For many, English is a language of confusion and mystery. English does not function like most other languages. In fact, this is for a very good reason: English is a mixture of two types of languages. Old English is a Germanic language that developed over many centuries on the British Isles. Modern English is a product of the Norman Conquest: French-speaking Normans, descendants of Vikings, who brought not only French words, but French language rules, with them. Modern English is a blend between the two.

As a result, modern English is a mixture of words that obey Old English rules, and words that obey Romance Language rules. This is particularly true for verbs. Verbs that follow the French style are called “regular,” but verbs that follow the Old English rules – rules that were regular as long as they were the only rules around – are now called irregular.

So How Do I Learn All This?

First, English is a language of fundamentals. Many people learn “English” – what they believe is English – without a firm grasp of fundamentals. These people, native speakers and non-native speakers alike, are very reliant on what they hear from others. These people assume (or presume) that what they hear is correct: that if others say it, it must be true.

This is a mistake.

cat3-t2Before relying on anyone else, you must understand that many English speakers speak bad English. Ignorance of the fundamentals of English results in bad English. The speaker can be a beggar or the President of the United States; English that violates the fundamentals, is bad. It is that simple. Therefore, the fundamentals must be mastered.

Second, English is a language of patterns. When using English, you have many options. The order of the sentence is usually very flexible. However, the individual pieces of the sentence are not so flexible; they must be written in a certain way, and combined in a certain way, to be easy to read. English that is easy to read is good, and English that is difficult to read, is bad. This is a simple idea, but many people simply do not listen.

Third, English is a language of rhythm. English is a language designed to be read out loud. Because of this, English has regular pauses which we indicate through the use of punctuation. Every time you see a properly used piece of punctuation, stop a moment. This is how English is properly read out loud.

Punctuation

  • Comma  ,
  • Colon  :
  • Semi-Colon  ;
  • Period  .
  • Question Mark  ?
  • Exclamation Mark  !

All of the above are intended to produce pauses (small stops) when reading or speaking. Good English never forces a reader or speaker to run out of breath, either purely in the mind, or actual, physical breath.

By understanding these rules, you will take the first steps towards “thinking in English,” which means, understanding the feel of the English language in an instinctive way.

Starting Small

To demonstrate, I will use the first paragraph of this article as an example.

“For many, English is a language of confusion and mystery.”

This sentence has a comma after the second word. This sentence is read like this:

“For many [one two], English is a language of confusion and mystery.”

After the comma [one two], there is a short pause. After a period, there is a strong pause.

“English does not function like most other languages.”

This sentence does not have a comma. This sentence is short enough to read in one breath. This sentence does not need a comma.

For both of these sentences, “English” (the English language) is the subject.

Flexible Structure, Inflexible Pieces

English generally follows one sentence structure. We call this,  subject, verb, object (SVO).

“English does not function like most other languages.”

Subject: “English”

Verb: “Does not function like”

Object: “most other languages”

The object adds details to a sentence, making a thought more specific.

Here, “does not function like” is establishing a negative: English is different from most other languages (since English is a blend of two styles). However, we can turn this negative into a positive by writing “does function like.” Similarly, we could write “functions like” to form:

“English functions like most other languages.” <- This is not true, but it is an example of grammar.

This also leads us to a different way of writing the same thing as the original sentence. Behold:

chess_pieces-t2“English functions unlike most other languages.”

“English does not function like most other languages.”

These two sentences are identical in meaning. That is to say, they mean the same thing.

However, you never add “s” to the end of “function” when it is part of the verb “does function” (or its negative, “does not function”). You always add “s” to the end of “function” when using “functions like” (or “functions unlike”) in the present tense iin accordance with the rule for the verb, “to function.”

The method is different, but the pieces are very, very consistent.

Now, the above information relates to how English subjects, verbs, and objects relate to each other in a sentence. This rule does not account for prepositional phrases. Think of these phrases as adding detail to an entire sentence, but acting as wild cards that can be “played” in two different ways.

Example:

“For many, English is a language of confusion and mystery.”

“English is a language of confusion and mystery for many.”

Here, “for many” is a prepositional phrase. (“Here,” is also a prepositional phrase.)

These two sentences are absolutely identical in meaning. There is, however, one difference between the two.

That difference is, one of the two sentences allows the writer to use a comma. The other sentence does not.

Even though there is no functional difference between the two, the pattern allows the writer (that is, me, Jeremiah Bourque) to control the pace of the sentence. Instead of broadcasting all of the information in one breath, I indicate that the reader should take “two breaths” to read the sentence in order to better absorb its meaning.

Identical meaning, different pattern. Flexible order, inflexible components. Learning how these elements work together is the most critical and important element in learning, and understanding, the English language.

Of course, it’s hard to learn this without help. My English department here at Learn Out Live stands ready to help you in any way possible.