5 Ways the English Language Breaks Its Own Rules

The many ways English flouts its own rules can be confusing even to those who speak it as a first language.

English doesn’t always abide by its own rules.
English doesn’t always abide by its own rules. / Flashpop/DigitalVision/Getty Images

English, the language of Shakespeare and the internet, is often touted for its flexibility and adaptability. But with great flexibility comes great inconsistency. Here are some ways the English language gleefully breaks its own rules, leaving both native speakers and new learners scratching their heads.

1. Tenses don’t respect times.

“So this guy walks into a bar …” We know a story is coming, and it’s clearly a story about something from the past—and yet, the word walks is in the present tense. This technique, known as the historical present, adds immediacy and drama to the narrative; it’s as if the storyteller is reliving the moment, pulling you into the scene. And let’s be clear: This isn’t ungrammatical. Tenses typically express the time of a situation, but tenses are grammatical and times are physical, and there’s no good reason to think they should always align.

In the sentence If it rained tomorrow, I would stay home, the past tense rained is used to refer to a future event. Instead of meaning “past time,” though, it means “I think this is pretty unlikely.” When your waiter at a nice restaurant asks you “Did you want to see the dessert menu?” (to which the answer is always “yes”), their question employs did, the past tense of do—but the waiter isn’t using past tense to ask about past time. Instead, the use of past tense implies a deference or social distance. Like words, tenses can have different meanings.

2. Definites can be indefinite.

The word this is a definite determiner: It picks out referents that are specific and identifiable. If someone says “This is the right one,” they do so because they expect the listener to know which one they mean. But in the story that starts with this guy walks into a bar, this guy doesn’t necessarily refer to any person the speaker expects you to be able to identify. In fact, it might not even refer to any specific person; they could just as well have said “A man walks into a bar” using indefinite a. Once again, the grammatical form has diverged from the meaning.

This is true even of the. If David Attenborough says “The female harvest mouse is at home among the grass blades in a wild meadow,” the marks female harvest mouse as definite, but Attenborough doesn’t have a specific mouse in mind that he thinks we’ll recognize. He’s using the definite article indefinitely.

3. Dummy pronouns serve as subjects.

Personal pronouns usually “stand in” for a noun phrase. Instead of “Thank you for the use of your pen, I put your pen back,” we replace the second instance of your pen with it. Because of this, the personal pronouns—like you, she, him, their, and it—are also definite, like noun phrases with the or this. But in weather sentences like “it’s snowing” or “it’s sunny,” it doesn’t replace any noun phrase. What is the “it” that’s snowing? The sky? The clouds? Linguists call this it a “dummy pronoun,” a placeholder that exists solely because English demands something in the subject position.

4. Objects can be “raised.”

On the surface, the sentences She persuaded them to try it and She intended them to try it seem pretty similar, but they differ in syntactic structure. In the former, them is the object of persuaded. In the latter, though, them is not the object of intended—at least, not really.

Stay with us here: If the first sentence is true, then they (whoever they are) were persuaded. But them isn’t the object of intend in the second sentence, so it would make no sense to say that “they were intended” because it was the outcome that was intended, not the people. That means we can rewrite the second sentence as “She intended that they try it.” The same isn’t true of the first sentence; we can’t rewrite it as “She persuaded that they try it” because it was the people who were persuaded.

Linguists call them in the second sentence a raised object. It’s the subject of they try it, but it’s been “raised” into the object position (and changed into the form we expect for an object: them) for a verb that rejects that kind of object.

5. Number agreement doesn’t always agree.

Even something as straightforward as subject-verb agreement can run into trouble. Usually, the verb in a present-tense sentence agrees with the number (singular or plural) of the subject. When the subject is a singular third-person noun phrase, then the verb takes an (e)s: so, “the mouse eats,” but “the mice eat.” This is also true when the subject is coordinated with and: “the male and female harvest mouse eat.”

Now consider the sentence Bacon and eggs is a common breakfast. The subject Bacon and eggs is also coordinated, so shouldn’t it be Bacon and eggs are? Not so fast. This is another form-meaning mismatch. Even though bacon and eggs is grammatically plural, it’s semantically singular: We conceptualize it as a single dish. Compare this with bacon and eggs are ingredients in a breakfast burrito, where one component of the dish is eggs and another is bacon.

The converse is seen in collective nouns such as the team, which (for some English speakers at least) is grammatically singular but semantically plural, leading to sentences like the team work well together.