The Smothering Arms of English

A neighbor of mine, he’s trying to improve his English, and he’ll sometimes say the wrong word. I usually know what he means, but he’s asked me to correct him anyway. This seems like it should be rude of me, but for the sake of my neighbor’s education… sure, why not? My neighbor, he’s a smart guy, and I’m sure he’ll eventually become fairly well-spoken. But what seems normal and natural to me may never seem natural (or normal) to him.

The job of a writer is to communicate, and English contains inconsistencies that make this a challenge for even native speakers. When I helped my neighbor edit a letter, I realized this. At that time, the letter changed from a screen of broken sentences and odd phrasings to a page of heroic efforts.

English grew out of convenience and opportunity, it wasn’t planned or made. If English were a designed language, its architect would be an incompetent designer, his license up for immediate review.

“S” at the end of a word is used for both plurals and possessives. There’s an eternal confusion about when to use “its” and “it’s”. Does one learn their As, Bs, and Cs, or their A’s, B’s, and C’s? (Both options look awkward.) And forget about making an acronym plural: “Significant others” looks ridiculous as “SOs” or “SO’s”.

English irregular plurals make no sense at all, spelling and pronunciation are absurdly inconsistent, and the conjugation of verbs is crazily random. I do not consider these examples of the whims of English to be charming eccentricities: they are bugs. And, like a bureaucrat who has mastered the quirks of a thirty-year-old computer system, I’m proud that I’ve mastered as much of the language as I have.

When I manage to say something worthwhile in it, possibly something moving? I feel like a god. Until the first proofreading run.

I love English, probably in the same way a hostage grows to love their captor. I speak enough French that I can communicate a little when I need it, and the occasional word of Hebrew. But I mostly haven’t had the need to learn any language other than English since I was eighteen. But anyone learning English as an adult is attempting an amazing feat of memorization and comprehension.

So when you’re struggling to write something, to get the words to cooperate in saying what’s in your head, imagine what it’s like for someone who didn’t grow up in the smothering arms of English. I promise, if you picture all that honestly, writing will seem easier after that.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit.

He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, who are performing in Bridgewater, New Jersey in a few weeks; he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him. He’s also available for hire as a live audio engineer. 

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2 thoughts on “The Smothering Arms of English

  1. Teaching English to those whose first language contains no articles makes you realize how difficult it is to learn English. Also, our idiomatic use of prepositions is ridiculous. I have a book in the library called NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary that lists the hundreds of combinations of words that mean entirely different things. The entry on “run” alone is enough to make an English language learner weep: run at, run into, run up, run with, etc. goes on for more than a page, each meaning something completely different, each with no rule at all.

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