Why is the English language so difficult?

In one of life’s ironies, the citizens of the United States speak an Americanized version of the English language, yet so few Americans bother to learn a second language. It has been argued that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, yet because of the exploration of the English and the success of two large English speaking economies, people feel the need to learn it.

I inherited from my mother a love of Crossword and other word (and number) puzzles. As I wait for my computer to boot up, I will pick up a pocket dictionary close by and just leaf through it, testing myself on words that I may use or need. I do not prefer to know arcane words, as using them will be more pretentious than communicative. There are some editorial writers who prefer to show how smart they are rather than make the reader understand what they are saying.

But, why does English have to be so difficult? Here a few case in points.

Ingenious vs. Ingenuous – the first word means clever or resourceful, while the second word means naive or artless. Only one letter divides an insult from a compliment.

Impunity vs. Impugn – the first word means free from harm or punishment, while the second word means to challenge as false or questionable.

Reproach vs. Rapprochement – the first word means to blame or rebuke, while the second word means an establishing of friendly relations.

Glib vs. Glum – while these words sound like they are similar, the first word means fluent or a good talker of banter, while the latter means gloomy. I have often said glib is one word that means the opposite of what you think.

Curate vs. Curator vs. Curative – the first word means a clergyman helping a vicar, while the second word means a manager of a museum, while the third means having the power to cure or offer remedy.

While I was compiling these words, I was reminded of the great college and NBA basketball player David Robinson. Robinson attended the Naval Academy and served his country after his graduation. A very smart man embodied this 6’11” basketball player. When a reporter asked him why he was good at blocking shots, he said he did not want others driving the lane with “impunity.” The reporters had to go find a dictionary.

What are some of your favorite, confusing English words? Before I leave, my wife and I watch the show “Law and Order – Special Victims Unit.” At the introduction to the show, the narrator mentions the special unit that handles crimes that are “heinous.” Now that is a word that means what it sounds like.

33 thoughts on “Why is the English language so difficult?

  1. The English language is certainly one of the hardest to learn, though I would put Chinese and Arabic ahead of even English for difficulty. I grew up in a bilingual household and when it came time to learn to write and read … Spanish was soooooo much easier. One sound for each letter, no tricky consonant combos, no silent letters. The trouble with English is it has all sorts of ‘rules’, but there are more exceptions to the rules than things that fit them. Take, for example, that old ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. If you try to apply that rule, you will misspell half the words that have an “ie” combination! On a daily basis, I am thankful for spell and grammar check! Fun post, Keith … thanks!

  2. I often see people mix up “effect” and “affect”, and of course there’s the perennial mistake of writing “reign in” for “rein in” in the sense of “restrain”. There’s horde/hoard and counsel/council. I once saw a writer consistently use “heroine” when he obviously meant “heroin”, the drug. I couldn’t resist telling him I’d been a “heroine addict” ever since I saw Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

    Of course many of the difficulties people often point to (including my examples, other than the first one) are really problems with the writing system rather than the language itself. It’s an important distinction to make. Japanese isn’t a tremendously difficult language (though it’s enormously different from a Western language or Chinese), but the writing system is the most complicated and difficult in the world.

    The most unforgivable one is “should of” for “should’ve”. Using “of” in that position makes absolutely no sense semantically, and there’s nobody out there who doesn’t know what “of” and “have” mean.

    I’m not sure English is really more difficult than most other major languages. The sounds are difficult and the grammar is a bit weird, but there isn’t the problem of nouns having arbitrary grammatical gender, or huge numbers of irregular plurals like in German and Arabic, or endless tables of verb endings and case endings to learn.

    • Thanks for your well-informed thoughts. I am sloppy at times, so must guard against such. Of course, European languages have the formal/ informal distinctions, which English
      largely avoids.

    • Dear Keith and Infidel753,

      Many linguists and users, including Asians themselves, have reckoned that traditional Chinese (not the simplified Chinese, Korean or Japanese) is by far the most complicated and difficult writing system in the world.

      Back to English:
      Sanction is a tricky word that seems to contradict itself.

      Yes, it is the same word with opposite meanings.

      On the one hand, the verb form of the word means “give official permission or approval for (an action).”

      On the other hand, it can also mean “impose a sanction or penalty on.”

      A very common grammatical problem nowadays is the use of two successive or contiguous verbs. For example: “National boundaries help maintain the unique beauty among different countries.”

      There are at least two solutions:
      (1) “National boundaries help [to] maintain the unique beauty among different countries.”

      (2) “National boundaries help [in] maintain[ing] the unique beauty among different countries.”

      In any case, English grammar has been suffering from a significant decline in many circles. Poor expressions and ungrammatical constructions are all too common.

      I have prepared a significant summary of the most common and/or egregious problems with corresponding solutions at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/writing/

  3. I love crossword puzzles and scrabble. One thing I find interesting is how idioms translate and if similar or the same idioms exist in other languages — like “you made you bed, now lie in it,” “if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”…etc. Speaking of idioms, I just came by to sit with you for a spell…😊😉

    • MW, love the idioms. We played a lot of Scrabble with the kids. My wife bought me for Christmas a 50th anniversary game, which has a board with grooves on top of a spinning chasis. It keeps a lot of tiles off the floor. You noted other languages, but a reason English has some complications is it has been influenced by other languages – my kids had a freshmen class in High School regarding roots of words. Keith

      • I have a scrabble board like that I found on eBay. Love it! Good class your kids had. The etymology of words is always an interesting topic.

    • Agreed on the lazy part, maybe sloppy is a better word. New learners seem to speak and write it better than native speakers. A sad state is people are reading less beyond text and twitter. Keith

    • learning a second language HELPS you to learn English

      That’s certainly true. Studying German helped me understand the deep workings of English grammar in a way I never had before. It’s unfortunate that few Americans do learn a second language.

      • So true. I took German in high school. I think I can count, order beer and say please and thank you, but not much more.

  4. Whereas English gave rise to that most arcane and secret of combination of letters ‘ough’ which can come out as ‘owww’ as in ‘plough’……’ or ‘offf’ as in ‘cough’…..or ‘oooo’ as in …’through’…. and ”urra’ as in ‘thorough’….not forgetting ‘huff’ as in ‘enough’ along with numerous other non-phonetic combinations; at least English did not worry its speaker as to whether to ascribe the ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ to every object in sight nor to worry its users as to whether to use the ‘perfect’, pluperfect’, ‘imperative’ future’ or ‘past historic’ tenses when discoursing (regardez au vous, Mes Braves en France).
    As for the for different uses British and American speakers use for the same word…I shall restrain myself…out of good taste. Other than to assert:
    1.A solicitor in the UK is a person who has achieved their status through study of the law and is perfectly respectable (in theory)
    2. No matter how mature and sober they may be in the rest of their daily lives I defy a gathering of American males to uniformly keep straight faces when watching that great Shakespearean tragedy ‘Othello’ as the hero, about to finally take his own life solemnly intones….
    “Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;
    Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt, “

    • Roger, I was so hoping you would opine on this post. You did not disappoint and added the most confusing of English pronunciations. As my wife and I watch many British shows, we feel more conversant on the differences between what we Americans speak and what Brits speak, but we do still get surprised. We’ve added “The Last Tango in Halifax” to our mix and there is a new mini-series called “Flesh and Blood” which must be viewed for the scenery as well as the plot. Cheers, Keith

      • Languages, methods of speech, accents and dialects have always interested me.
        One facet of American speech I have always admired, is the speed of delivery in comedy.
        Both my son and I use subtitles so we don’t miss any of the culture references or asides.
        Sheila is a big fan of a 1990s UK comedy called ‘Keeping Up Appearance,’ and according to Facebook this has a world-wide following. UK fans are frequently explaining to American fans the cultural references.
        Fortunately for both sides of ‘The Pond’ humour does seem to travel…. I don’t think ‘Friends’ or ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’ have ever been ‘off the air’ on through one UK TV channel or another (We never did get around to watching ‘Last Tango in Halifax’
        But we’ve started watching ‘Bewitched’ again!)
        Keep finding something to laugh about Keith.
        Best wishes

      • Roger, weve seen “Keeping up appearances” a few times. It is funny. We also like “As time goes by,” as it airs more here.

        We watched “Friends” some, but “Everybody loves Raymond” only a few times. It must have been opposite a show we liked. It is funny, though.

        We were big fans of “Big Bang Theory” and watch ita prequel called “Little Sheldon.”


    • Peter Cook, the British actor, used to tell a story of the first time he was in the US and interviewed on a talk show with a live audience. It was a non-smoking venue, and at one point Cook grumbled, “Sorry, I’m just not happy unless I’ve got a fag in my mouth.” “Fag” in Britain is slang for cigarette, and he didn’t realize it has a different meaning here. He was a bit startled when the host and the audience instantly fell into shocked silence at his remark.

      • Oh yes….. Not the first….A work colleague of my stilled an entire New York party (imagine that) by saying out loud that they were ‘dying for a fag’…
        There are several others I could relate but would hate to cause inadvertent offense.

      • Roger, we have regional differences in sayings (foods) we must also deal with. In the South, we use “Bless his heart” while in the Northeast, many may say “God love him” to describe a foolish man. Keith

  5. Note to Readers: Another pairing of words offer some confusion:

    Mosaic means a piece of art with inlaid colorful stones into mortar

    Prosaic means commonplace or dull

    Don’t confuse the two.

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