GrammarPhile Blog

10 Things That Are Strange to Non-Native English Speakers

Posted by Kelly Creighton   Feb 28, 2019 7:30:00 AM

Confused!Here are ten things that can seem strange to non-native English speakers.

1. Questions and Answers With Both Affirming and Negating Terms

Native English speakers say things like, “You want to eat that, don’t you?” and “No, that’s okay” all the time. This can be confusing to non-native English speakers because they don’t understand whether the person saying things like this wants something or will do something, or not.

2. The Rule: “i” Before “e” Except After “C”

As native English speakers know, there are exceptions to nearly every grammar rule, especially this one. The letter “i” doesn’t always come before the letter “e” except when it’s placed after the letter “c” in a word. For example, the words “science,” “efficient,” and “beige” are exceptions to this rule.

3. Telling Time

In other languages, or even various dialects of English, people would say “it is half past two” or “it is half of three” when telling time. They would not say “It is 2:30.” 

4. The Fact That Spelling Doesn’t Always Indicate How a Word Is Pronounced

In the English language, how a word is used in a sentence can determine its pronunciation and not necessarily how it’s spelled. For example, the word “read” can be used in the past tense or the future tense in a sentence depending on the context of the sentence and will be pronounced differently in each tense.

And many words have the same letter combinations but aren’t pronounced the same way. Consider the following words and how they’re spelled versus how they’re pronounced.

  • tough
  • through
  • thought
  • thorough
  • bean
  • seen
  • been
  • good
  • food
  • daughter
  • laughter

5. Understanding That There Is No Gender-Neutral Pronoun

In a lot of other languages, such as Scandinavian, there are gender-neutral pronouns like “hen.” So speakers can avoid using gender specific pronouns like “she” and “he” when referring to a person.

6. Communicating Love

In other languages like Spanish, speakers can indicate whether they “love” a family member, a friend, a romantic partner, or an inanimate object. But in English, there is only the one word “love” that’s used to indicate affection for someone or something. And in English, there sometimes is a distinction made between the phrases “I love you” and “I am in love with you,” which can be confusing.

7. Making the Distinction Between “in” and “on” and Other Phrases Involving Motion

In English, we say phrases like “I am on the plane” and “I am on the bus” but we don’t say phrases like “I am on the car” or “I am on the restaurant.” We would say “I am in the car” or
“I am in the restaurant.” We also “put on clothes” but we don’t “put off clothes.” And we “take off clothes” but don’t “take on clothes.” And we do things like “get up,” even though it’s not technically possible to acquire “up.”

8. Rigid Rules for Ordering Adjectives to Describe a Noun

Native English speakers don’t even realize that they order their adjectives when they speak and write most of the time. But English speakers order their adjectives according to this very specific formula before placing them in front of a noun: quantity-quality or opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-proper adjective-material-purpose or qualifier.

For example, native English speakers would say you can have a “really large old oval-shaped green French wood vanity mirror,” but you can’t have a “green French old vanity wood oval-shaped really large mirror.” (And note that when the modifiers are in this hierarchical order, no commas are needed.)

9. Words With Silent Letters

It’s confusing that some words like “asthma,” “knife,” and “plumber” have silent letters in them. Most native English speakers would probably claim that this is odd too. It makes learning how to spell words in English unnecessarily difficult.

10. Knowing When to Add “s” to Pluralize Nouns

Some nouns don’t require an “s” at the end of them when they are plural, such as “fish,” “sheep,” and “elk.” However, some nouns are only used in the plural form, such as “scissors,” “goggles,” and “clothes.”


Let’s admit it, sometimes the English language is weird, which is also what makes it so fascinating. Check out Ten Things You Might Not Have Known About the English Language for more interesting facts and anecdotes.

Have the items on the list above ever confused you, even if you are a native English speaker? Or have you noticed similar confusing language practices and rules in another language that you speak? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.


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