Let me state at the outset that I love spoken English. It’s the written aspect of the language that I find requires salvation, as I am sure you will agree also when confronted with overwhelming evidence.
Firstly, we must eradicate all true homonyms. Yes, purge from our lexicons all words which have the same spelling but which have different meanings. For instance, ‘fly’ can refer to the annoying insect or to the act of moving through the air. It is therefore completely proper to write, ‘A fly will fly’, but consider whether there is clarity in writing:
Joe, a sore bore, did bore the sore the bear had to bear as its wound was wound.
(Joe who is boring, cut into the suffering bear’s painful sore and bandaged the wound.)
I’m sure ‘multipurposing’ the same word is pure laziness on our part. Why, for example, can’t we replace bore (to dig) with borr, replace bear (the animal) with bair and for wound (injury) use woond?
Now we turn our attention to the cavalier way prefixes are applied. The use of ‘un’ and ‘in’ preceding a word is intended to mean the opposite of the word. Thus, the ‘uncaring person’ contrasts with the ‘caring person’, and the ‘inexplicable’ is something that is not ‘explicable’.
But there are words that do not lend themselves to this type of treatment. Read the following conversation between a boss and his apprentice mechanic.
Boss: “Okay, get the wrench and unloosen the nut on the wheel.”
Apprentice: “But the nut is already tight. If I try to tighten it more, it might strip the threads.”
Boss, glaring: “I want you to take the nut off.”
Apprentice, seeing the light. “Oh, you mean you want me to loosen the nut.”
Boss: “Yeah. First spray it with solvent. But don’t smoke because solvents are inflammable.”
Apprentice: “You mean flammable, don’t you?”
Boss, changing the subject: “Did you hear about the famous builder who stole millions in assets?”
Apprentice: “I thought his actions were described as infamous.”
Boss: “You’re fired!”
How is the neophyte learner of English grammar expected to appreciate such anomalies?
Knowing him as we now do, does the boss appreciate that there is no connection between the meanings of ‘abuse’ and ‘disabuse’?
Another issue that particularly irks is disregard for the sanctity of onomatopoeia. Usually, we can determine the meaning of a word simply by the way it sounds. The ‘belch’ of a diner, the ‘warble’ of a penguin and the ‘boom’ of an explosive provide a good idea of the context. However, the existence of words that assail our expectations is too much to countenance. The smell of ‘noisome’ (offensive smell) will offend your olfactory organ and not anything relating to noise. Along the same path, ‘fungible’ has no connection to fungus. It refers to goods of equal value that can be interchanged.
And then there are those words that seduce with their misleading spelling.
Is ‘broiled’ chicken prepared by boiling it or using oil, as the sound of the word suggests? Alas, no. That conclusion is much too sensible. Broiling refers to food cooked in a similar way to grilling by using high heat. The ‘bespoke’ tailor caters to the individual rather than one who is overly vociferous. Additionally, ‘behoves’ is not a reference to the horny part of animal’s feet, but it behoves us to treat them humanely. And then there is ‘bemused’. Queen Victoria remarked, ‘we are not amused’ when an assistant attempted to regale her with a risqué story. We, too, are not amused that bemused means puzzled or confused and not something that is amusing.
My final gripe relates to the inconsistent use of the second person pronouns.
If I ask my friend to follow me I will say, “Can you please follow me?”
If I ask my group of friends to follow me I can still say, “Can you please follow me?”
A group comprises more than one person, so in the latter case, what is wrong in indicating the plural by asking, “Can yous please follow me?” Incorporating ‘yous’ to indicate a reference to a group is both sensible and practical.
In a related way, when gender is unknown, reference to the third person singular is avoided by using ‘their’ and ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’.
For example: “An athlete is fit, they exercise and their physique is admirable.”
Here the third person singular is tossed into the same pot as the third person plural. I appreciate that this may sound better than “An athlete is fit, he/she exercises and his/her physique is admirable.” But we can modify he/she to introduce the pronoun heshe and define it to mean the singular of either one of their/they, thus providing consistency and conformity in syntax.
This article has allowed me to “vent one’s spleen”, and I feel better for the catharsis.
My recommendations bespoke improvement in the English language. Yous should unloosen a little and broil your meat in boiling oil and water because it’s inflammable. Then tap the tap for good luck, stay restive (hyperactive) and overeat to be crapulous.