Why quicksand is slow; boxing rings are square; a guinea pig isn’t a pig

I once opined in this column that English is a poor language; the justification of the opine lying in the existence of homonyms (words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings), homophones ( words having the same pronunciation but different meanings) and heteronyms (words which are spelled identically but have different sounds and meanings). 

If you have ever despaired that English is a complex, sometimes strange language, here is a complaint Dr Albrecht Classen of the University of Arizona once highlighted: “Let’s face it, English is a crazy language.There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apples nor pine are in pineapple. English muffins aren’t English, nor are French Fries French. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads—which aren’t sweet—are meat.  We take English for granted, but if we explore some of its paradoxes, we find that quicksand is slow, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor a pig.

“Why is it that writers write and painters paint, but fingers don’t fing? If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth?  One goose, two geese.  So—one moose, two meese?  One mouse, two mice, means one house, two hice?  Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but you can’t make just a single amend? 

Humorous delivery

“If teachers have taught, why haven’t preachers praught?  If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Who else has noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?  You have to marvel at the lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up while it’s burning down, forms are filled out by being filled in, and an alarm that’s gone off is still going on.

“English was invented by people, not by computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race—which of course is not a race at all.  That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.”

This delivery with tinges of humour and exasperation came to mind after following an exchange of views on social media regarding some of the expressions we use without realising they are ungrammatical. For purposes of this discussion, I will quote some of the concerns raised in the aforementioned post.

Among a  number of phrases, the author pointed out that to say “I forgot my phone at home  is wrong’. The correct expressing being  “I left my phone at home”.

The other expression the author pointed out to be ungrammatical was to tell someone “You are mannerless”. The correct thing to say, he pointed out, was “You are ill mannered”. Further, saying “I will sleep at 10pm  is wrong” one should say  I will go to bed at 10pm”.

Nervous system

In a rejoinder, someone wrote: “You’re manner less is correct grammar, but mannerless is wrong - it has to be spaced. I will go to sleep at 10 pm is the correct form”.

Forgot, the past tense of the verb forget, is applicable in the abstract. What this means is that it has more to do with the act of remembering, recollection, than the physical.

It exists in the mind, hence, as pointed out, you cannot forget your phone, or anything physical at a given location; you can only leave it there deliberately or otherwise, which then introduces the aspect of failure to ‘remember’ you needed to carry the phone. Because having a thought is the first step to acting, to say “I forgot my phone” is grammatical. It means you failed to think about the phone, which resulted in you leaving it somewhere.

The suggestion that the word ‘mannerless’ is wrong while ‘manner less’ (two distinct words) is grammatical is curious. I am not even sure the last phrase exists. Ideally, the better form is “You’re ill-mannered”.

Sleep, as a noun, is defined as ‘a condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended’. As a verb, it means ‘be in a state of sleep’. To therefore suggest you can tell  at what  specific time  your consciousness will be suspended is to mislead. What we do is get into bed and let nature do the rest.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard.ach[email protected]

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OxymoronsLanguage UseEnglish contradictions