English isn’t as easy as we tend to think it is…

(It’s a while since I blogged.* But I might get back to it. I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches to a memoir which you will be thrilled to hear, will be published next month, It is called “And Finally. A Journalist’s Life in 250 Stories. Anyway, on with the blog,,,)

I was writing about my health and Covid and vaccinations the other day.

I am of course anxious to get the vaccine. But I have been told I must be patient.

Interesting I thought. I’m told to be a patient patient.

Manchán Magan has told us about some of the eccentricities of the Irish language in his excellent book “Thirty Two Words for Field.”

(Tá began Gaeilge agam, mar sin, tuigim cad a bhí a rá ag Manchán ins an leabhar.)

But for all its eccentricities, Irish is only in the *halfpenny place compared with English.

*(Why do we still say “halfpenny place” when nobody under 50 has a clue what a halfpenny is? Same goes for “spend a penny,” “he hasn’t a bob,” and “quids in.”)

For example, I remember, many years ago, my father asking me to spell the word fish.

I knew it was a trick question and I wouldn’t get it right, but I said F-I-S-H.

“No,” he said, “it’s ghoti.”

I waited. And then he explained.

“‘Gh’ as in cough, ‘o’ as in women and ‘ti’ as in nation. Fish.”

Indeed, even without my father’s help I remember my confusion as a child when I heard a bus conductor (ask your grandfather) telling some young lads who were messing on the platform (he’ll tell you about that too) to “come on, get off.”

Another example of the strangeness of English is to point out that you have just begun reading the sentence you have just finished reading.

And I do feel sorry for those who go to the trouble of learning English before coming to this part of the world and then seeing a headline in a newspaper declaring: Red tape holds up bridge.

Then there is punctuation. A challenge from my father was to punctuate these words.

Time flies no man can they fly so fast.

I tried, but he had to do it for me. 

Time flies? No man can. They fly so fast.

I found these words easier.

Woman without her man is nothing.

I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe in equality of the sexes.

Some unenlightened folk might say it means exactly what it says: Woman without her man is nothing.

But the enlightened know the truth of it is revealed through punctuation. Woman – without her, man is nothing.

The Kinks made us of such a device in their 1970 hit Lola when Ray Davies said at the end of the song presumed by one and all to be about a transvestite: I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola.

There are many other strange phenomena in English like this: read rhymes with lead and read rhymes with lead but read and lead don’t rhyme and neither do read and lead.

And why do we teach children that old chesnut: i before e except after c?

Actually it’s i before e except when your weird foreign neighbour Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty weightlifters.

But I think the favourite of my father’s stories about the English language is this one. It’s a sentence which contains the same word, had, fourteen times in a row. And yet makes perfect sense.

Tom and John were printers. They worked together, mostly in harmony.

But occasionally, they fell out.

On this occasion, it was over a sentence which read: The man had had some success over the years.

Tom thought the words “had had” should appear in italics.

John thought they should appear in bold print.

They couldn’t agree.

So Tom, where John had had had had, had had had had; had had had had had had over it in the final proof, nobody would have been surprised.

Sometimes it seems impossible.

But don’t give up.

English can be understood, though, through tough thorough thought.

All a big too much for me to tell the truth.

I’m giving up drinking from now on.


I forgot the full stop.

I’m giving up. Drinking from now on.

3 thoughts on “English isn’t as easy as we tend to think it is…

  1. Patricia Garvey

    Have missed you’re wisdom Paddy. 🙋‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. eanna brophy

    I’m just about to read this now Paddy, but first of all I’m delighted you’re bringing out your book. I’ll buy two copies at least!


  3. Rosita McDevitt

    Looking forward to your memoirs PDdy

    Liked by 1 person

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