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The grammar rule no one knows but everyone knows

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Are you tired of politics? Do you want to take a break from socio-political commentary? Me too.

So today, let’s venture into a completely unrelated field: orthography – the structuring and ordering of our language. I have an amateur interest in etymology and orthography. (Translation: I like reading about it, but I’m too lazy to do any research or actual work on the subject.)

English is a funny language. There are endless ways to mess it up, and yet it’s astoundingly flexible. As author Bill Bryson put in his excellent book “The Mother Tongue,” “English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”

Bryson gives some examples of mangled English: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.’”

We may chuckle at the jumbled verbiage of these foreign announcements, but here’s the thing: We understand what they’re saying. That’s how amazing English is. We can butcher it mercilessly, yet it still communicates effectively.

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