2014-01-29 / Opinions

Could you repeat that?

Let’s face it – the English language is full of tricks and traps, and those of us in the word business know it all too well. Anybody who has taught a kid, grown-up or a foreigner how to speak, read or write American English knows those moments when the lesson has to stop and the explanations begin.

Take there, their and they’re. When you say them, they all sound the same. (These are called homophones, the word experts tell us.) Explaining to a third grader when to use and how to spell each one is a true test of patience and clear-headedness. Most adults stumble over them now and again, ourselves included.

Then there are the words that mean three or four different things. Our language is full of these tricky bits – also known as homonyms. How is a new immigrant from China supposed to know that “jar” means that glass container full of pickles AND to bump or jostle someone? And why does “bear” mean that big brown furry animal that steals honey, while also referring to the action of tolerating something (We can’t bear the cold this week…)?

Then we have phrases that defy reason, and don’t make any literal sense. Heaven help someone who didn’t grow up hearing these gems. A local reader dug up a list of oxymorons that we ran in the paper years ago. Columnist Linda Buzzerd had gotten the list of seeming contradictions from a friend and thought it might spark discussion. Among the confusing sayings were “exact estimate,” “clean dirt,” “soft rock,” “pretty ugly” and “plastic glasses.”

Our English teachers in school acted like the rules they taught us made sense, but we’re all old enough to face the truth. Our mother tongue is equal parts clarity and whimsy, as children and poets are good at pointing out. Frankly, it’s a wonder we understand one another at all.

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