“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”
Read that again.
Notice anything odd — besides the entire heartbreaking story of a ploughman, whatever that is? Perhaps you noticed this statement contains eight different pronunciations of “ough.” This bizarre sentence tells us everything we need to know about the English language: English is confusing. It’s a ridiculous compilation of rules and guidelines that are always followed except when they aren’t. Inconsistencies in spelling, pronunciation and verb conjugation are enough to drive one mad.
There are times when patterns of our language flow so routinely and expectedly, they falsely lull us into a belief that English makes sense. Example:
What a horror this is! This is horrible! I am horrified! This is horrific!
What a terror this is! This is terrible! I am terrified! This is terrific!
Wait ... did you say “terrific”? Those sentence groups mean almost exactly the same thing, right up until the part where they are complete opposites.
Sink, sank, sunk: Sink is present tense. Sank is past tense. Sunk is the past participle tense. I sink the boat. He sank the boat. The boat has sunk. Likewise,
Drink, drank, drunk
Shrink, shrank, shrunk
Think, thank, thunk
Sorry, “thank” and “thunk” are legitimate words used for other purposes, so they can’t possibly be used again in “thinking” context. Instead, use: Think, thought, thought.
As in, a ploughman thought about his doughy face as he sank into the slough.
You might be painting me as one of those grammar snobs who thinks he has all the answers. (I cited “past participle verb conjugation,” after all.) I love correcting people on improper use of there/their/they’re as much as the next guy, but I’m far from a grammar expert. My rough drafts are littered with grammatical violations. They are thoroughly scrubbed by the Vital editing staff — people who actually know the rules of English — before making it to official publication. I digress…
Do I have a beef with the English language? Perhaps. Maybe I would be more forgiving if the language didn’t insist the word “beef” means meat from a cow AND also an informal complaint. Our language is loaded with similar instances of words with multiple meanings.
On the other hand of polysemy (the capacity of a word or phrase to hold many different meanings), English contains labyrinthine (complicated, intricate and confusing) words that are utterly superfluous (unnecessary, excessive, needless). For example, take the following words and their definitions: Erinaceous: “of, pertaining to, or resembling a hedgehog.” Nudiustertian: “Something that happened two days ago.” Cruciverbalist: “a person who makes up crossword puzzles.”
Using words like these is a bunch of grandiloquence: the pompous, bombastic, style of using language, and one that is overly complicated in order to attract admiration and attention, especially in order to make someone seem important, but actually adds up to nothing. In other words, my personal writing style.
So, to my friends across this great country, from Des Moines (“Duh-MOIN”) to Des Plaines (“Dez Plainz”), it’s true: Sometimes we articulate two mid-sized, Midwestern towns of Frenchly-named origin only 331 miles apart in a completely different manner. Sometimes we reiterate a point, even though “iterate” already means to repeat something. Sometimes we sing a song that’s never been sung, but we never bring a brong that’s never been brung. Sometimes we wonder why time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana. (Bananas are delicious.) Yes, English is confusing. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.