The headline of this piece shows how ambiguous even written English can be, let alone the spoken one.
Having made a living out of writing for many years, one thing I’ve always wondered if English is a really complicated language. In fact there are very few people on the planet who know all of its rules. Take apostrophes as an example. It’s clear that not everyone knows how and where to use that little mark.
Consider, for instance, its and it's.
These two English words often confuse even native speakers.
Here is an illustration using both words in one sentence:
It's a great device and one of its main benefits is its reliability.
Which means that It's is a contraction of it is (or it has), while its is the possessive form of pronoun it.
And I can think of much more obscure elements of our language that only a few English speakers understand or consider in their daily lives.
Another well known but still interesting fact is that there is more than one English language. There are quite big differences between the English we speak and the English we write. What’s more, there are differences between the way people speak or write English in different parts of the world, or even in different parts of the same country, so you could say that the English language exists in many versions.
Let’s look at spelling, for a start. The word color in the US is written as colour in the UK. Yogurt, yoghurt and yoghourt are just some of the spellings used in different places for the same thing, and because language continues to evolve through the years it’s possible for the ‘correct’ spelling of a word to change.
Of course, some spellings are simply wrong – but then again, are they? In my opinion, barbecue should never be spelled as barbeque but the second version is now used so commonly that perhaps it has become an acceptable variation.
A type of mistake I come across commonly is phonetic spelling. Some are made unintentionally others are written on purpose. This is where someone simply writes down a word or a phrase in the way that it sounds when spoken. I’ll make one up: Alberkerky instead of Albuquerque. Something I see quite often is would of instead of would have. I have even come across are house instead of our house.
Speaking English is definitely much easier than writing it correctly. If we are speaking informally, we can get away with a lot of things that wouldn’t be acceptable in writing. For instance, if you were to write kinda or gimme you would create a bad impression but in a conversation people will know exactly what you mean.
In conversation we are not always bound by the strict rules of grammar. So, for example, although a sentence should usually have a subject and a predicate, we can dispense with that rule if we wish. In the sentence, ‘It makes no difference to me,’ the subject is ‘It’ and the predicate (what is said about the subject) is ‘makes no difference’. In informal speech, someone might just say, ‘Makes no difference to me.’
Exactly how much informality we can get away with in conversational English, I’m not sure. One strange trend I’ve noticed in young people in recent years is use of the word ‘like’ to introduce a quotation. For example: I’m like, “What are you looking at,” and he’s like, “I ain’t looking at nothing,” and I’m like, “Well stop looking.” The young certainly seem to have their own version of English!
Back to the use of individual words, even if we all agree on how to spell a word we may pronounce it in different ways. The word ‘tune’ sounds a bit like ‘tewn’ in England but in some parts of the United States it’s pronounced as ‘toon’.
I’m running out of space now, but I’d like to give one more example of how people vary in their pronunciation. Definite and indefinite articles are among the many technical words we have for elements of the language.
The way I pronounce the sounds like thee if the next word starts with a vowel and thuh if it starts with a consonant. But it may be different where you are. I do also say it like thee, even before a consonant, if I want to stress the 'uniqueness' (if there is such a word!) of something.
Similarly, I use a if the next word starts with a consonant and an if it starts with a vowel. But for me, a sounds like ah but some people say it like ay.
I wish I had more time to talk about pronunciation. But I'd rather give you a very interesting link to English spelling and pronunciation guide accompanied by audio examples.
I didn't mean to talk about English punctuation, but let me just quickly mention that in my experience people punctuate spoken English relatively well, by leaving short pauses and longer breaks in just the right places to make their meaning clear. When they write the same sentences, many find it difficult to translate those pauses and breaks into commas and periods. And now it’s definitely time for my last period.