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4 Things Most Native English Speakers Don’t Know About English

by Nikkitha Bakshani Apr 25, 2013

I went to Paris to take a 4-week intensive TEFL course, not without hubris. Of course I could get a certification to teach English as a second language. I know what a gerund is. Misplaced modifiers make me giggle. The English language is one thing — the only thing — I am good at (though I was just about to end that sentence with a preposition). Teaching English would be cake, a Madagascar vanilla bean cake with bourbon glaze, metaphors and hyperboles and polysendetons.

Um, no.

It is nerve-wracking to watch a group of adult language learners look at you like you have the power to get them that job promotion or bilingual savvy, when all you do is ask them to repeat “soccer” after you, or mime stabbing the air with an imaginary knife to elicit the word “anger.” It’s even more nerve-wracking to teach a set of rules you don’t really know yourself. What is the difference between “may” and “might”? I may improvise and figure it out, stammering my thought process in front of the class, or I might die of embarrassment. I may be exaggerating.

Native English speakers know the rules taught in an ESL class by instinct, making the terminology even more difficult to process. (Seriously, have you ever heard of a lexical verb?) So here are 4 rules / guidelines that are pretty useless to know if you already speak good English.

1. Adjective order

When you use more than one adjective in a sentence, they need to follow the order of this acronym: OSACOMP. It sounds like a computer algorithm, and feels just as frustrating. You can’t just say, “I bought a new, beautiful, leather, big black work bag.” The Opinion needs to come first. Then Size, followed by Age, Color, and Origin. Finally, Material and Purpose. So, “I bought a beautiful, big, new, black leather work bag.” Because that makes all the difference.

There were only two other people in my class, and they both seemed to find OSACOMP equally useless. Cassie was an outdoorsy, almost pathologically optimistic post-grad from Los Angeles, and Liza was an American expat who had recently finished nine years in the military. Cassie flinched every time Liza or I said “fuck,” which happened often. Liza’s arms were covered in tattoos of penguins on a cerulean background, but there was also a black rhino and land buffalo in that tattoo ocean. “Endangered animals,” she said, as I thought about how it sort of looked like a children’s duvet cover. Our annoyance with adjectival order was the only thing we all had in common.

Though we didn’t realize it then, OSACOMP does make sense. It’s the reason we say “big, red house” instead of “red, big house.” When adjectives are out of this order, it just sounds wrong, but foreign language learners don’t know that. Despite this, Cassie, Liza, and I continued to grumble that it was pointless. We felt cheated, like our native language was keeping secrets from us.

2. The phonemic script

It looks like this. Each symbol corresponds to a sound you’d make when speaking English. They are those weird symbols that show up next to each word in the dictionary. The “j” sound looks like / ʤ / and the “y” sound looks like / j /. And that’s not even half as misleading as English spelling.

For example, did you know that “ghoti” is an alternate spelling of the word “fish”? Gh = the “f” sound in “enough.” “O” = the “i” sound in “women.” “Ti” = the “sh” sound in “fiction.” A man named Alexander Ellis calculated 81,997,920 potential ways to spell the word “scissors,” including schiesourrhce. He later admitted to exaggerating, but still, spelling can be confusing, and the phonemic script helps students learn how to pronounce words without being tripped up by their spellings. “Fish” and “ghoti” and every other possible spelling will all look like / f ɪ ʃ / in phonemic symbols.

To practice, our trainer gave us each two identical sheets of paper with the phonemic script and told us to cut up the letters from one of the papers and use the other as a reference. We were to use the cut-up symbols as flash cards for tomorrow’s class. I didn’t think to bring a pair of schiesourrhce to Paris, so I shredded each letter by hand. Cassie did have a pair of scissors, but she cut up the phonemic script from both sheets of paper — a flurry of ʧ’s and ʤ’s and æ’s and ɜ:’s and θ’s. My flash cards looked like Corn Flakes. While most other 22-year-olds in Paris were having the time of their lives on Rue de la Roquette, Cassie and I were curled over our desks past 3am cutting up an oral alphabet. Wrong.

3. Transitive and intransitive verbs / direct and indirect objects

You probably learned these in 7th grade, but since you gain nothing by pointing them out in sentences (“Hey man, can I intransitively crash on your indirect sofa?”), they lie in the recesses of your memory, not resentful that you’ve forgotten them.

“Nikkitha, can you give me an example of a direct object?” asked our trainer.


It was obvious I’d stayed up watching Pretty Little Liars instead of doing the required reading. In any case, “someone” is the direct object because the action is being done directly to it, and when you have a direct object, you have a transitive verb (“killed”). When a preposition precedes an object, it’s an indirect object. For example, “He slept on the sofa.” Since the action isn’t being done to the sofa, it’s an intransitive verb.

It seems simple enough, but when applied to complex sentences, they make you question your sanity. Liza struggled with the concept, and every time she’d get a question wrong, she would spew her customary, “Ah, for fuck’s sake!” She never said the word “yes” as much as she said “oh yeah” or some variation of “duh.” (Once, when I asked if she wanted to get fondue, she matter-of-factly replied, “Did the bear shit in the woods?”)

Our trainer continued explaining transitive verbs. “So, what did he do to the sofa?”

We all burst into raucous laughter, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was dirty. Maybe we’d been in class for seven hours when we would have rather spent our day drinking kir royales by the Luxembourg Gardens. Maybe in a weird, Breakfast Club-y way, we were all suddenly the kind of good friends who laughed about nothing in particular.

4. Why we order “the” lobster but “a” cappuccino

We order “the” lobster because we are clearly referring to the lobster on the menu, not “a” lobster somewhere out there in the world. When we order a cappuccino, we’re referring to the specific cappuccino on the menu (assuming there’s only one kind), yet we still say “a” cappuccino instead of “the.” Why?

In all honesty, I don’t know. If there’s one thing I learned in my TEFL class, more than phonemic symbols or present perfect continuous tense, it’s that it is okay to admit you don’t know. I thought I knew Cassie and Liza just from noticing how they were different from me. Ego drove my initial apathy toward these unfamiliar rules, and my completely inaccurate judgments of two people who are far shrewder than their big smile or penguin tattoos indicate.

I won’t leave you hanging on the cappuccino question like that, though. Here’s a theory: Unlike lobster dishes, cappuccinos are on most menus, so we’re not asking for some kind of specific house cappuccino. In fact, most people would get upset if they wanted their regular (or “a” wet or “a” dry) cappuccino and found it had angostura bitters in it. It’s like how you’d go to a diner and get “an order of eggs, over easy,” as that’s clearly not a unique dish. This theory of mine has no official backing, but I’ll roll with it.

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