It was a reader request that prompted this week's piece. It read, "Please can you throw some light on the word 'hardly'? I know what hard is and I know that the opposite is soft but is hardly the opposite of softly? I hardly think so."
Dave and his wife were clearly pleading for enlightenment. "Can you please help us? I hardly need to remind you that hardly a day goes by when this word doesn't pop up and annoy us."
Well, Mr and Mrs Dave, you've appealed to the right bloke. Hardly is an example of what grammarians refer to as an incorrigible verbal atrocity and is something which should not be messed with by untrained civilians. It is sometimes erroneously referred to as a bi-valve mollusc but I am pleased to advise that the use of this nomenclature is declining.
I hardly need to remind you that the English language is full of such curious inconsistencies, which is why it is such a difficult language to negotiate, causing many people to give up and just go with social studies.
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Why does a hamburger contain no ham? If vegetables are the main food of vegetarians, what do humanitarians eat? If taught is the past tense of teach why isn't praught the past tense of preach?
Those were just three questions. There are others.
Why are there rules which get broken? You can learn i before e except after c until you've got it down pat then along comes the word seize. Weird.
I only know how to do all this because one of the chief teaching methods, when I was a kid, involved a big stick being applied with considerable force to my knuckles. The force was sometimes enough to make a blob of ink spurt out of my inkwell.
Nowadays teachers are forced to take a softer approach and have to offer counselling and a vegetarian option so some of these lessons simply don't get through.
For example, there's the issue of spelling being made more difficult by pronunciation. This is called spellunciation and examples include through, trough, bough and rough. Just try and teach those without a big stick.
Can you imagine the difficulties experienced by an English learner with wound (woond – an injury) and wound (wownd – coiled around). It's enough to make a bi-valve mollusc turn vegetarian.
On spelling, we received a phishing email last week claiming to be from Countdown but spelt Conutdown. A dead giveaway. Maybe they're suffering from irritable vowel syndrome.
And what about homophones? What about them indeed!
Silent letters can also cause problems as evidenced by knock, gnome and psychology. You can try reading them aloud if you wish but it won't help.
You might think that run is a pretty simple word to deal with. But look what happens when you change the preposition with it. You can run over something, have a run-in with someone, run something down, run up a hefty bill or run something by someone. It doesn't bear thinking about.
Metaphor is a minefield of mayhem. Idioms we take for granted baffle English learners from other cultures. "He kicked the bucket" and "She hit the roof" would certainly baffle those for whom English is not the first language.
And when people say, "It's the least I can do," do they really mean they've trawled through all the possibilities and purposely chosen the smallest and cheapest one to offer?
So, Mr and Mrs Dave, you see you've really opened a can of worms here. The English language is full of incorrigible verbal atrocities and is hardly to be taken lightly. I recommend beer.
Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, musician and public speaker.