The Magical, Mystical Addiction of the English Language

Today’s guest post is by Dan Vale.

My family lived in Germany for five years, and when we first got there, we went to a German restaurant. We soon learned that we had a lot to learn. When my twelve-year-old son asked a German waitress where the bathrooms were, she gave him a cookie.

In spite of the difficulty of learning a foreign language, I am in awe of foreigners who are able to learn our difficult English language. Still, the complex and convoluted nature of our language is addicting and wonderful.

That is why we writers have become addicted to the English language. Isaac Asimov once said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d just type faster.”

Although we are enthralled by words, we know that reading too many poorly chosen words to describe something is like eating too much of a mediocre meal. The US government regulations on the sale of cabbage, for example, consist of 26,911 words. The Gettysburg Address, however, consists of only 286 words. Thomas Jefferson appropriately said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

While in junior high school, I was not enthralled with the rules that I learned from my rather dour English teachers. Still, I found that my insatiable reading helped me to absorb many of the rules of good writing. I even found that there were fun ways to learn to write well.

For example:

Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

I soon learned that English is a language that cannot be governed entirely by rules and logic.

For example:

There is no egg in eggplant.

Quicksand works slowly.

Boxing rings are square.

Noses run and feet smell.

Quick does not rhyme with Buick.

A drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.

A house burns up as it burns down.

Some words are just odd. Words such as kayak, level, and radar are called palindromes. They are the same word backward or forward.

After I learned many of the rules of good writing, I also learned that, in spite of grammar checkers, that there are times when my writing could improve when I occasionally and skillfully broke some those rules. For example, the rule not to use sentence fragments can sometimes be broken to lend drama to writing.

So true.

As another example of breaking the rules, Winston Churchill once became irate when an aide suggested that Churchill should not end a sentence with a preposition. The angry Churchill replied, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Funny rules helped me to spell better. For example, one can easily remember the difference in the spelling of desert and dessert. The word dessert has “ss,” and that stands for “sweet stuff.”

More people should have more of an interest in writing well. Some job applicants, for example, learned that the power of even one misspelled word can ruin their chances of landing a job.

“Was instrumental in ruining an entire operation for a Midwest chain store.”

“Received a plague for Salesperson of the Year.”

This announcement of a lab report also shows the woes that come from spelling errors:

“The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.”

A restaurant window a sign read “Don’t stand there and be hungry; come on in and get fed up.”

A cleaner’s establishment got the attention of potential customers. The sign in their window read “Drop your pants here, and you will receive prompt attention.”

These newspaper headlines demonstrate the embarrassment that results from poorly chosen words:

“Safety experts say school bus passengers should be belted.”

“The police surrounded the building and threw an accordion around the block.”

Some words fit the definition of oxymoron. For example:

Why is abbreviated such a long word?

Why is a television set called a set when there is only one?

Why is the word phonics not spelled the way it sounds?

Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?

During his career, Yogi Berra was a baseball player, coach, and manager. He also had the knack of using words in ways that were incorrect but funny. For example, he once said, “We make too many wrong mistakes.” He made so many statements like that one that his comments were collected and called “Yogisms.”

Is there any wonder that we writers have become addicted to the English language? How could we possibly not become addicted?

Well, I have to pick up my wife now at the beauty parlor where she went to curl up and dye. My best wishes to all of you wordsmiths out there.

Dan Vale has a PhD in counselor education. Over a seven-year period, he wrote 785 articles for Examiner Online. He has written two books, which can be seen on his Amazon author page.

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  1. Thanks, Dan. What a wonderful way to begin a Monday — with chuckles. Good thing I wasn’t sipping coffee as I read. I’m sure I would have swallowed it the wrong way.

    1. Good morning Ms. Steinemann. My sister-in-law once taught English as a Foreign Language. She said that she can attest to the difficulties in learning a language like English with its many idioms.

    2. Thanks, Ms. Steinemann. Having lived overseas, I have first hand experience with the humor that can result from botched language translations.

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