I have always had sympathy for those learning English as a second language. In fact, there was a time when I planned to be an ESL teacher because I thought I could help take some of the pain out of learning our difficult language.
We seem to have more exceptions than rules. We spell words alike but pronounce them differently, we spell them differently but pronounce them the same and we offer cutesy ways of remembering rules when, in fact, those usually come with a little Gotcha.
We have already talked extensively about homonyms, which present some of the most frustrating challenges.
There is another class of words that must drive new English speakers to insanity because, essentially, they are their own opposites. These are the auto-antonyms, also called contranyms.
Imagine you are learning a second language. You are working hard to commit new vocabulary words to memory. Just when you learn a word, along with its proper context, you hear or read it used and it appears to mean the opposite of what you had learned it meant.
The first one I ever noticed was “sanction,” which means both to condone and to punish. Another is “oversight,” which involves both throughly overseeing something to ensure no errors are made, and missing an error altogether by not looking closely enough.
How about “dust?” One dusts to remove dust but also dusts by sprinkling dust on something, e.g., in order to detect fingerprints or garnish a dish of food.
A “rock” is something stable, that does not move, but a rock is also a back-and-forth motion.
I am a native speaker of English but I was perplexed to learn, after years of sitting in business meetings in which issues were “tabled,” or taken off the table, that, in international trade negotiations, to “table” means to put something, typically an offer, on the table.
Here’s a goofy one: “left.” When a person has left, he is gone, no longer there. When a person is left, he is still there. The same with objects: three cookies were left on the plate.
“Presently” means both now and later. Presently, I am at my desk, but I will meet you at the restaurant presently.
At the risk of appearing political, it seems we are quick to demand that visitors learn our language and become fluent in it practically overnight. It’s reasonable to ask people to try their best to speak English within our borders but, before we lose our patience, perhaps we should first consider the oddities and complexities they must also grasp. Maybe we could all become ESL teachers, or at least tutors, when opportunity presents. We can start by tutoring ourselves on this exhaustive list of auto-antonyms, published by Florida State University.
For now though, let’s wind up this discussion. (But does that mean we are beginning or ending it?)