Learning English: Understanding these 4 crazy English rules
The hierarchy of anima-what? Source: Shutterstock

Earlier this year, the native speakers of the English language were shaken by this tweet:

The New York Times editor Matthew Anderson had articulated a rule (the prenominal adjective order) that many native speakers practise but do not know that they know. It is the rule that adjectives “absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun” according to Mark Forsyth, author of the book The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.

In this grand and majestic language we call English, it turns out there are more where that came from. Within the grammar rules of this language, there are more of these little things that most native speakers are getting right but, like the above, will boggle both native and non-native speakers.

Here are some of our favourites:

1. Why it’s “My sister’s book” and not “The book of my sister”

Known as the Animacy Hierarchy or Nominal Hierarchy, this is a rule that dictates which noun have the animacy or capability to function as the agent of a sentence. The hierarchy is as follows, in decreasing order of humanness going from human to animal to inanimate objects:

first person, second person
third person
personal name/kin term

When we express possession in English, we can either say “my sister’s book” or “the book of my sister”. But when the possessor is higher on the list of animacy above, the worse the “of” phrase type of construction sounds. Hence:

  • “The book of my sister” sounds worse than “my sister’s book”
  • “The food of my cat” sounds worse than “my cat’s food”
  •  “My house’s door” sounds equally as bad or the same as “the door of my house”.

2. Have you ever wondered why it’s abso-freakin’-lutely but not ab-freakin’-solutely or absolute-freakin’-ly?

Sometimes, we feel the need to magnify our speech by inserting an expletive into the middle of the word. The exact location where you insert your swear words matter. The key here is to find the syllable with the most emphasis inside the word – that’s where your swear word should go before.

  • The rule for this is called the “Expletive Infixation”. Thus, using the word “blooming,” we get:
  • Pennsyl-bloomin’-vania

A note of advice: Practise this with care (read: not with your parents/boss/lecturer)

3. Say hello to ‘The Thorn’

Ye Olde Grammar Rule. Source: Shutterstock

Shop signs starting with the word “Ye” is common all over England, like “Ye Olde Tuckshop,” “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop,” or “Ye Olde Hat Shop,” or “Ye Olde Beer Stand.”

Though it starts with a “Y,” it is not pronounced with a y sound, but actually pronounced as “the”. “Ye” is actually ‘Þ’, or a thorn (pronounced as “th”). The thorn met its demise when early printing fonts were imported from Germany and Italy, where there was no sign for thorn. A “Y” was thought to resemble the thorn the closest and was thus used as a substitute.

4. Phrasal verbs: Where 1+1 does not equal 2


A phrasal verb is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition, or both”. Their meaning is usually not obvious from the meaning of the individual words themselves. For example:

  • Blow up
  • Call off
  • Go over
  • Looked down

Some of these are separable, such as “call off” – You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off“. Some, like “pick on,” are not separable, hence why you can say “Don’t pick on your sister” but not “Don’t pick your sister on“.

Naturally, this gives English learners a major headache when there’s no definitive rule to fall back on and the only way to learn is to practise, practise, practise!

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