Last night I was walking through my neighbourhood and passed a fruit and vegetable store. They had a sign out front advertising a real bargain: “Cherry Special, $3.49 a pound.”
For a moment I amused myself by imagining they were selling a giant cherry. But of course it was just a case of someone not understanding the difference between singular and plural; what they meant was “cherries,” plural, not “cherry,” singular.
It made me think, not for the first time, how confusing the English language can be. And not just for non-native English speakers. All of us can find ourselves struggling to understand aspects of this tricky language.
There’s a poem circulating on the internet called “English Is A Confusing Language” that sums it up perfectly – this is just an excerpt:
“We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.”
So funny, so true. There are areas of the English language that simply are not logical. So how do you make sense of English, and use the correct words in your writing? Here’s the bitter pill we all must swallow: sometimes you just have to memorize.
There are many situations with English where this is true, but today I thought I’d just focus on three common areas of confusion:
1. Plural versus Singular: Many plurals are formed by adding -s or -es to the singular noun. House becoming houses, (not “hice!”) for example. But singulars that end with a “y,” preceded by a consonant, become plural by using “ies.” Thus more than one cherry becomes cherries. One resource that has a breakdown of how to pluralize singular words is ESL Gold.
2. One Word, Various Meanings: There are many examples of this. Take the word “bar” for example. It might mean the place you go for a drink at the end of a long day. It might mean something you leap over if you are horse. What I recommend when one encounters a word with various meanings is to use it in a sentence, so that the context helps to make the meaning clear. For example: “There was a bar at the door to the pub, but I leapt over it so that I could get a drink at the bar. (And after that they barred me from coming back.)”
3. Same Pronunciation or Spelling, Various Meanings (a.k.a. Homonyms): A classic example — “sight, cite, and site.” If you see something, it’s in sight. If you wish to quote something, you wish to “cite” it. If you are camping, chances are you have a camping “site.” Some people are so fascinated by homonyms that they keep lists of them. For example, there is a man named Alan Cooper, who has a fun (and extensive) list of homonyms, with their definitions, at Alan Cooper’s Homonyms.
If there are aspects of the English language that confuse you, please do drop me a line by commenting, and I can take it up on the blog. Or if you have any funny examples you’d like to share, send those in as well.
Meanwhile, I leave you with this example of homonyms from another neighbourhood stroll, when I passed a café with a sly sense of humour. The board outside their door advertised the following special: “Leek and Pea Soup.” Try explaining that to someone just learning English!