English is Broken

English isn’t perfect. For me, it wasn’t until I started learning other languages that I realized some deficiencies in my own. Just for fun, here are a few:

WE

Let’s say that you, dear reader, and I, are chatting. I say to you “we’re invited to the party.” Off the bat, you don’t know whether I mean that you and I are invited, or that you’re NOT invited, but my wife and I are.

“WE” means that the speaker is involved, but it doesn’t imply one way or the other whether the listener is involved. And of course, this leads to confusion and bad sit-com plot lines.

But Indonesian has a solution. “Kami” means we, excluding the listener. “Kita” means we, including the listener. Neato! (I think that’s right, anyway. It’s been a long time since I tried to speak Indonesian!)

ANSWERING NEGATIVE QUESTIONS

I say to you, “Are you not forty yet?” What would a simple “yes” mean? I think it would generally mean that you are forty (damn, you’re old), but it’s unclear enough that most people wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving it there. They’d tack on additional information, like, “yes, I am” or “no, I’m not,” or maybe, “right, I’m not forty yet.”

It’s weird.

But the French have a solution. The word “Oui” means yes, as everyone knows. But when someone asks a negative question and you want to answer positively (are you not forty, yes I am forty), they say, “si.”

So, you ask a forty year-old whether he’s forty: Are you forty yet? Oui. Are you not forty yet? Si.

And again I say, neato!

YOU (in two parts)

THE SINGULAR YOU: When talking to one person, we say “you.” When talking to three people, we say, “you.” This inspecificity leads to constructions like “you’se” and “y’all,” or “you guys” and (God forbid) “you’se guys,” because people just don’t feel comfortable using the same word for both types.

Of course, we used to have “thou” for the singular you. When Hamlet’s mom says, “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain,” we know right away that she means one person did the cleaving. She wasn’t talking to a group of heart-cleaving ingrates, but only to one particular person. We know this without context! We know it from the word thou.

But thou is gone and now we’re floundering around trying to make “you” fill both roles.

YOU AS THE OBJECT: First an example not using you. We say, “He gives me the ball.” Then we say, “I give him the ball.”

From the first sentence to the second, the “he” switched to “him.” First HE was giving something, then something was given to HIM.

The same thing goes for “I” and “me,” “she” and “her,” “they” and “them,” “we” and “us,” etc. One word is for doing the acting (the subject), and the other is for being acted upon (the object).

Except for “you”! You is power-hungry. It not only wants to cover plurals and singulars, but also wants to be the actor AND acted upon. “You give him the ball.” “He gives you the ball.” It’s you in both places! What the hell? “He” and “him” have to tag out, but “you” just ambles over to a different part of the sentence.

So what, you ask.

So you don’t get the immediate cues that let you know quickly, without thinking, what the sentence means. Of course, in this example, it’s obvious. But when sentences and thoughts get more complicated, those cues become more important.

Again, we used to have something. Thou was the actor (for singular), and thee was the acted upon. Ye was the actor for plural, and (before it took over the world) “you” was the acted upon.

But that’s all gone now, and we just have “you” filling every vacant spot. For example, tu/vous/tois in French corresponds to you/you/you in English. Soon, “you” will probably mean everything. All our sentences will just be, “You you you you you.” (Apologies to Monty Python.)

Now, I sort of pretended that “you” is the only word throwing its weight around the object/subject world. But it isn’t. I give you…

WHO

Who was born as a subject. “Who ate the ice cream?” “Who knows if the moon’s a balloon?” “Who would read all this grammatical claptrap?”

And the object, the acted upon, of course, was “whom.” “You gave it to whom?” “You’re talking to whom?”

But “whom” may as well be dead except in certain pat phrases like, “to whom it may concern.” Some writers still use it, and I hear it used incorrectly all the time at work, but many good writers would let it die rather than be thought pedantic or pretentious. (I assume that the same thing happened to all the other words I mentioned earlier, like “thou” or “ye.” We’re witnessing history here!)

But, while it’s unstoppable at this point (and I don’t generally use it myself), losing whom is bad for comprehension:

“Who, after you came all this way, do you want to see?” You have to wait nine words before finding out that the “who” is the object of this sentence. That is, “who” represent the person being seen, not the person doing the seeing. Until that point, it could have been, “who, after you came all this way, do you think you are?”

If the word had been “whom,” and people actually knew how to use it properly, then we’d have more information sooner.

Of course, I’m not saying we can’t live without “whom.” We can, do, and will.

But English would be more easily and more quickly understood if we kept some of those markers like thou and whom; maybe we wouldn’t have to break everything down into bite-sized sentences. As it is, we can’t trust “who” or “whom” anymore. People either use “who” for everything, or sometimes spice it up with an incorrect “whom.”

AMERICAN CAN/CAN’T

How many times have you said something like this over the phone: “wait, did you say we CAN or CAN’T have thirty-two crocodiles in the pool?”

“Can” and “can’t” sound too similar in American English. Most of the rest of the English-speaking world never have this problem. “Can” rhymes with “plan” and “can’t” sounds more like “want.”

Ok, I’m at the end. Kevin, this is really your fault, because you said something about how you’re happy that there are those who love English the way I do, but you advise people to avoid us at parties. It’s my lifelong dream to not make small-talk with strangers at parties, so I’m writing this to strengthen my reputation.

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5 Responses to “English is Broken”

  1. BruceS
    May 24, 2007 at 6:35 pm #

    Forty is old? I would say I can see it in my rearview mirror, but my eyes aren’t so good anymore.
    You’re in the word business, so maybe I should just take your word for it, but I thought “thou” (and “thee”) wast (“werst”? now I’m hungry) the familiar, vs. “you” as the formal. Didst we not use “you” for both singular and plural formal second person object? What was the plural familiar second person (or do I just have the whole thing bolloxed)?
    My wife and I wouldn’t avoid you at parties for talking grammar. Her and I talk about it ourself.
    Now for a column about the use of “they” and “their” for sex-inderterminate singular pronouns. Maybe one other person will tell us their opinion when they read this.

  2. weeklyrob
    May 24, 2007 at 7:53 pm #

    You’re right about formal and informal, I think, but as in other languages, the plural IS the formal.

    Tu is singular and vous plural in French, but Vous is also the formal, even when singular. But that doesn’t make things clearer, and I don’t think English is lacking anything important by not having it, so I didn’t mention it.

    Maybe I will write about using they instead of “he and she” or just “he.” Actually, people have been doing that for a very long time, and I think it’s ok in all but the most formal writing. But I usually try to avoid it, especially in my professional writing, so that people don’t think I’ve made a mistake.

    Don’t think I don’t notice all the little grammatical jokes you make! But I don’t want to cheapen them by pointing them out.

  3. cathy
    May 24, 2007 at 8:32 pm #

    Ooh good one. I think “he” was acceptable for indeterminate singular pronoun just like “man” meant all people until political correctness happened. I also notice people using “I” as an object when they’re trying to sound smart or serious. “For Sam and I, it’s a matter of principle.”

    Another lost one – “were” in a sentence expressing uncertainty. It’s the only word that I know of in English in the subjunctive mood, as in “if he were an idiot, would you tell him?” Are there any others? Well this one’s almost dead. I like it when I see it used.

    A great language to study in order to learn English is Latin. Even basic Latin requires grammar boot camp. Even though I took Latin in hopes of boosting my vocabulary, I was glad to pick up a better understanding of grammar. Grammar is so basic but nobody seems to care.

    A separate point…distaste for making small talk is probably a universal thing, just in varying degrees. So how does one get to know another person at a social function? Dive right into big topics like politics and parenting styles? I don’t know, depends on whether if you think a new friend or avoiding boredom/awkwardness at a party is worth the pointless chatter.

  4. weeklyrob
    May 24, 2007 at 9:45 pm #

    “He” is definitely strictly correct, but as I say, people have been using the “they” workaround for a LONG time. It’s not new with political correctness.

    I generally don’t like meeting people at a party, so I guess my answer is that I don’t want to get to know the person. I could probably count on one hand the number of friends I’ve made at a party.

    Oh, Bruce! I’m almost 40, so that was a dig on myself.

  5. BruceS
    May 25, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

    You didn’t need the quotes, Rob. You could have just said “He is definitely strictly correct”, meaning me, of course. I’m glad my humor isn’t wasted. A certain someone likes to say “you think you’re funny, but you’re not!” She’s half right.
    I like meeting new people. The value of “small talk” is to guage whether the other person wants to talk.
    “So what do you do?”
    “I herd cats for a large bank.” ==> talk
    “” ==> stop trying to engage that person
    “I’m an accountant.” ==> sidle away cautiously
    Once that “handshaking” is over, and the protocol satisfied, I try to base my level of discourse on what the other seems to want. I’ll argue politics, religion, etc. at times. I’ll even take a position other than my own at times.
    I thought you (Rob) were about that age, but must have spaced on it. I do that sometimes. I blame all the drugs.

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