20 ‘Old School’ Reasons Why English Is A Terrible Language

20 ‘Old School’ Reasons Why English Is A Terrible Language

The English language cops a lot of flak for being inconsistent, illogical and generally a bit rubbish. Here are 20 brain-twisting sentences that prove its reputation is well-earned.

Spelling bee picture from Shutterstock

The excerpts below were taken from various articles by Richard Lederer; an American author and linguist best known for his books on word play and oxymorons. They highlight how the same words can have completely different meanings depending on context and the way they are pronounced.

Variations of this list have been circulating on listservs, e-mails and newsgrouyps since the dawn of the internet. Recently, the list has begun popping up on Facebook to delight and confound a whole new generation of netizens. We figured this was as good a reason as any to share it with our readers. Take it away Dick:

“Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. In what language do people recite at a play, and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? [clear] [clear] “English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.” [clear] [clear]

  1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
  2. The farm was used to produce produce.
  3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  4. We must polish the Polish furniture.
  5. He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  7. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
  8. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
  9. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  10. I did not object to the object.
  11. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  12. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
  13. They were too close to the door to close it.
  14. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
  15. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
  16. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
  18. Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
  19. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  20. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Think you can top Richard’s pretzel-like wordplay? Let fly with your own nonsensical sentences in the comments section below.

See also: The Ten Most Common Words In English (And The Three Grammar Mistakes They Cause)


  • Good stuff. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, English has a massive amount of words with double meanings, then there is similar sounding words that are spelt differently.
    I never realised how bad it was until I started learning Chinese and teaching other people English.

    • Yep. It’s a language of experience alright. I remember getting hung up on tear vs tear when I was young. Every time I typed it in my brain rejected it because it’s clearly tear not tear.

      • I just read that as two different words. First I thought tear (drop from eye), then I thought a rip. Odd how these double word things don’t impact negatively.

  • Edinburgh’s ghastly ghettos are rough enough through and through. (4 different pronunciations of GH – as “h”, as hard “g”, as “f”, and silent).

    • So you’ve been to my home town then? We’ve tarted up some of those areas now you know? 🙂

    • Exactly! How much literature, jokes, song lyrics, and just generally evocative writing that really makes you think has taken advantage of quirks like that? These types of criticism are childish.

  • They highlight how the same words can have completely different meanings depending on context and the way they are pronounced.

    You speak as if English is the only language this applies to.

    Guess what? It isn’t.

  • From #9, dove or dived? Is it ‘I skydove on the weekend’ or ‘I skydived on the weekend’ ? ‘I SCUBA dove last month’ vs ‘I SCUBA dived last month’ ? At the Olympics, is it ‘high dove’ or ‘high dived’ ?

    • Yeah past tense of “dive” is “dived”, at least in British English which is what Australian English is based on. Americans use both “dived” and “dove” I believe.

    • It’s neither, you went skydiving on the weekend. You went SCUBA diving last month. At the Olympics it is the high dive.

  • F*ck me, the f*cking f*cker’s f*cking f*cked. What other word can be used 5 times in the same grammatically correct sentence?

  • You missed one of my all time favourites….

    “The alarm went off, so I turned it off.”


  • にわにはにわにわとりがいる
    Niwa niwa niwa niwa-tori ga iru.
    There are two chickens in the garden.

    • Yes, in Japanese you have single kanji with multiple meanings and different pronunciations. When people describe how to spell their own name, they have to specify the kanji used. This is less common in English, although still sometimes necessary. (Tony/Toni; Alan/Allan/Allen for example.)

      At Uni we were given an example sentence to illustrate how the same sentence can mean multiple things: “The chicken turned on the rotisserie.” Was the chicken an actual chicken or a cowardly person? Did they power it on? Stand on top of it twirling? Sexually excite it? Attack it? There’s a lot of things we basically pick up from context.

      • Haha, your chicken example reminds me of a guy I met a few years back… his band’s name is “Bump of Chicken”, and in our first conversation he asked me what the name meant, because he was concerned the meaning wasn’t clear, and wanted to know what images it conjured for a native speaker.

        I managed to guess it was describing a cowardly person bumping in to someone, but it made me think of “Goosebumps”.

  • I always thought this poem summed up the English language quite nicely.

    We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,
    But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
    Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
    Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
    You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
    But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
    If the plural of man is always called men,
    Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be pen?
    The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
    But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
    And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
    But I give a boot… would a pair be beet?
    If one is a tooth, and a whole set is teeth,
    Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth?
    If the singular is this, and the plural is these,
    Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be kese?
    Then one may be that, and three be those,
    Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
    We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
    But though we say mother, we never say methren.
    The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
    But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim.
    So our English, I think you will agree,
    Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

  • Good examples, However, I would like to play the opposition in this conversation.
    Yes the English language has it’s inconsistencies and redundancies, but this is little surprise as the English language is a concoction of all various languages, primarily northern-European, that has developed and been evolved of centuries of invasions, trade and just general history awesomeness.

    The English language thanks to this very diverse origin also has wonderful subtlety and complexity that can be used to express various levels of a meaning, we don’t just have a single word for a meaning but multiple often each with a slight variation of definition thus giving it a unique intricacy.
    Even once experienced enough to be comfortable with the rules and pronunciation quirks, many people still find themselves learning throughout there life-time.
    Sure other languages may be more direct, definitely have a greater consistency, but I imagine it would be hard to find or even create a language as vibrant, dynamic and just plain interesting as the English language.

  • Got article, but the introduction made a common mistake. A ‘fat chance’ and a ‘slim chance’ are they same thing because was use ‘fat chance’ sarcastically. Connotation, not definition.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!