s the structure I’d use in Spanish.”
Prepositions can prove difficult, like how we get ‘on’ a bus, but ‘in’ a car “Why am I ‘on’ the bus when I’m actually inside the bus, and why am I ‘in the car’ and not ‘on the car’ then? I walked through a door and sat down inside in both cases, so why is one ‘on’ and one ‘in’?”
The level of formality can be unclear “I’d say I’m in an upper intermediate level, and the thing I find the hardest is to tell what’s formal and what’s less formal. Unless you look up in a dictionary and find out which register of language words are from, it’s kind of hard to figure out their nature.
“I remember saying once to my teacher, ‘Oh will you stop screwing around’ and to my friend, ‘should you wish to call me, here’s my phone number.’ I messed up with both partners and used sentences that just didn’t fit the context.”
Then you have phrasal verbs, which can be ‘mind-bending’ “All of the permutations and combinations of using a verb with prepositions afterwards can be mind-bending. For example:
Look down on
Look up to
Look over at, etc.”
‘Up’ and ‘down’ can be combined with countless verbs, as one commenter illustrated beautifully
“Here’s a high-concentration of up and down phrases in a single paragraph, which helps me sympathize with the challenge of learning all this:
“There was a write-up in the paper, but I wanted to write down my thoughts too. Let me back up. This is a story about a guy that would never back down, who’d never put up with someone putting you down. We worked at restaurant together, and every night he’d close the bar down and I’d close up shop, then we’d pin down the best place to party with the pin-ups. He’d tear up the playbook and tear the house down. He showed up for every showdown, he’d turn up with an offer you couldn’t turn down. But after the break up, he had a break down. He always looked beat up, like life just beat him down, and he couldn’t get up the nerve to get down to business — just shut up and shut down. Now, sanity comes down to avoiding situations where her name comes up.”
And some words sound nothing like they’re spelled Another commenter chimed in with an anecdote:
“I work at a KFC and we have this stupid sandwich called the ‘Crispy Colonel.’ None of the customers can pronounce the word at all. After we had a particular stupid request for a Crispy Colonial sandwich, all the workers at my KFC have started calling it the Crispy Colonial, Crispy Colonialism, or Crispy Columbus sandwich, even when taking orders. It’s hilarious.”
Some English learners are thrown by regional accents and pronunciation
“For me understanding those native speakers who don’t enunciate well is the hardest part now. I understand 100% of language spoken by newscasters at the BBC, ABC, NPR, CBC, although their English is fast.”
Sometimes, English speakers from different countries don’t even know how other dialects work “One thing that confused and annoyed me was the whole American English, British English, Australian English, etc. Everyone just says ‘English’ like it’s one thing when it isn’t. I got corrected for spelling ‘kerb’ that way instead of ‘curb.’ Like even English speaking people aren’t aware of the differences sometimes. And it makes it confusing to learn ‘English’ for me.”
English makes use out of words with very similar meanings, like skinny, thin, and slim “You guys have (and use!) words with very similar meanings like ‘skinny,’ ‘thin’ and ‘slim,’ or ‘little,’ ‘small’ and ‘tiny.’ Those are very descriptive terms, but one has to memorize them in order to understand them. In my language (Portuguese), we use adjectives instead. We say things like: ‘more slim,’ ‘extremely slim,’ ‘barely slim,’ etc. We do have synonyms, but we don’t use them very much.
“Because of its abundance of descriptive terms, learning English is a situation of constant information overload. But the properties that make it so hard to learn also create a language of admirable preciseness and expressiveness.”
In English, it’s easy to turn nouns into verbs, like ‘blanket’ and ‘book’ “Pretty much any noun can be a verb in the right context: book, center, rain, shoe (shod being the past tense), cover, blanket, cushion … they don’t have distinct grammatical form like in many other languages. This caught a lot of us off guard in the beginning.”
And English’s elaborate tense system can trip people up, too
“One of the trickiest things is to understand when one should say ‘I wrote’ and when ‘I have written.’ Needless to say, the forms like ‘I had written,’ ‘I have been writing,’ ‘I had been writing’ etc. are just a nightmare for many foreigners.”
English has more vowel sounds than many other languages “English has about three times as many distinct vowel sounds as Russian does. Most of Russian-speaking people are not able to tell the difference between: f ee l and f i ll; pool and p u ll; p e n and p a n; c u t, c o t and c au ght etc …”
And some words are just plain hard to pronounce
“Whoever invented the word ‘rural’ is a horrible person. Whenever I try to pronounce this word I sound like scooby-doo.”
By Mark Abadi, first published on businessinsider.com May 31, 2018