Why English is Weird

Approximately 1.5 billion people, roughly 20% of the world’s population, speak English. Only 350 million or so are native speakers, meaning the remaining 1.15 billion learned it as a foreign language. It’s the most widely studied second language and the default common language for many international businesses and travelers.

While these figures make it seem like it’s easy to pick up the language, many learners will probably beg to differ. English has many oddities that make it one of the harder languages to learn, despite how widely it is spoken.

Effective Ways to Learn English

There are many methods for learning languages. Classroom instruction tends to focus on learning grammar, spelling and pronunciation rules. As students learn one word, it’s only natural that they would apply the same rules to a similar looking word or similarly-structured sentence. This might work in some languages; English is not one of them.

This is often why many language learners report having better success picking up English from movies or TV. They get to hear how it is actually spoken and start to develop that native sense of when something “sounds right.”

No matter which method learners choose, they could benefit from keeping these quirks in mind.

Word Meanings

Consider these examples:

  • Pineapples do not contain any pine or any apples
  • Hamburgers are not made of ham
  • A pocketbook is not a book and it doesn’t fit into your pocket
  • Eggplants don’t have egg in them

These inconsistencies can make it harder to deduce the meaning of a word. While a new English speaker may understand part of the word, this does not necessarily mean that the speaker will grasp the meaning of the full word.

English also has a long list of homophones, homographs, homonyms, heterographs and multinyms. Most native English probably don’t know these terms, but they are familiar with the words.

  • Homophones: same sound, different meaning, ex: to, two, too
  • Homographs: same sound and spelling, different meaning, ex: bow (front of boat and to bend at waist)
  • Homonyms: same spelling, different meaning, ex: live, wound, wind
  • Heterographs: same sound, different spelling and meaning, ex: know, no
  • Multinyms: same sound, two or more different spellings and meanings, ex: raise, rays, raze, etc. 

How do you explain these differences, and so many more, to students? ESL students probably hear the phrase, “that’s just how it is” more times than they care to.

Spelling and Pronunciation

While English has some spelling rules such as “I before E except after C”, these are quickly violated as soon as a student learns the words science and weird. One grammarian says that only 44 words actually follow that rule while 923 don’t.

Another rule is that plurals are created by adding an s or es to the end of a word. But alas, mouths contain teeth not tooths, more than one mouse becomes mice and more than one moose becomes…moose.

In theory, spelling also affects pronunciation. However, English also has a lot of silent letters. In knife and gnome, for example, the first and the last letters are silent. There are also letter combinations that can lead to wildly different sounds. Take trough, rough, bough and through for example. In many situations, English is just not phonetically consistent.

Again, with these exceptions, learners are often told that they just need to memorize the different spellings and pronunciations.

Verb Tenses

Sometimes English verb conjugation is considered easy to learn because there generally aren’t different spellings depending on the subject. For example, I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go, and for past tense I/you/he/we/they went whereas the equivalent in French would have multiple spellings. In general, the past participle will be formed by adding -ed or -d to the end of the word. For example, to face becomes faced and to live becomes lived. But of course, there are irregular verbs and exceptions.

  • The past tense of fight is fought
  • The past tense of light is lit
  • The past tense of read is read
  • The past tense of feel is felt
  • The past tense of drive is drove
  • The past tense of wake is woke
  • The past tense of have is had

English also gets complicated when it comes to the future. There are many ways to talk about the future, each with their own subtleties. For example, here a few ways someone can say they are going to consume dinner at a later time:

  • I’ll get dinner
  • I’m going to have dinner
  • I was going to have dinner
  • I’m getting dinner

There may be general rules that learners can follow, but there are likely just as many, if not more, exceptions that they will have to remember as well.

Order of Words

English can also be a little peculiar when it comes to word order. In general, most sentences will follow a subject – verb – object order. However, depending on the word, adjectives and adverbials can fall in multiple locations in a sentence. For example, one can say I ate quickly or I quickly ate, but one can only say I stayed long not I long stayed.


A common grammar mistake even among native speakers is the use of apostrophes. They can be used as a contraction where he is going becomes he’s going. However, they can also be used to denote possession. Instead of saying the toys belonging to Sarah, speakers simply say Sarah’s toys. The exception to using an apostrophe to denote possession occurs with the word it.
It is warm becomes it’s warm
To describe the leaves of a tree falling off, one would say the tree lost its leaves

Native speakers will likely be forgiving of this error as non-grammar-lovers make this mistake frequently themselves.

Don’t Get Discouraged

English can be hard to learn. The rules all seem to have exceptions and there’s a lot about the language, its spelling, pronunciation, grammar and more that doesn’t quite make sense. But people who want to become fluent in this global language shouldn’t get discouraged. Its popularity also means that there are ample resources for helping students learn. WordsAPI, for example, is an online source to find definitions, synonyms, antonyms, word hierarchies and much, much more.