The English Language: WTF

April 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Posted in Internet Sleuthiness | Leave a comment
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It’s not revolutionary for me to say that English spelling and pronunciation are pretty ridiculous. Most people who spend even a brief amount of time in the company of a foreign language (such as Spanish or French) will come to the same conclusion, and begin casting a critical eye on our mother tongue. I was reminded of this fact this morning when I read the following lead-in sentence to a Jezebel blog post: (emphasis mine)

“Of course you read Sassy, and now you can still read editor Christina Kelly — on her own blog.”

Let’s parse this thing: read #1 is the past tense conjugation of the infinitive to read, and is pronounced [rεd] (that is, “reh-d”); read #2 is the present tense conjugation of the same infinitive, and is pronounced [rid] (or “reed”).

So far this is obvious, and any elementary school student could probably explain the different between the two conjugations. What makes this sentence confusing is that when one begins reading the sentence, there is no contextual clue in “Of course you read Sassy” to indicate if this read is past or present tense, thus sending the reader down a pronunciation version of the linguistic garden path. It is only once you read the entire sentence that you can decide the correct pronunciation for read #1 was its past tense version. This demonstrates my point: as a writer, it is not desirable to force your readers to do such inefficient backtracking to understand the meaning of what you have written.

So, you might be asking at this point, what’s the solution? How can writers make their prose more transparent? Unfortunately, for a word like read, it is difficult to find a solution, since there are few (if any) synonyms for the verb to read that a writer could choose to communicate her tense more clearly. I suppose you could do something like this, which, in making the tense clearer, actually changes the meaning of the sentence slightly:

“Of course you subscribed to Sassy, and now you can still read editor Christina Kelly…”

And is that really what you want to say? Perhaps what you really want to say is this: “Curse you, English language, for your opacity!”


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