Say What? Edition 8: When Native Speakers Sound Like They Aren’t

My roommate my first year in Russia told me that English was an easy language to start speaking and make yourself decently understood but near impossible to master because of all the idioms, nuance, unexpected pronunciations, and multiple ways of saying everything. No matter how long you speak it, you’re always going to encounter something a native speaker says or writes that baffles you. Russian is the opposite. It has a dense grammar with lots of irregularities that tongue ties you for a long, long time after beginning, but once you’ve got it, you just fly into proficiency. Today, I thought I’d focus on a few of the intricacies of English grammar that I’ve come across recently that I think wouldn’t be so obvious to fluent, non-native speakers or to native speakers, for that matter.

The verb “do”. The most common usage of, and the biggest difficulty with, this word is forming the past tense. It is used for questions (Did you go?) and negatives (I didn’t go.) but not affirmative simple past (I went.). Because of this inconsistency, you often hear English learners say something like “I didn’t went.”

But “do” is also used for emphatic contradiction. Here are some examples.

  • You can say “I don’t drink coffee. I drink tea.” but you just as often hear “I don’t drink coffee but I do drink tea.”
  • If someone asks you if you have a tissue and you can’t find it at first, you might say, “No, I don’t. Oh yes, I have one.” but you might you also hear “No, I don’t. Oh yes, I do have one.”
  • If you are disagreeing with someone who thinks Mrs. Schmitt is still working at a company you can equally say “That’s not right. Mrs. Schmitt retired.” or  “That’s not right. Mrs. Schmitt did retire.”
  • You can also you “do” to emphasize a partial effect. So instead of “I still don’t feel great, but getting some sleep helped.” you might say, “I still don’t feel great, but getting some sleep did help.”

Notice in all these cases, there is a preceding statement that the sentence with the extra “do” is contradicting in some way.

What I see a lot on dating apps is that native speakers are using “do” in standalone sentence without any contradictory or opposing idea. This drives me batty. I read their sentences out loud, emphasizing the word “do” to see if I can understand why they used it. I can’t. Here are some examples.

  • Enjoy live music and being outdoors. I should confess something. I do have a hearse.
  • I enjoy all the typical Colorado activities. I do have a daughter who was born in December.
  • Looking for that special girl. I do have hot sauce in my blood.

Can anyone explain this to me? My grammar-minded brain can’t handle it and I have to swipe left whenever I see this.

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Use of apostrophes. What is every professional writer’s most hated punctuation error? Misused apostrophes. They are everywhere! The basic usage of apostrophes is so simple that I will never understand why people mess them up. But for those of us deep in the world of English, the rules are even more intense. Check out this gem that I came across recently in the Chicago Manual of Style.

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Mind blown. I won’t judge you for messing this one up.

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Cats Like Us. I found this store in North Tonawanda when I was visiting my family in August.

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I said the name in my head over and over until I nearly went crazy because I couldn’t figure out which meaning they intended. Is it:

  • Cats enjoy us.
  • Cats that are similar to us.

Native speakers who don’t make language their profession probably don’t see how this name can be interpreted two ways. But even writers sometimes fail at seeing titles or sentences from other points of view. Here’s another example from a writer. I was reading a story from one of my critique group members last week and came across this sentence: “He was more powerful than thought.” The word “thought” can be a past participle or an abstract noun.  So which is the meaning?

  • He was more powerful than I believed.
  • He was more powerful than the human brain process of thinking.

Hence the importance of a critique group.

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Placement of adverbs. A few years ago the internet was abuzz with the secret adjective order all English speakers use without thinking about. It wasn’t new to me; I had explicitly taught it in my ESL classes in Russia back in 2004. But I enjoyed seeing non-grammar minded people freak out about how cool it was.

What hasn’t been a hot topic in pop culture yet is adverb order. Placement of an adverb in a sentence can change the meaning entirely. Take the word “only”.

  • Only I wanted to get a cat. My boyfriend had no interest.
  • I only wanted to get a cat. Why is that so much to ask for?
  • I wanted to get only a cat. Now we have a cat and a dog.

The change in meaning there may be obvious to you, but what if we change the placement of “never” instead?

  • I thought this day would never come.
  • I never thought this day would come.

The difference here might feel a bit more subtle or even non-existent to someone who doesn’t make language their livelihood. But the first implies that the speaker wanted the day to come and is excited that it finally arrived. The second implies that speaker didn’t want the day to come and is disappointed or upset that it has. The distinction isn’t so subtle after all.

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What about you? Are there any sticky grammar points you’ve come across lately?

5 Comments

  1. My parents have a pump soap dispenser in their bathroom that says “Kills germs and moisturises”, which always makes me think that ‘germ’ has suddenly become a verb and the soap is actually out to get me, but to make my skin soft at the same time…

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    1. Ha – that’s great! These are the issues I have to think about in my full time job all the time. The difference between “kills germs and moisturizes” versus “moisturizes and kills germs”. Seems the same to most people, but I have to analyze for any possible misinterpretation and aim for maximum clarity.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I think ALL languages are difficult to master when learnt with “rules “. English isn’t my native language but I learnt it more instinctively rather than as English Grammar so I often find it hard to understand the Rules of Grammar .
    Regarding the examples in the dating apps, I think they are disclosures wrongly stated of course with the use of ‘do’ .
    And Cats ? Can work both ways – often times writers use ambiguity to be clever . Or perhaps they just don’t think !

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    1. That’s the problem with using something like “Cats like us.” Even if you know exactly what you’re doing and intend a double meaning, half the people will think you don’t! I envy people who can learn a foreign language instinctively. They are able to start talking so much faster and more easily than I can. I get really wrapped up in the grammar. In fact, I can tell you all about the proper grammar of several languages that I can’t speak at all!

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      1. That’s interesting! It’s a bit like maths then …. I actually love grammar and etymology and used to read the dictionary for fun. My kids make fun of me because I tend to adopt the accent of the language I am speaking in – e.g. have an American drawl in the US, a crisp English one while talking to a Brit …. it helps if you imagine you’re Camille while talking French ! Try it you’ll speak French like a native .

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