Wednesday, August 24, 2011

English Insanity!

My job puts in the same room with many people from all over the world:  Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Iraq, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, France, etc. One of the most enjoyable, yet challenging, things about my job is that I explain to these global scholars the difference between “write it down” and “write it up.” Idiomatic phrasal verbs (a verb+ a preposition) are among the hardest to explain. Often, I provide reasons for phrases and usages that I have never thought about before because I am a native speaker.

Think about the phrasal verb turn.

Turn on can used for lights (or a machine) or attraction. The difference? The latter includes a noun or pronoun referring to a person. Then, we can also use turn on with streets and directions (“Turn on Kensington Drive”). Most of the uses of turn off provide convenient opposite uses of turn on, which believe me is rather rare.

Unlike turn on and turn off pair, turn out and turn in are completely unrelated to each other. Turn out can refer to a crowd’s presence (“We’ll see how many people turn out [Note: turn up also works here] for the party”) or the outcome of a situation: “I hope things turn out okay.” Turn out could mean that someone or something has been evicted: “The poor family was turned out yet again.” Like turn off, turn out can refer to lighting “Who turned out the lights?” Turn in means to go to sleep or to give something. “I turned in my resume.”

Turn into and turn in to are a fun couple to talk about. One little space changes meaning here. Turn into means to change or transform (e.g. “She turned me into a newt”). Turn in to means to give something to someone or change direction (e.g. “He turned his paper in to his professor late” and “I turned in to the parking lot”). But what about the statement, “I turned (into/in to) a pole”? I assume that I did not transform into a pole, so I also assume that it should be in to. However, one little space says that by a magical spell I changed into a pole. I once enthusiastically pointed this funny and fun difference out to a native-speaking student, and he slowly said, “Okay.” Just saying!

Turn up, as stated before, can refer to attendance, but it can also refer to positive results: “Things are turning up!” Turn up can be used for measurable controls: “Turn up the AC!” Turn down means to deny a request: “He turned me down.”

I have to get pretty creative in explaining why certain prepositions go with certain usages. For example, I might come up with a pneumonic device to help them remember that turn in means to sleep inside the covers in bed. But how do I explain that we say that a house can burn up and burn down at the same time? Is it logical to say that we fill in a form by filling it out? At some point, I shrug and apologize for the insanity.

So just one verb, turn, with just some of its prepositions has many different meanings. How many verbs are there? Don’t use the wrong preposition in the wrong context or you’ll be saying something you don’t mean to say. Good luck, English learners!

More than anything in this discussion, I just wish to show how insane and how similar to Frankenstein’s monster English is. I love my language’s complexities and oddities, but I think we native English speakers could have a little more patience, understanding, and respect for those who are learning it.