Headscratchers/English Language

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  • Why does the English language still have archaic spellings, despite the many reforms made to get rid of those archaisms? For example, why do we still spell "woman", "women", "cough", "laugh", "section" when those words are pronounced like "wooman", "weemen", "coff", "laff", "secshon"? And why was the spelling of "judgement" reformed to the totally illogical "judgment", for which one would expect the "g" to be hard like in "go"? Reforming the spelling to "judjment" would have both simplified the spelling and kept it logical.
    • A lot of spellings are archaic and illogical, but they are standardised (that is, unless you count British and American spelling differences, which are confusing and seemingly pointless). Take your phonetically spelled example of "women" = "weemen". Now, a standard way of phonetically spelling it is a good idea... Except that I wouldn't say it "weemen" (I'm Scottish, and my pronunciation would be closer to "wimmen"). Because there are such vast accent-related differences in pronunciation for a lot of words, how would you decide which one to use? Would that require greater differences between British and American spelling, and yet another type for Australia? What about regional variation - for example, if Britain used phonetically spelled words for RP, would that be regarded as unfair and discriminatory by, for instance, Northern England, Ireland and Scotland (and that's just a few)? There might be a 'correct' way to pronounce it, but you just know people would be outraged at spellings being changed to, seemingly, exclude their dialect, thanks to wider literacy and more political sensitivity than when previous language and spelling reforms were made. Although it's a good idea in principle, I don't think it'll ever be practically applied.
    • Because only you pronounce it wooman and weemen. Seriously. Only you.
    • This American troper agrees. It's woman and wimmen.
      • Because the actual pronunciations are /wʊmɪn/ and /wɪmɪn/, 'wummin' and 'wimmin' would be better phonetic spellings.
    • Also, it would make the language more or less incomprehensible in its written form. There are languages that are only written down phonetically, swiss german for example. And though it has only about 4.5 million speakers and is spoken in an area no larger than Maryland, differences in dialect and pronounciation make it more or less impossible to read a written text if the dialect is unknown or unfamiliar. So to imagine this problem with a language spoken by more than 500 million people all over the world, it would make the understanding of written English difficult for anyone with a dialect different from that of the writer and it might prove impossible to be understood at all by someone unfamiliar with the language.
      • Phonetic spelling *doesn't* make a near-incomprehensible written form. It does require a standard, which English doesn't have, and with official status in 50+ nations good luck getting it.
      • To say nothing of the fact that sometimes multiple spellings are valid in a given setting. Although a Briton might think that "standardize" is an American spelling of "standardise", both are acceptable in Standard British English. The OED prefers the former, as explained here
    • For one thing, you'd be opening a TREMENDOUS can of worms. Why reform one or two spellings, when to be consistent you'd have to reform hundreds? And what if one country institutes such reforms, but the other English-speaking countries say "No, thank you"? Mix in the dialect issues that other Tropers have mentioned above, and almost any fix you can imagine would leave the spelling situation less consistent than you found it!
    • Yeah, I'd say this guy nailed it. For more info on the various problems with reform, go read Spelling Reform: And the Real Reason It's Impossible, by Justin B. Rye.
    • After studying English spelling for a couple decades now, I've come to a couple conclusions myself:
      • First, America should reform its spelling in some fashion, and let the other nations choose their own path; there's no need for a world-wide revision.
        • Okay, why? Why should only America have to reform its spelling and not any other English-speaking country? Give me a reason.
          • Maybe because y'all are the ones that changed the spelling to begin with? Most of the other English speaking countries are Commonwealth countries, and use British spelling.
      • Secondly, the benefits of reform would be huge, and I could write a thesis to that effect; I believe it's a major factor in how American students seem to be behind the rest of the world in their studies[1].
        • That's an...interesting theory. But I see no proof to back it up. Besides, simplifying the problems of the American school system down to just this is, well, oversimplifying things. And even if your theory were true and you did reform American spelling, all it would do is cause American students to drop further behind as they struggle for years to adapt to this new way of spelling.
      • And third, even without reform, there's no need for the number of illiterate and semi-illiterate citizens in this country; you can learn most of English spelling in a couple years if you're taught in a sensibly phonemic fashion. A child of nine or ten who can't tackle, say, The Three Musketeers has almost certainly been needlessly handicapped by a teaching method that omits phonemics in favor of the inadequate "whole word" philosophy[2].
        • I'm working on a reader that makes the "irregularities" of English make more sense (e.g., there's a sound-shift reason that "ai" says "eh" in said, again, against etc.). In the meantime, I recommend the Riggs Institute system. It's not without its flaws (such as teaching around the schwa), but it's the best I've found.
    • Massive cluster troll. Seriously though, English is a strange, if reliable language. Indeed, Chinese is possibly the only language that competes with it in terms of usefulness for writing factual papers. It's a versatile language that is good for both creative, and ordered thinking. And relatively speaking, it's spelling isn't THAT WEIRD. As languages go, it's spelling isn't bad, considering it doesn't have it's own Alphabet. Compare French, which turns EVERYTHING into an "ow" sound, even though there are clearly l's, double l's, v's, r's, and the O-U that would make more of an "oo" sound.
    • I concur. I once took a college course on linguistics taught by a professor who spoke English, French, Swedish, German, and Mandarin Chinese. Over the course of a semester she was able to help us just begin to scratch the very surface of why and how letters become sounds in English. People have written books on just certain aspects of English. To try and get a simple answer in an internet forum is ludicrous and will only lead to many protracted, and equally logical arguments.
    • Realistically, there's only one scenario in which English spelling reform would be feasible and likely to get implemented: that's in centuries to come, when global English dialects finally diverge enough that they are indisputably different languages--descendants of English, rather than kinds of English. Consider the development of Latin--for centuries, French, Spanish, and Italian scribes all spelled their word for "man" as "hominem," long past the time when anyone sounded it out that way. There came a dawning moment, though, when they realized they weren't speaking anything you could still consider Latin, and that's when they each started spelling the word as they pronounced it ("homme," "hombre," and "uomo," respectively).
  • Why do irregular verbs still exist? No rule can teach how exactly the simple past tense of "to go" is the completely different word "went", you have to learn irregular verbs by heart, and there is no rule for them, they're just surviving archaisms. Why do we still say, for example: "A flock of ducks flew up in front of me, I shot in the air and hit one, so my dog ran where it fell, got it in its mouth and brought it to me"? It would be much more logical to say: "A flock of ducks flied up in front of me, I shooted in the air and hitted one, so my dog runned where it falled, getted it in its mouth and bringed it to me". An answer like "Because that sounds like baby talk" is not acceptable, because surely when people started saying "goes", "has", "does", "walked", "gave" instead of "goeth", "hath", "doth", "walkedst", "gav'st" it sounded like baby talk too, but it's perfectly accepted today.
    • Why do irregular verbs still exist in any language? Or innumerable verbal conjugations? Or gendered nouns? Because people are used to it and don't see the need to change it. Or seemingly so, at least. And if I am to be believed in terms of linguistics(probably am not), now that literacy is several levels of magnitude higher than at the time people said "doth", it's even less likely to change, since people know what the correct form is, or at least have easy access to it.
    • Unskilled speakers of the language (babies and foreigners) speak like that precisely because the "correct" ways are irregular. Because they haven't learned all the special cases, they extrapolate the patterns they know to form tenses and plurals.
    • Irregular verbs aren't "surviving archaisms" the way you think: In every language that has them, they're the core verbs, the ones most often used, and what is spoken most often is subject to the greatest degree of change. It's the non-core verbs that quickly lose their irregularities and become perfectly regular. If you want a language with almost 100% regularity, pick up Japanese, the verb system of which (though complex) is perfectly regular except for two core verbs ("to do" and "to come") and a small collection of verbs that follow one specific non-regular pattern; the rest are either standard verbs or follow the iru/eru pattern.
  • Why is "ain't" shunned, even when used in first person, like in "if that was a joke, why ain't I laughing?" or "I ain't afraid of no ghost" (and yes, the double negative is still a mistake)? It would be very handy as a contraction for "am not". On the other hand, if the contraction for "am I not?" is "aren't I?", why is "I aren't" still wrong?
    • ...pedantism, I guess?
      • I'll bite. Don't you mean pedantry?
    • It just...doesn't sound right. "I aren't" and the such crap up the flow of a sentence pretty bad.
      • "Ain't" never, ever means "I aren't". The word can be short for "am not", "are not", "is not", etc., but does not automatically imply grammatically incorrect pairings.
    • In my experience, it's to do with class snobbery - people instinctively associate "ain't" with the people they consider to be the lower orders. So it's not seen just as a contraction, but also a vulgarism.
    • and ageism as I don't hear many adults say it. My teachers though got mad whenever someone used it in papers. It's highly informal and used mainly to convey a point o it's not used that much where I live (Western USA)
    • It just bugs me how 'ain't' means 'am not'. They don't sound anything alike, like other contractions do, which confuses me a bit haha. Does not=Doesn't...Has not=Hasn't...Am not=Ain't. It just sounds a bit funny, and I do really want to know how it started. When I'm shortening 'am not', I say 'amn't', it makes more sense hahaha. And on the 'aren't I?' thing, I wouldn't ever say that. I say 'amn't I not?', which is equally bad grammar, I know, but that's just how I talk, I guess.
      • It just bugs me how Americans take their American 'english' as the one and only version of English The ENGLISH invented it thats why its called English see!
      • 1. Is what you're seeing actually Americans making that assumption, or simply Americans using their own dialect in their own country? 2. What exactly does this have to do with the use of "ain't"?
      • According to dictionary.com it has many different meanings, of which "am not" is only one. It also lists "are not", "is not", "have not", "has not", "do not", "does not", and "did not". Funny how context invariably makes it clear which of the many meanings is intended. Really, it is a very useful word.
    • Rap, regardless of it's subgenre, would be screwed for it's nonexistence. It's shunning is strictly bias of unintelligent people against equally unintelligent people. It's in the English dictionary. Sorry kiddos, English evolves (also see: why "Can I..." is perfectly acceptable.)
  • On a related note, why, beyond anti-Deep South prejudice, is "y'all" so shunned? Particularly when its alternatives are often just as grammatically incorrect (the proper second person plural is simply "you" - not "you all", "you guys", etc) and have issues that "y'all" does not - "you guys" is gendered, "you" creates obvious ambiguities because it's both plural and singular, "you all" can create ambiguity as to whether the "all" is added for emphasis, to refer to everyone the speaker is addressing, or with the "you" to refer to a specific group ("y'all" is only used for the third of those).
    • there aren't really any genders in English. Y'a]l is more of a regional (Southern)thing and is ver useful when referring to a group of people ('you gus is more of a mouthful. Plus it sounds awesome when you say y'all.)
    • Why is there no English pronoun for second person, plural? "Y'all" is about the best you can do, unless you want to say something like "you people" or "all of you."
      • There is. It's 'you.' There used to be a second person singular form as well (thou), but that's not in use anymore. And honestly, it's really not as hard to figure out whether someone who's saying "you" means just me or everyone around me as you make it out to be. All about context, people.
        • Fair, but "thou" specifically became an informal form of the second-person singular after "you" expanded to cover both the formal second-person singular and the second-person plural, back when English had the T-V distinction (formal and informal address). Which is kinda funny, when you think about how it's taken today.
      • In my country, we'd kind of have a pronoun for the second person plural, and we talk English. Most people I know seem to say 'yous' if they're talking about a group of people, and a lot of people from the countryside in my country say 'ye'. But I don't think that's good grammar, as far as I know, cause they give out to you if you say it in an English class haha. It's still another option though.
      • In Ireland, the part I'm from anyway, we tend to use 'yous' to refer to a group. It's horrifically bad english, but it serves its purpose.
      • And in my part of Ireland we use "ye".
      • I've taken up "y'all" despite being nowhere near the place where it's generally used (I'm in Washington State). But then, I borrow stuff whenever I find it useful (I'm a conlanger). I'm sure people on the other side of the internet probably see me type "y'all" and assume a culture I'm not actually a part of.
        • Also: "You guys" may have a gender on the face of it, but it's part of the whole "male neutral" set. I was just explaining this to my five-year-old niece the other day: "Guys" doesn't have a gender, it's just what you use to talk about a group of people (given certain connotative constraints such as formality). I could use it to describe a group of girls: "Hey, you guys, come look at this!" On the other hand, the phrase "you girls" does have a distinct gender, so it's like "you guys" plus "female" (and possibly "of a certain age" and/or "of a certain age compared to me").
        • The depth of an person's regional patois is usually assumed to be inversely correlated to their level of intelligence. People who are educated typically have less of a regional accent and use less specific regional dialect and slang when speaking. A professor from Texas A&M may have somewhat of a southern drawl, but he probably speaks more like a professor from Cornell than a guy working the Texas oil fields. In addition, culturally, between Jeff Foxworthy, George W. Bush, Southern Baptist preachers, and pretty much 85% of the people arrested on the show Cops, Southern parlance has a connection with lower intelligence and intolerance.
        • I'd contest pretty much everything in the preceding entry. Unless one lives in an unusually parochial corner of America, an educated person may speak in pretty much any regional or national accent, so long as the words themselves pass grammatical muster. The specifically regional nature of a particular locution, whatever one's stance towards the area itself, suffices to explain why it doesn't enter general currency. (And as for the last part: Honi soit qui mal y pense, espèce de douche.)
  • I before E, except after C, unless it's weird...
    • Examined by QI. You may find it interesting.
      • Except that what QI omitted to mention is that the rule is only supposed to be applied when the "ie"/"ei" combination is pronounced "ee" (as in "bee"). The rule holds most of the time in this case, with only a few exceptions (such as "plebeian", "protein" [which was originally pronounced "pro-tee-in" in any case] and proper nouns like "Keith" and "Reid"). In most, if not all, of the examples on the screen behind them, this combination is not pronounced "ee".
    • I learned the rhyme as "I before E, except after C, / Or when pronounced 'ay' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh.'" (There are still the noted exceptions, of course.)
    • I don't know if the OP intended this or not, but "weird" doesn't fit into either the "after C" or "sounds like 'ay'" part of the rule.
      • That's because it's weird.
      • *Clears throat* a correct version of the rhyme: I before E Except after C/Unless its a word without a sound of long "EE"/Like when making an "AY" like in "neighbour" or "sleigh"/But then "seizure" and "seize" screw the rule up anyway.../Oh, you'll always be WRONG, no matter what you say!
  • People who insist "you can't end a sentence with a preposition." Of course you can! Where are you from? Who did you come with? What's this book about? Do these stairs go down? What they mean is "you shouldn't end a sentence with an unnecessary preposition", such as "where are you going to?", which is true. But some English teachers apply this rule way too strictly, and force students to write needlessly stilted sentences. It is nonsense, up with which I will not put.
    • It's because snooty upper class people back in the day were trying to make English more like Latin, which was considered the standard by which all languages were judged. In Latin, you don't put prepositions at the end, so these prescriptivists decided that you couldn't do it in English either even though you obviously can. It's the same reason why some people are against splitting infinitives in English: you literally CAN'T do that in Latin as infinitives are single words, so the same people decided that putting anything between, say, 'to' and 'read' was barbaric. People who abide by these rules are (and I hate to sound like the snooty one but it's true) mistaken.
      • Actually, there was a point where splitting the (to)infinitive was something that just wasn't done - and there was a point where whole clauses where jammed in there. Pretty sure that rule's still valid in German, for instance.
        • It is often (but not universally) the case that the general rules for English (and many other languages) differ depending upon whether one is writing or speaking. In spoken language, ending a sentence with a preposition has become the norm rather than the exception. However, when writing, the inverse is often the case, and thus the aforementioned questions would be rendered, "With whom did you come?" "About what is this book?" and so on. "Do these stairs go down?" is not a question that ends with a preposition, but with an adjective and thus spared the rule. Placing the preposition in a location other than the end of the sentence can change the register - the tone of the sentence - due to the distinction that it makes. It can make a sentence seem more elegant (or pretentious, depending upon one's tastes) or it can make one more awkward and thus prompt the author to re-imagine his intended sentence. Some institutions demand that written work conform to a standard, such as a definite rule regarding the placement of prepositions. Others do not. The British newspaper, the Guardian, has a style guide that mimics the spoken word more than a traditional piece of writing, and thus move "properly" placed prepositions and remove the word whom and so on and so forth.
  • All this talk of prepositions has reminded me of my mother (a primary teacher) always insisting that a sentence should not be started with a pronoun. Is there really a problem with something starting along the lines of "It was a sunny day..." etc.?
    • No. That rule does not exist. It's a conjunction you're not supposed to use to start a sentence--though try telling that to Shakespeare.
      • Sorry, there's no rule saying that you can't start a sentence with a conjunction. And that's all there is to it.
        • There is no canon to grammar. Rules are naturally going to be disagreed upon, and many of them will make no sense (which is often the cause of disagreement). There is no universally accepted rule against starting sentences with conjunctions but you will still see the rule often being taught. Technically it is a sort of seeming punctuation error but in actual practice it can actually make a sentence pack quite a lot of punch. The usual compromise now is to say that you should do it sparingly, because only then does it give the sentence a dynamic, jarring oomph. I repeat: there is no official set of rules in the grammar of any language.
          • That is not necessarily true. There might not be a universally correct set of rules for any language, but many countries do prescribe particular rules. France, Germany, Luxembourg and Japan, for example, all have authorities that have to a greater or lesser extent drawn the boundaries in one regard or another as to what and is not acceptable grammar or spelling. To return to the original point, the basic rule is that a sentence should not start with a conjunction in formal written documents unless that sentence is formed from more than one clause e.g. "Because it was not possible to recover the pilot, the truth about what happened that day will probably never be known". Of course, this is a rule that is often "broken" for the sake of effect as much as anything else and certainly is typically not relevant when speaking.
      • In college, the English professor tried to tell me that you couldn't use "but" after a semicolon. I disagreed strongly, all the more because he didn't have a problem with using "but" to start a sentence. My argument went something like this: It's okay to say "We hunted for him all over town. But it was getting late, so eventually we went home." So why not: "We hunted for him all over town; but it was getting late, so eventually we went home."? (I eventually concluded that I'd learned enough of the rules of English that I'd outgrown them, and could break them when I felt I had good reason. It felt good to know that.)
      • Except that, of course, taken on its own, "But it was getting late, so eventually we went home." renders the thought incomplete. "But" may only begin a sentence (and thus, in the same vein, follow a semi-colon) if it expresses the thought completely. "But for it getting late, we would not have gone home." is grammatically correct. In the context you gave, it would be better to say "However," or "Despite this," than "But" (which should have a comma after it, by the way), and in fact, best to omit it altogether - "It was getting late, so eventually we went home." makes sense not only as an independent sentence, but also fits in well after a semi-colon, because, in fact, employed in such a context, the semi-colon carries the implication of the "But" with it. When it comes down to it "I've learned enough of the rules of English that I've outgrown them" is an arrogant, childish sentiment.
      • The reason people think that there's a rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction is that we teach schoolchildren not to do it, because if we didn't, they, or far too many of them, in any case, would start every sentence of every paper with the word "and." That's also why we teach them not to use the first-person personal pronoun in writing: if we didn't, they would start every sentence with "I think." There are times when it really is useful to begin a sentence with the word "and" or the phrase "I think," but many people think that because they were taught not to do it when they were children, it is wrong forever.
        • Many of the so-called "rules" of writing stem from this. In order to teach children how to write well, teachers often have to pass off stylistic advice as hard-and-fast rules. As the students improve, they learn when it is appropriate to break these "rules" for the sake of style, and when it it better to stick to the methods they were taught. At least we hope they do. When they don't, it results in things like Said Bookism and nagging others about starting sentences with conjunctions.
  • Why do people use the terms gay and lesbian like they are two different things (LGBT and the like). I mean isn't a lesbian a gay female, and isn't that still a gay person? I'm not trying to offend anyone, I just fail to see why it's used like that.
    • While gay does indeed describe the supercategory "people who are (primarily) sexually and emotionally attracted to people of the same gender", it is often used to refer to gay men in particular, so to underline an inclusive nature, using what is technically a tautology is preferrable to many people, I guess.
      • It's not a tautology. 'Gay' can be used as an adjective (person who is attracted to the same gender), but it's valid as a noun (man who is attracted to men). To simplify for argument's sake: they're two different words so the opposite of 'gay' as an adjective is 'straight' (simplified, obviously). The opposite of 'gay' as a noun is 'lesbian'. LGBT is using 'gay' as a noun.
      • Another reason is simplicity. If you say, "I have a gay friend," then I know your friend is male. If 'gay' were to widely mean male or female people, then I'd have to ask the gender of your friend. Having 'gay' = male and 'lesbian' = female means more information is conveyed in one word.
    • The term lesbian predates gay by a good while, being a reference to Sappho and her poetry, so the term probably just stuck even as gay came into common use.
    • And nowadays "gay" usually just means "stupid" anyway. For a while people tried to distance the two meanings by spelling the "stupid" sense as "ghey" but I don't think that ever quite caught on as intended, and it seems to want to have it both ways.
      • And now the Ad Council's railing against it. And the spots are just as gay as it sounds.
      • Gay doesn't mean stupid to most people. It's a slang term used by homophobic teenage boys.
      • Yes it does, at least to most of those below 30 years old. It's an extremely common slang term used by plenty of straight and queer people both male and female. To imply that it's only used by "homophobic teenage boys" is simply absurd.
      • I concur: I don't use it myself, but I've got a lot of friends who do; I'm 32 and the oldest, and the youngest is maybe 22. After spending a decade and more analyzing their word usage, I have to conclude that the official dictionary meaning of terms doesn't prevent them from losing their face value when used as slang. I don't think they're homophobic when they call something "gay"; I don't think they're inherently prejudiced when they make racial jokes; and I don't think that they've got an actual sexual image in their heads when they say "I'm gonna eff you in the A." I've even heard rape used as a compliment, which floored me[3]. So clearly the dictionary meaning isn't the only meaning at play.
      • It's homophobic, and needs to be stopped, end of. Why people are enamoured with slurs to the point that they will insist upon using them even when asked not to is beyond me. There are plenty of other terms that can be used without denigrating an entire minority.
    • My theory is that because we are a male-dominated society, male is the default, therefore the implied meaning of using the word "gay" is "gay male", which means there needs to be a different word for a gay female.
      • Male dominated? Seriously? That's hopefully meant as a joke.
        • Unlikely. While that statement was inelegant and possible intended to incite rage, it does have some truth to it. Man, woman. Guy, girl (gal?). In those examples, the first refers to the male, but can be used to refer to both, whereas the second is explicitly female. However, this may have more to do with English being a male-dominated language. I doubt I have the required vocab to complete this thought, as can be seen in my use of "dominated". That doesn't sound right...
          • This kind of thing pops up in other languages, too - for example, French. When I learned it (which was back in 2003-2004, I have no idea if this rule has changed yet), "ils" and "elles" both meant "they". "Elles" was to be used when you were referring to a group made up of only women, whereas "ils" was a broader term encompassing a group of people including at least one male. If you were talking about a group of 20 girls and 1 male, for example, you'd use "ils" even though you'd probably naturally assume that "more girls = use the female pronoun".
          • And for this reason, Slavic languages have a plural form of "he", "she" and "it".
            • Not all of them. Russian has only one, which really is simpler solution.
        • Western society isn't dominated by men, but it is seen by itself to be as such because it was, recently. While the social conditions have shifted, the public conscience hasn't quite caught up.
      • In many languages, the masculine gender tends to serve as a default and catch-all. This is true even in the majority of Indo-European languages where the "masculine"/"feminine" distinction is grammatical, and implies nothing about the referent's actual sex.
      • English does have a major exception to this "masculine = default" tendency, though: the names of many animals. "Cow," "duck," "goose," "sheep": these are all generic terms for the animal that more specifically refer to the female of the species. If you want to specify a MALE, you have to use specialized terms such as "bull," "drake," "gander," "ram," etc. Ain't language wonderful?
        • "Sheep" is fairly unisex, actually; the female term would be "ewe".
        • You're right about "ewe"; I believe, though, that "sheep" may also have had female connotations in older English dialects.
  • The plural of hoof and roof. Both hoof and roof have the same ending and etymology, however, the plural of hoof is hooves, and roof is roofs? Shouldn't it be rooves, or possibly hoofs? I googled both of them, and apparently they're legit archaic spellings of the two. So why did one plural change, but not the other, despite having the same singular endings and etymology? Being a native English speaker, even English confuses me sometimes.
    • Generally, the more common an irregularity is, the longer it's kept in a language. I have no data to back me up on this, but I'd suspect that "hooves" are (or were) more commonly talked about than "roofs".
  • Why is it that whenever someone wonders why English isn't standardized or cut down I think of Newspeak?
    • Too many people still confuse sophisticated with needlessly complicated?
  • If we, as a culture, have mostly moved past the aforementioned sentence-ending prepositions, sentence-opening pronouns and split infinitives, why are we still so hung up on what to use for the gender-neutral singular?
    • Gender politics. Split infinitives don't have brawling lobbying groups, though maybe, they should.
      • Then why is the main argument between the "they" faction and the "he or she" faction? I mean, yes, there's a women's suffrage song exhorting, "to each citizen render his due", but the gender-neutral "he" dropped out of the running in the seventies at the latest.
        • It hasn't really--perhaps some of us move in more reflexively PC circles than others. Deo vindice, baby!
      • Why can't we just come up with, or borrow like everything else, a gender neutral 3rd person singular? It's not like everyone's lexicon isn't expanded with ten new words a year from technology, so why not make one that will be relevant in more than twenty years? While I know there isn't a central English authority to declare "Use X for animate, neuter 3rd person singular", there has to be some movement out there that advocates borrowing a word.
        • They've tried. Look it up. But borrowings almost never touch the core vocabulary of a language. In fact, I can't recall which language I'm thinking of, but it was notable because it had borrowed (I think it was) pronouns, which languages almost never do.
          • It is quite correct that often used words are more resistant to change than others, and as such that e.g. pronouns are almost never borrowed. The langauge you are thinking of might actually be English, though, as it has in fact borrowed some of its pronouns. In Old English, the third person plural pronouns were hi/hira/him etc. etc.. Contact with vikings speaking Old Norse led English to adopt the modern they/their/them for its third person plural pronouns.
        • This tactic has been suggested before, but it couldn't survive the response of an anonymous wit who proposed fusing the three current pronouns into "s/h/it."
  • Lisp. The word lisp. What kind of a cruel bastard puts an s in the word used to describe replacing an s sound with a th sound. "You talk funny." "Yeth, I have a lithp." "A what?" "A lithp. I replathe ethes with t-eches." "You do what?" "Fuck off."
    • Apparently language has cruel sense of humor. According to Wiktionary the Czech word for lisp is šišlat, the Dutch slissen, and the Finnish is sammaltaa.
  • Why is 'don't' written that way? It means 'do not', so it seems logical (to me at least) to have do'nt as the right spelling. It took me a few years of english classes to write it consequently right. (also: ain't, aren't ect.)
    • Because the apostrophe is there to replace the missing letter, not the space.
  • Why does US format of date use middle endianess? a) It makes really hard to know 05/10/2011 mean (is it 5 October 2011 or is it May 10, 2011?) b) It disallows any 'sane' sorting as with formats 2011/11/20 or 20/11/2011.
    • In the English language, long-form dates have historically been written as "October 5, 2011." Only in the early 20th century did Britain start using "5th October 2011" regularly; in America, the latter format is still less frequent than the traditional way. Therefore, the American "10/5/11" and British "5-10-11" correspond to each country's default way of writing the long date ("October 5" and "5th October," respectively).

      As for sorting: neither method is a problem for manual sorting. The British/Continental method is probably easier for computerized sorting, and the Big-Endian (YYYY-MM-DD) format is easier than either. However, people generally don't like to alter the way they write just to make life simpler for a computer--and who can blame them?

The problem with middle endian dates as used primarily by the US is that in it's written form it can be harder to determine the date in question. Little endian and Big endian dates are easier to determine the date. i.e Little endian 11-10-99 and Big endian 1999-10-11 display the same infomration except reveresed. With the Middle endian format it becomes 10-11-99. So two ways round it gives the same date, the third more often or not is an entirely different date.

  • Why do people insist on ending sentences with question marks just because they start with "I wonder" or "I thought"? THAT DOESN'T MAKE THEM QUESTIONS!
    • It's less eye-rapey than questions without question marks, at least.
    • It's because sentences like that can be spoken with more than one intonation to cover several different meanings. For example, the phrase "I thought you were the culpit[...]" can be spoken as a exclamation ("I thought you were the culpit!" -- as in "I was right all along!"), a flat declaration ("I thought you were the culpit.") or as a question ("I thought you were the culpit?" -- as in, "It wasn't you?"). Since it's sometimes difficult to express the differences between these intonations in text, people use a question mark to indicate that the phrase is intended as a question, even though the grammar of the sentence is technically declarative.
  • Words like "none" and "neither" are, apparently, singular. While I can see the sense in this (ex. replacing "none" in a sentence with "not one," and vice-versa), it still strikes me as odd, because few people actually use these words correctly. Why is this?
    • It's just one of those rules that have stayed firm in formal writing, but have almost vanished from the everyday spoken language. All languages have certain constructions that fall out of usage at times, and when they do, the formal written standard is usually the last holdout.
  • When one is closing a sentence with a quotation, where does the terminating punctuation go? I've seen it placed alternately before and after the closing quotation mark; is this just a stylistic choice? Does it have to do with American/British English differences?
    • I place it after, since it's the sentence ending and the period isn't necessarily part of the quote. I could be wrong, though.
    • The answer is different for American and British English:
      • In American English, the period or comma always comes before the closing quotation mark. For other marks (question mark, exclamation point, etc.), it depends on whether the punctuation belongs to the quoted statement, or to the sentence containing the quote:

That movie was what I call a "yawner."
I'm reading "A Modest Proposal," just as you suggested.
Your father asked me "How is Elizabeth?"
Why are you calling your mother "Emily"?

      • In British English, though, the latter rule applies everywhere--even to periods and commas:

That movie was what I call a "yawner".
I'm reading "A Modest Proposal", just as you suggested.

        • However, some speakers of American English use the British rule because it makes more sense, especially in science, and universally in programming, because it's often very important whether the period/comma is part of the quote.


  1. My theory holds that the brain is like a computer with limited (computer) memory, and by having too many apps open at once, it bogs down. Hence, the more computing power devoted to "how do I spell this?" or "what word do these letters mean?" the less power available to keep track of logical thought.
  2. How does the "whole word" method prepare you to read Dr. Seuss, anyway?
  3. My friends' friend was showing off pictures of his new bride, and one of my friends said (paraphrased) "She looks hot; it'll be great when I come over there and rape her." It didn't take more than a few seconds for my brain to process the meaning behind the remarks, and I was clear that it was a compliment, but... wow.