This year, I teach a combination of civics, social, and academic skills to seventh and eight graders and I get a queasy feeling when I teach them how to best do homework. This is because I believe that homework does more harm than good. Last year, I would get a similar feeling as a second grade teacher every time I had to pretend that the English language made some sort of sense. I taught all sorts of awkward “rules” forced out of coincidences in the language even though I knew the rules were inconsistent and due to their complexity were unlikely to be remembered.
I think that English spelling and grammar is something a person can develop an intuitive feeling for, but is foolish to try to make too much sense out of.
To pretend otherwise to children seems dishonest. What if you were a science teacher and were instructed to teach that the world is flat? Eventually, you would either convince yourself that the world was flat, or develop a stomach ailment from the stress of promoting a falsehood to developing minds. My guess is that there are a lot of English teachers who are sick to their stomachs.
Here is my list of top ten things that bug me about the English language. The alternative title is:
Why You Should Be Suspicious of Everything Adults Tell You
- I can’t say, “I are going to the store,” but I can say, “Aren’t I going to the store?”
- We all learned, “I before e, except after c,” but it doesn’t hold true for any weird words.
- By itself, the letter “c” has choice of sounds, both of which are already in use by the letters “s” and “k”. To make its own, unique sound, “c” needs the helper letter “h,” as in “ch”. I believe that “c” should assert its independence and just make the “ch” sound without any help from “h”.
- What’s with “ph” making an “f” sound? That’s just dumb.
- There should be a gender neutral pronoun to take the place of “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her”. Why are we so obsessed with gender identification that we can’t just refer to a person without defining his or her gender? I’m tired of writing “him or her” or “s/he”.
- Periods are supposed to go inside inside quotation marks almost all the time. Very few people ever understand that the arbitrary exception is when there is a single word, letter, or number, as in some of my previous sentences, above. This, again, is “dumb”.
- Why can’t we just always add an “s” to make something plural? What’s up with “child,” “goose,” “mouse,” “story,” and “moose”? I’d be willing to go with an “es” for those words already ending in “s”.
- A “silent e” makes a short vowel long… sometimes. Please disregard all the letters behind the curtain, such as “none,” “love,” “come,” and “one”. (What’s up with “one,” by the way… where’s the “w”?)
- I actually taught this rule to second graders: “When it’s time to add suffixes, most words just add -ed or -ing. For words ending in silent e, drop the e, then add -ed or -ing. For words ending in one vowel and one consonant, double the final consonant, then add -ed or -ing. For words ending in y, change the y to i, then add -es or -ed but to add -ing, keep the y.” Why? Because we told you. First of all, it’s not always true (“see” doesn’t become “seed”) and second of all, if any of my second graders from last year actually remember that rule this year, there is something seriously abnormal about them.
- Short vowel words, like “pin,” usually have just one vowel, and long vowel words, such as “pain,” usually have two vowels in them. This is another rule I taught my students. What is the point of a “rule” that has the word “usually” in it? Student: “When is it true, Teacher?” Teacher: “Some of the time.”
These are actually just the first ten examples that come to mind. I’m sure you can think of countless others. The alleged rules of English are one of the first things we are tasked to learn in school. I think our message to children is: “We make the rules. They make no sense. They are only true some of the time. You will look dumb if you don’t follow them unquestioningly.”
I know that English is an organic, evolving language handed down from generations of people who infused it with ways of speaking from other languages. However, why can’t we be masters of our own language? Why must we blindly accept the inherited dictates of our very means of communication? We treat language as if it were sacrosanct – a precious tool lent from above that we have no right to alter or bring order to. I say, it’s our language, we should make it work for us, not vice versa. It’s time to unleash reason upon our words.