Two and a half strange rules of the English language that are not taught in school

6 min

There are some strange rules in English grammar. What are the irregular verbs, which are not worth trying to understand, but you just need to memorize.

But if everyone who learns English as a second is familiar with verbs, then some unusual and strange rules in the curriculum are overlooked. And many students are surprised when they first encounter them in communication with native speakers. We will talk about such rules today.

Oxford comma: it seems to be there, but it seems to be not

As you can guess from the rule, it is about a comma. Its meaning is that in English you can put a comma before the union (for example, and, or, nor) when listing homogeneous members of a sentence.

I like oranges, pineapples, peaches, and strawberries.

I love oranges, pineapples, peaches and strawberries.

What’s interesting is that Oxford comma or serial comma is an optional punctuation mark. You can use it, or you can write it as usual.

In learning English as a foreign language, this rule is often overlooked entirely. In Russian, a comma is not put there – and in English it is not needed. After all, if there are two correct options, then why bother?

It is called Oxford because it was introduced into grammar by Horace Hart, an English printer and head of Oxford University Press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was he who issued Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905.

Yes, yes, it is the “typesetters”. The Compositor is a pretty dastardly “translator’s false friend.” This is not the author of music, as in Russian, but just a typesetter for printing.

In these “Rules,” Hart collected stylistic norms that were to be used by the publisher in the publication of printed materials. And there for the first time a comma appeared before “and” in homogeneous members of a sentence.

Modern grammar considers the Oxford comma to be a legitimate rule. The only requirement is that the style is the same throughout the text. That is, if you use a serial comma, then use it wherever there are homogeneous members, and if not, then nowhere.

But this rule has an exception. Oxford comma is necessary where its absence changes the meaning of the sentence.

I love my parents, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna.

If there is no comma in front of the “and”, then the “Snoop Dogg and Rihanna” part can be perceived as a refinement, and not as homogeneous members of the sentence.

Which makes it seem like Snoop Dogg and Rihanna are the parents of the narrator.

The comma accurately and clearly puts everything in its place.

I love my parents, Snoop Dogg, and Rihanna.

It is now clear that the man loves his parents, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna.

Here is a “no mercy to execute”, but in the English version.

My brother’s car vs. Car of my brother

The possessive case in English is created in two ways: using the ending ‘s and using the preposition of.

They are considered roughly equivalent, but very rarely explain why what to use correctly. And there is enough confusion:

  • “Car of my brother” sounds illiterate and it is better to say “My brother’s car”

  • “Door of my house” sounds pretty normal, but “My house’s door” should be forgotten.

  • And “My dog’s kennel” and “Kennel of my dog” are generally both grammatically correct.

In English linguistics, there is the concept of “hierarchy of animate” – the higher in the hierarchy an object is, the more preferable it is to use the pronominal construction or the ending ‘s. And even most English speakers have not heard of it.

  • First, second and third person

  • Name

  • Human

  • Animated

  • Inanimate

Let’s take some examples.

My book – we use it constantly.

Book of mine is grammatically correct only in isolated cases like “Do you remember that book of mine, with red cover?” “Do you remember that book of mine with the red cover.”

By the way, the phrases “my friend” and “friend of mine” are an exception.

Both of these forms are correct. The only difference is in the semantic nuance. “My friend” is used when the interlocutor knows in advance which friend you have in mind. Here the emphasis is on the status of the relationship. Or you add the details right away: “My friend Ivan”. And “friend of mine” means “one of my friends,” without qualifications.

But it is important to understand that you cannot say “You’re a friend of mine” – it is extremely impolite. There is no emphasis on friendship here, but simply the fact that the person is just one of his friends. So you can only talk about a third person.

With “My dog’s kennel” and “Kennel of my dog” it is a little more difficult, because “dog” in English grammar is kind of like animate, but still with the pronoun “it”. Although many people now talk about their pets “he” or “she”, the place of pets in the hierarchy of animateness does not change. In principle, both options are correct – they are practically equivalent. The only thing is that “My dog’s kennel” sounds a little warmer in relation to the dog.

But with “Door of my house” there are no problems at all. “Home” is inanimate, it is at the very bottom of the animation hierarchy. Therefore, he is not supposed to have any possessive case, only through the preposition “of”.

Interestingly, in English grammar, there is even a possessive from the possessive case. It is possible when a possessive word becomes a household name or a brand. For example, McDonald’s.

McDonald’s burger – McDonald’s burger

It looks very crooked and strange, but grammatically no problem. Although linguists still do not advise to scare the language like that. Better to paraphrase and say “Burger from McDonald’s”

Students remember such things with “s” and “of” in practice, without unnecessary rules. But the “hierarchy of animation” exists, although only philologists know about it.

Lost a topic and want more? Then watch also our video “10 Wacky Rules in English”:

Brain-outward word order, or Garden-path sentences

Already a student with an Elementary level knows that the order of words in English is quite strict. You can’t just juggle words and expect grammar to forgive it.

And here we want to give not quite a rule, but rather a way how this most rigid word order can be used to infuriate everyone else.

In grammar, there are sometimes incidents when the grammar of the arrangement of words just interferes with the meaning of the sentence. And neither a native speaker nor a foreigner will be able to understand it correctly the first time.

Let’s take an example straight away. Let’s take one of the most famous

The horse raced past the barn fell.

Let us depict how the process of understanding this sentence occurs approximately for the majority.

“The horse raced” is perceived as a subject and predicate – “The horse was racing.” “Past” – “by”. What does “barn fell” mean? Enumeration of possible options begins. “Barn Skin”? Rave. “Barn felling”? Also the devil. Barn Hill? Slightly less delusional than the rest of the options. But something is also wrong. You read it a second time – and voila, everything is clear.

The problem is that the brain immediately misinterpreted “horse raced” as subject and predicate. But in fact, the predicate here is “fell”. And “raced past the barn” is an addition. And the sentence is translated as “The horse that rushed past the barn fell.”

Confusingly, there is no “that” before “raced”. Grammatically, this is absolutely correct – you can omit “that” if it is used to mean “which”. Even more, it is advised to do so in order not to complicate the language.

This very construction “Subject is an object that begins with a verb – predicate” is very sneaky and often confusing. And she doesn’t care what level of language you have: Pre-Intermediate or Fluent.

Below are some more interesting garden-path suggestions. Check yourself how many of them you can understand from the first reading.

  1. The old man the boat.

  2. The florist sent the flowers was pleased.

  3. The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.

  4. The sour drink from the ocean ..

  5. We painted the wall with cracks.

  6. The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.

  7. The raft floated down the river sank.

  8. When Fred eats food gets thrown.

  9. Mary gave the child the dog bit a Band-Aid.

  10. The girl told the story cried.

  11. I convinced her children are noisy.

  12. Helen is expecting tomorrow to be a bad day.

  13. Fat people eat accumulates.

  14. The dog that I had really loved bones.

  15. That Jill is never here hurts.

  16. The man who whistles tunes pianos.

Translation of phrases under the spoiler:
  1. The old man is driving the boat.

  2. The florist who sent the flowers was pleased.

  3. The cotton used to make clothes grows in the Mississippi.

  4. Sullen people drink from the ocean.

  5. We drew a cracked wall.

  6. The man who hunts has taken off for the weekend.

  7. The raft that went down the river sank.

  8. When Fred eats, food scatters.

  9. Mary gave the child who was bitten by the dog a plaster.

  10. The girl who told the story began to cry.

  11. I assured her that her children were noisy.

  12. Helen expects a bad day tomorrow.

  13. The fat that humans consume builds up.

  14. The dog I had really loved bones.

  15. The fact that Jill is never around is insulting.

  16. The man who whistles tunes the piano.

We guarantee that if you start using this trick in your correspondence, you will be hated very quickly. This is one of the most annoying features of English, and it is also absolutely correct from a grammatical point of view.

And even the most furious Grammar Nazi cannot reproach you, because there are no rules that oblige you to use “that” in such sentences. So it goes.

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