Ten Reasons Why English is Confusing


Written by David Tuffs, NewsBreaker Staff

English. To most high school students, it is the subject that deals with reading, writing, vocabulary and large amounts of note-taking. The English language is complicated and often counterintuitive with a plethora of spelling, grammar and punctuation rules (and even more exceptions), many of which are still debated to this day. English is the linguistic equivalent of a chimera, cutting and pasting words, pronunciations, spellings, and phrases from other languages, leading to confusion on many different levels. To make matters more complicated, our language is in a constant state of flux. Words come and go, change meaning, spelling and pronunication; grammar rules are altered and changed, and even the dictionary does not help. In the 1996 edition of the Webster’s dictionary, 315 entries were either misspelled or given incorrect definitions. In short, English is a language that is being contantly reshaped, molded, stretched and made extremely confusing. Here are 5 of the most confusing aspects of the English language.

1. Misnomers

It’s like they only exist to make your life hard. A misnomer is a wrong name or inapproprite designation of a word or term. In other words, a misnomer is a word that seems to mean one thing but actually means another. Misnomers can arise from a variety of situations, but most commonly originate when an item, occurrence, or idea receives a name before its true nature is known. Misnomers can also arise when an old name is retained after its definition is changed, when a name is based on an object’s similarity to something else (such as with shooting stars), when a term is ambiguous, or when the word is used in an attempt to mislead others (such as the snow-covered island of Greenland, named by the Vikings to lure settlers).

Misnomers pop up frequently in English, but most of us either do not notice or just choose to ignore then. Here are some common examples.

Pencil Lead: Actually made of a mixture of clay and graphite, the latter of which was once believed to be a lead ore.

English Horns: Neither English nor horns.

Peanut: Neither a pea nor a nut. Peanuts are legumes.

French Horns: From Germany

French Fries: From Belgium

French Toast: First created by the Romans and used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.

French Press: The first patent for the French Press was filed by the Italian designer, Attilio Callimani.

French Dressing: French Dressing as we know it today originated in America.


2. Silent Letters

A silent letter is a letter in a particular word that does not directly correspond to any sound in that word’s pronunciation. These letters are very common in the English language; roughly 60% of words have a silent letter in their spellings. Silent letters can arise from many situations. They most commonly occur when a word’s pronunciation changes, but the spelling is left intact (as in knight, which has a silent k and a silent gh, which in Middle English, sounded like an ‘x’) or when sounds from other languages with similar pronunciations are merged into the same sound. Other instances in which silent letters appear are when the pronunciation of clusters of consonants is simplified (as in asthma), or when the pronunciation of a compound word is simplified (as in cupboard).

Silent letters come in two main types: auxiliary letters and dummy letters, each of which have different subgroups. Auxiliary letters are letters that combine with other letters to form a single, new sound, a digraph. Auxiliary letters can be further categorized as exocentric digraphs, which have a sound that it different from that of their letters (as in point, this, chip, shop), and endocentric digraphs, which are digraphs which have a sound that is the same as one of their letters. Endocentric digraphs are found in most double letters (as in clubbed, accommodated) and when the letter ‘e’, following a vowel and a consonant, makes the vowel sound long (as in base, here, hiveode, rule). This ‘e’ is known as a’ magic e’. The second type of silent letters is known as dummy letters. Dummy letters are letters that have no relation to neighboring letters and have no correspondence to any pronunciation in a word. Inert letters, a type of dummy letters, are letters that are pronounced in some forms of a word but not in others, such as in resign and resignation, or damn or damnation. The final type of silent letters is empty letters, which never have a sound and are completely irrelevant. Empty letters present the greatest problem to readers and writers alike.

Silent letters, however, are not entirely useless. They can distinguish between homophones (as in be/bee, in/inn), help to show the meaning of a word (as in vineyard, instead of vinyard), or to help the pronunciation of a word by putting emphasis on a certain syllable (as in physics verus physiques).


3. Contronyms

Contronyms, the simplest term on this list, also known as auto-antonyms, autantonyms, contranyms, antagonyms, Janus words, and enantiodromes, are words with multiple definitions, two of which are opposites of each other. Contronyms originate either when two words from different languages or dialects are changed into the same word or when a word acquires two different definitions, which ulitmately can end up becoming opposites. Often, one sense is more obscure or archaic, increasing the danger of misinterpretation when it does occur.

“To cleave” can mean “to cling” or “to split”.

“Off” can mean “something that is not operating” or it can mean “to start happening in an excited way” (e.g. “The buzzer went off”).

“Custom” can mean “standard” (shorthand for customary) or “tailored”.

“To dust” can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).

“To screen” can mean “to show” or “to conceal”.

“To sanction” can mean “to permit” or “to punish”.

“Inflammable” technically means “capable of burning” but is commonly taken to mean “unburnable”.

“Ravel” can mean “to entangle” or “to disentangle”.

I actually looked this last one up. One of its definitions goes: “Ravel: to unravel”.


4-10. Homonyms, Homophones, Homographs, Heteronyms, Heterographs, Polysemes, and Capitonyms.

In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings, but is also commonly used to include words with different spellings. The word ‘homonym’ (derived from the Greek word ‘homonumos’, meaning ‘same name’) is an umbrella term that encompass homophones, homographs, heterographs, heteronyms, polysemes, and capitonyms. Words can belong to more than one of the following groups.

A  homophone, (literally meaning “same sound”) is usually defined as a word that shares the same pronunciation, regardless of how it is spelled. ‘Homophone’ is derived from the Greek words ‘homo’ and ‘phone’, meaning ‘same sound’. The term may also apply to units longer or shorter than words, such as phrases, letters or groups of letters that are pronounced the same as another phrase, letter or group of letters. Homophones are often used to create puns and to deceive the reader (as in crossoword puzzles) or to suggest multiple meanings. Approximately 7,000 homophones have been discovered and it is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 homophones may exist in total, although it may vary given the large number of known dialects in the English language. Homophones are not just found in pairs; there are 88 homophonic triplets, 24 quadruplets, 2 quintets, 1 sextet, and 1 septet. The septet contains the words [raise, rays, rase, raze, rehs, reis, and res].

homograph (literally meaning ”same writing”), is one of two or more words spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same and having different meanings and origins. In other words, homographs are words with the same spelling, regardless of pronunciation.

heteronym (literally meaning “different name”) is one of two or more words that are spelled identically but have different pronunciations and meanings, such as tear meaning “rip” and tear meaning “liquid from the eye. Heteronyms are a subset of homographs (words with the same spelling), but, whereas homographs do not necessarily have different pronunciations, all heteronyms have different pronunciations. Heteronyms are also called heterophones (meaning “different sound”).

heterograph (literally meaning “different writing”) is one of two or more words that have different spellings and meanings, but are pronounced identically. Heterographs differ from homophones because, whereas homophones can be spelled the same or not, heteronyms are always spelled differently.

polyseme is one of a group of two or more words with identical spellings and different but related meanings (polysemes can be pronounced the same or differently). The distinction between homonyms and polysemes is uncertain, but polysemes are generally not thought of as homonyms.

capitonym is a word whose meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) changes whan it is capitalized. The word capitonym is a blending of the words ‘capital’ (as in capital letter) and the suffix ‘-onym’, meaning ‘word’ or ‘name’. Although some pairs, such as march and March, are completely unrelated, in other cases, such as august and catholic, the capitalized form is a name that is etymologically related to the uncapitalized form; that is, they derive from the same word. Other examples of capitnyms include polish and Polish