Carter: English doesn't make sense sometimes

Words are hard.

I say this as someone who deals with words for a living. And I’m sure there is at least one English teacher reading this right now who has been angered by at least one grammatical mistake in today’s paper, be it a dangling participle, a sentence ending in a preposition or the fact I began this particular sentence with the word “and.” (I know this is true because every now and again, I receive a package with newspaper clippings of the Times pointing with such errors and typos circled in red ink. What can I say, we try our best, but we’re not perfect.)


But I also say this as the father of two elementary school-aged girls who bring home weekly spelling homework and flashcards, and who often give quizzical looks to my wife and I when we try to explain the intricacies of the English language.

Contrary to what you might see on the occasional bumper sticker, English isn’t America’s official language — at least not legally — although according to Babbel magazine, 31 states have made it the official state language. You may also recall that the Carroll County commissioners made English the official language of local government a few years back.

As a country, we have no official language, but it is estimated there are more than 350 languages spoken among our nation’s residents. Still, English is the most prominent with more than 231 million native speakers compared to about 37.5 million native speakers of Spanish, the second-most popular language spoken in the U.S.

English is also one of the most spoken language worldwide, with approximately a billion speakers of the language, although for more than two-thirds, it is a second language.

If English is your native language, you probably don’t think about its many quirks and inconsistencies. Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought either until my children started asking me what certain words mean, only to have to explain some have multiple meanings. My kindergartner is learning to spell words phonetically, right now, and it sometimes blows my mind when she brings home her writing assignments and her misspellings actually make more sense than the actual spellings.

Beyond that, there are odd rules regarding plural words, tenses and words that look like they should rhyme or sound the same because they end in the same letters, but aren’t even close.

Here is what I mean:

You might shed a tear if I tear up your paperwork ranking storage sheds by tiers.

If hunting is your bag, we could go and we might bag a couple deer. If we celebrate after, we will drink a couple beers, which we bring home from the store in a bag.

When we both went home, we’d go to separate houses, but if one had a rodent infestation it would have mice, not mouses.

If you had enough, though, you might have an exterminator come through.

Despite all ending in -ough, those words sound different. Though rhymes with throw, but through rhymes with threw.

So, you might think sew would sound like threw, but it’s pronounced like throw, which makes the same sound as sow — assuming you’re a farmer talking about planting seed, and not a female pig. (This farmer might also produce produce.) But if you wanted to take someone to court, you would sue, which doesn’t rhyme with sew but does sound like threw.

Speaking of does, remember those deer, which is the same whether it’s singular or plural? If it was more than one female deer it would be does, which looks like does but doesn’t sound like it.


I’m barely scratching the surface here, which is pronounced the same as hear, but not where or wear.

Beyond that, there are new words, and word usages, being added to the English language all the time. Specifically, I’m thinking about the turning of verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs.

I’ve always thought of “ask” as a verb. But I’ve noticed it being used more recently as a noun. (In fact, I think it came up in a direct quote from a Board of Education member this week). Adult used to just be a noun, but millennials have turned it into a verb — as in, adulting is hard.

Let me try: Englishing is hard too. (Which also sounds like to and two ... which is probably my cue to put this column in the queue, too.)