Mind & Body

Word Order Is One Big Reason English Is So Hard to Learn

"Read" rhymes with "lead," and "lead" rhymes with "read," but "read" doesn't rhyme with "lead" and "lead" doesn't rhyme with "read." Following along? Then chances are you speak English pretty well — and you also know why so many people have such a hard time with it.

Her Tomb-Shaped Comb is the Bomb

So what makes English so difficult to learn? For starters, there's the inconsistent pronunciation and spelling rules, the abundance of arbitrarily silent letters (silent Bs?!), and a host of unspoken rules about word order — more on that in a minute. But why?

Basically, because it's a Frankenstein language, sewn together from a whole bunch of European languages. Here's the recipe. Start with a base of Celtic, and ladle on a heaping helping of Germanic (of both the Norse and mainland varieties). Let simmer for a couple of centuries, then wrap it in a thin layer of French. Garnish with dictionary typos, and voila: the most complicated language in the world.

Why don't we take the most widely quoted rule in the English language as an example? "I before E, except after C." That's true, at least ... right? Well, except for "glacier," And "weird." And "science." And "protein," "efficiency," and "Einstein," twice. In fact, some estimates list a full 923 words in which a "c" is followed by an "ie" — and just 40-some that actually follow the rule.

And then there's the set of letters that's probably the most frustrating in the whole language: "ough." Though you ought to have heard these words enough, a thorough investigation reveals enough pronunciations to make you cough. (Don't even get us started on the people who spell it "hiccough.")

The Secret Grammar Weird Rule That Makes This Line Sound Ridiculous

Clearly, there are some "rules" that aren't rules at all. But what about the non-rule you'll never be taught in schools but that guides all English sentence structures? Confused? If you grew up speaking English, you know this rule, but you probably don't know that you know it. And if you didn't grow up speaking it, then you probably learned this rule in class — but nobody in English-speaking countries ever did. We're talking, of course, about the adjective-order rule.

In Mark Forsyth's "The Elements of Eloquence", he lays out this rule in a way that will instantly blow any native English-speaker's mind. "Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac."

Try it for yourself. "My mother just bought a blue big car." Ouch. "I like this Italian round smelly cheese." Oh, that's even worse. "Did you see that marble new statue?" Ok, our eyes are bleeding now. We'll stop.

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Want a better handle on this, the worst language in the world? Pick up "The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase" by Mark Forsyth. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 29, 2017

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