One of the things that I love the most about the English language is that the spellings don’t always match the sounds they’re supposed to represent. It always kept me on my toes and constantly kept me curious to explore the depths of the language. Quirks, oddities, warts, and all. Just like all of you, I’ve had hilarious slips of the tongue (or rather the fingers when I’m writing), creating some truly bizarre sentences.
However, this article isn’t about small linguistic accidents—it’s about large English language fails and translation disasters. Grammar so broken, fixing it is more expensive than repairing your car. And the delightfully called ‘phuck ups,’ as the r/engrish subreddit describes them. It’s an online community that documents the most giggle-worthy times people messed up while writing. What can I say? My inner linguist is having a great time and I hope yours will, too, dear Pandas. So scroll down, have a read, have a laugh, and don’t forget to upvote your fave pics. If you’re feeling up for it, share your biggest English fail in the comments, though, no pressure if you’re feeling shy today.
Oh, and do keep in mind that this entire article is done in the name of good humor and fun, dear Pandas. Nobody’s making fun of anyone who’s having a hard time learning English. It can be a very peculiar language to learn, hard to get to grips with, notoriously silly with its spelling system. I would know. Scroll down to find out my own experience with this.
I reached out to Lisa McLendon from the University of Kansas to hear her take about some of the challenges that foreign students face when learning English (spoiler warning: the "train wreck" that is spelling is just the tip of the iceberg), how spell check impacts us, and why English spelling is so peculiar. You'll find Bored Panda's interview with her below, so be sure to scroll down if you'd like to learn something new. Lisa is the William Allen White Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications and the Coordinator at the Bremner Editing Center at KU.
Lisa, from the University of Kansas, told Bored Panda straight-up that the main challenge foreign students face when it comes to English is spelling. "English spelling is such a train wreck, with its myriad silent letters and wildly varying pronunciations for letters and letter combinations. But also, articles (a/an/the) tend to be difficult for people whose native language doesn’t have them, and our tense/aspect blend with combinations of auxiliary verbs makes the English verb system tricky even for native speakers sometimes," she explained to Bored Panda.
I was interested to hear the expert's take on spell check. She told Bored Panda that spell check is a great tool for catching typos and misspelled words. However, it's not perfect. "Where it’s more of a curse than a blessing is with homonyms/homophones because it won’t flag a word that is a word, but not the word you want. Think affect/effect, who’s/whose, led/lead but also word pairs like form/from and not-synonyms like bemuse/amuse, etc," she shared. Lisa added that anyone curious about the quirky world of spell check should definitely check out the #SpellCheckCannotSaveYou hashtag on Twitter.
According to Lisa, English isn't 'spelled as it sounds' for a lot of reasons. They're mostly connected to when the words entered the language, where they came from, and when the spelling of a particular word was first 'codified.' I was curious whether a complete overhaul of the spelling system could make things easier for everyone or if it would lead to a loss of the language's character that we love so much.
"People have proposed spelling overhauls before but they tend to not go anywhere, probably because it’s such a daunting project—could we all agree on what the changes would be?—and because then an entire body of texts would become basically a foreign language to the next generation. Many factors in addition to spelling contribute to a language’s 'character,' but some spellings do have echoes of archaic English—in my opinion it would be a little bit sad to lose some of that," Lisa told me.
Personally, I had a difficult time spelling some words when I was a kid, learning my first words in English. For instance, I used to write ‘family’ with two y’s and ‘honey’ as ‘hunny’ like Winnie the Pooh does when I was a munchkin. And for the life of me, I couldn’t spell the word ‘beautiful’ because of how gorgeously long it was. Really, nine letters for something that essentially means ‘pretty?’
I didn’t give up, however. Through sheer force of will and lots of repetition, with the guidance of my parents and some very patient teachers at the Brussels American School, I finally tamed English. It fascinated me. It drew me in. And I couldn’t stop reading and writing ever since. And look at me now! Writing and amusing you Pandas for a living.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is my understanding that the language can seem overly difficult—alien, even—to foreigners. I might laugh when I see a particularly silly mistake, but the gears in my noggin also immediately start turning, searching for the reason why someone made that particular error. Often, the mistake is very logical.
Someone may have misheard a word. Or tried to adapt some linguistic rules they already know to some phrases that are the exception. Translation’s also a tricky task to tackle, too. Syntax, the way you order words in the sentence, is vital.
A translator who isn’t intimately familiar with English might throw the sentence together haphazardly, creating something incredibly humorous in the process. ‘Pandas like green bamboo shoots’ is very different from ‘bamboo shoots green like pandas’ after all. Note: unless you’re Master Yoda, syntax really is important.
It’s also something that you need to get to grips with through experience. Book smarts are great, but what you really need is a way to develop your linguistic intuition or instinct that’ll tell you when something sounds ‘off.’ What that means is actively engaging with the language: talking to native speakers, writing awesome short stories, watching English TV shows. In short, the more you embrace the language, the more you give yourself over to the wacky and wonderful weirdness that English is, the quicker you’ll adapt.
How Hard Is It?
The r/engrish subreddit has been around for quite a while now. It was created way back in the late September of 2008 and recently celebrated its 13th birthday. If the subreddit were a person, it would be going through puberty, going to the 7th or 8th grade, and trying to find themselves. Over the years, the community has grown to have over 625k members (or ‘Grammar Nazis’ as the community calls them).
The subreddit’s moderators ask their members to only post content that’s in English (sounds fair, given the name of the community), that they don’t feature any typos, and that they avoid posting examples where people deliberately made errors for whatever reason. In short, if it’s a hilarious English mistake, then it probably belongs on the sub. Granted, you should probably check and see if someone hasn’t already posted the photo or screenshot within the last half-year. The subreddit’s quite strict about managing reposts, you see.
Mail Or Femail
A while back, I spoke to Lisa from the University of Kansas about why we make English mistakes and mix up words. She told Bored Panda that we sometimes have “temporary blips” in retrieving the words we need. Especially when we’re stressed, tired, or just plain distracted.
“Because spell-check and autocorrect are everywhere, what seems to be the biggest problem is words that are spelled correctly but aren’t the right word, like ‘form’ instead of ‘from,’ ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its,’ or ‘defiantly’ instead of ‘definitely,’” Lisa explained to me earlier.
“Read carefully over what you’ve written, to make sure you—or autocorrect—didn’t use the wrong word or misuse an apostrophe. Know yourself well enough to know where you usually make mistakes. For instance, I frequently type ‘form’ when I mean ‘from,’ so whenever I finish a document, I do a search for ‘form’ so I can catch the wrong usages,” the language expert explained what we can do to reduce the number of errors in our texts.
“If your writing is going to be seen by a broader audience, have someone else read over it. When you’ve written something, your brain already knows what you’re thinking and what you meant to say, even if you didn’t actually say it. So when you read your own writing, you unconsciously fill in missing words, skip over typos, fail to see ambiguity, etc.,” she said.
The Laundry Room Has Been Too Holy Recently
“Another person, someone who sees only what’s on the page and not what’s in your head, can help you spot mistakes and improve your writing. This is especially important if you are carving something in stone or getting a tattoo with words in it,” Lisa suggested that we always have someone take a look at our writing if what we’re doing is incredibly important.