A Few Thoughts on Rules, or English as a Second Language originally posted August 30, 2016

A Few Thoughts on Rules, or English as a Second Language

August 30, 2016


Anthony Watkins

Okay, I have a few confessions to make.

Have you ever noticed when you are trying to learn a new language the toughest words to learn are the ones you already know? I mean, it took you a second to learn verde for green, but you still aren’t sure of the correct way to pronounce rodeo….

My confession is that English is my second language. I was born in Mississippi, where we used almost all the same exact words as they use in English, but the pronunciation and grammar are very different. It would probably have been easier if I had been raised speaking German, or Mandarin.

My second confession is I started writing poetry because I found out if I wrote something and called it a poem, nobody could tell I wrote it wrong. Of course, as I got older, I found out there were a host of people who were quite happy to tell me I wrote my poem wrong. Then, after a while I ran into folks who said I should ignore people who tell me my poem is wrong, and finally, I have become a follower, or instigator, if I have misunderstood the meaning from other, of the theory that nobody writes a poem, and that maybe there are no bad poems, though as an editor of a poetry journal, I have seen some poem I was pretty sure were bad.

Poems are always a collaboration between the reader and the writer, in fact all art is a collaboration and every new viewer/listener completes the piece and does so in a way no one else has ever done. In fact, if you are really good at it, when you complete it, you become a critic and you can tell us what it is. As a poet, I never have a clue until somebody reads my poem, finishes it and says, “oh, that was about a swan, wasn’t it?” I start to say, “no” but then I realize it probably was. Sometimes all poems are about a swan, you just have to see it.

The Rules of English

As far as I know, no other language is such a jumble of French, German, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Native American languages, Yiddish, and the glorious disasters of English transmogrifications of Native American words originally brutalized in French or Spanish and then further corrupted in an English translation. And the great thing is sometimes words and phrases were brought over with the rules of the original source and sometimes that got dropped in and were required to obey the current English rules. These rules often changed on a whim, and just as whimsically changed back. If you were caught still on the last rule, when the rule had been revised, you were an ignorant fool.

Then there are the delightful and completely non-sensical rules like “’I’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c’, except in “science” and a few other words, except for a whole list of words that have ‘e’ before ‘I’ with no modifying ‘c’, and why does ‘c’ have anything to do with it anyway.

See, I like rules, more or less, but I like rules like math has. With the exception of a couple of rules, math always uses the same rules, and the always have, and they always make sense: zero, don’t get me started, and negative numbers. You know that a negative times a negative makes a positive, but you probably don’t know why. I don’t either. I know if I run a small school and there are 4 classrooms and each teacher reports that 4 students are out for the day, I can multiply -4 x -4 and I should be missing 16 students: -16, but no, somehow those -16 students become a positive (one assumes that is because they represent the majority of the disruptive students?) -4 x -4 = 16, though I just realized this is a bad example because it is really 4 positive classrooms with -4 students, so it would probably be -4 x 4 = -16, which does make sense, I guess I would have to have lost four classrooms, with the exception of 4 students in each class, and when I gather these “orphaned students together, I would look and say -4 classes x -4 students =16 students, and sure enough I would have 16 students. But otherwise, a math rule is always the same and it makes sense, except maybe for derivatives, even after i learned how to do them, they still didnt make any sense, kinda like writing poetry.

I’m not sure, but you aren’t reading this for a math problem, so back to English. I don’t mind too much their, there and they’re, I do mind its and it’s and I am highly offended that earlier today my autocorrect tried to change aint to ain’t, how do you have the audacity to correct my word and then still tell me your correction is not a word? Is it possible to incorrectly spell a not-a-word? Only in English. I have come to the conclusion that there are daily rules in English.

"What do you mean this is incorrect?"

"Its Thursday."


"Everybody knows on Thursday you cant end a sentence with a preposition.."

"But I wrote it on Wednesday."

"Doesnt matter, its Thursday, you are wrong. Go sit down."


"Dont worry on Saturday t will be okay, but today, you are wrong."

By the way, and for the record, my English major and erstwhile journalist wife wants the world to know she thinks i am nuts to attack the English language i a literary journal. I say "where else?" Its not like there is a Tea Party journal. And how come everybody that does English "proper" thinks everybody who doesnt do it that way is an idiot? except me, they dont think i am an idiot, because the know i will kick their butt in scrabble, they know i can do about anything with English, and even do it correctly when i take a notion. i dont take that notion very often. except for the few word that have a similar word without the apostrophe, how come we are supposed to use an apostrophe to show a contraction, has anyone ever read dont and wondered, "hmmm, what does that mean?" I doubt it. and even words that have other meanings like cant and wont, really? if you read, "i wont give your time back you have wasted reading this," do you really have to contemplate which meaning of wont i might be going for?

Another confession, when my twelve year old was about 3, I let him play on my laptop, he quickly destroyed the shift key. So I got I the habit of typing everything in lower case and skipping the punctuation, as most marks required a shift. In spite of the memes on facebook making fun of people who leave out the commas, and in spite of the wicked woman who wrote eats shoots and leaves. About 99% of the time, we all know exactly what someone is trying to say, even when they misspell a word, or twelve, or misuse a mark on the paper or phrase their words in a more creative method than we are used to. the truth is, language (and if English was going to have one rule, I wish it was about when the letters ‘a’ and ’u’ go walking who the hell goes first? of course I am sure there would be 42 exceptions if there was or is a rule.

Somewhere I came to the conclusion, a bit like the 5 yr old me discovering poetry. If I do it, it’s a new rule. I write anthonyenglish. Some times anthonyenglish looks pretty conventional, sometimes it looks like mississippienglish (who in their right mind though native americans were saying a word that should be spelt ‘mississippi? Really? Im thinking the early European explorers were more like me than I might wish.

Explorer one, “What did he call this place?”

Explorer two, “Allapattah.”

Explorer one, “You sure?”

Explorer two, “maybe he said “alligator”.”

Explorer one, “What the f%$k? You mean you don’t know whether he said “alligator” or “allapattah”?


Only Explorer left, “Alligator.”

By the way, notice how funny mississippienglish looks with the ‘i’ before the ‘e’? but it does follow at least part of standard english’s rules.

I think I will go write a poem and y’all wont even know if I did it wrong or not, heck, I wont know either, but that is okay with me.

My last confession, which you must know by now:

I love English and especially poetry, in spite of, no, because of all the asinine rules, but ill be damned if i let any of them stand in my way. I do have one final question, though: If English majors are the crossing guards of language, how come they dont go home at 9 am and come back at 1 pm?

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