As a child, I learned the rules of grammar and spelling, or at least I gained a significant intuitive understanding of them; as an adult, I was able to use this strong intuition to produce a lot of very clear, forceful, and persuasive essays during both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Clearly, I was quite adept at using the language effectively. What more did I need to know?
Thinking I had this language licked, I gave little thought to its numerous peculiarities until I spent a year in South Korea, where I taught English as a second language.
A few weeks after I arrived, I was teaching a small class of seven-year-old kids who were, you could say, advanced beginners. I asked a student to read aloud, and he was doing quite well, but he mistakenly pronounced the past tense form of “read” as reed instead of red, perhaps because he did not yet recognize past-tense constructions. I corrected him gently, and he went on to do a fine job with the rest of the paragraph. Still, I was gobsmacked.
Of course every kid mispronounces a word here and there, but this young boy’s minor and perfectly reasonable error forced me to acknowledge a rather cruel aspect of the English language:
- a single letter combination may represent multiple sounds and meanings (these words are called homographs); and
- the reader must simply know that a homograph exists to reliably choose the correct pronunciation and comprehend these sentences.
Suddenly, that intuitive grasp of English seemed like a handicap rather than a gift, and I have spent the last few years taking courses and seminars to fill in the gaps left by my childhood education. This has greatly improved my skills as both an editor and as a writer. It has also helped me to take note of some of the rather odd and occasionally frustrating characteristics of the language.
In the near future I will certainly have a little fun discussing some of the linguistic weirdness that English likes to flaunt – including the word “weird.” We’ll come back to that one later.