I hate to break the news to you, but I am officially declaring the language as beyond any point of hope in terms of understanding its systems, conventions, and rules. Wait…was I supposed to put that comma before the final item of the list? It depends on who you ask!
I was browsing through the updated version of the European Commission Directorate-General for Translation’s English Style Guide (PDF version available here) and was simply overwhelmed with how arbitrary so many things are, even when explained by a committee of experts. While this document is obviously essential for reference for anyone composing a work in English for use or publication within the European Union, it is still baffling in its choices. For example (I have not poured through the entire work, instead I simply clicked on different sections, so this list is far from thorough):
- The use of “-ize” vs. “-ise”. As someone who was raised with English in the United States tradition, where the “-ize” suffix is taught 100% of the time, I will personally never understand the British tradition of preferring “-ise” when the sound is a “z” and when the Greek roots where the words are derived from were formed with a “ζ” (zeta). Be that as it may, the Style Guide goes out of its way to say that there are generally 40 exceptions in British spelling where “-ize” is preferred, though it does not list any. Pick a horse and ride it, United Kingdom. I chose mine.
- Split infinitives. This is perhaps the most vexing aspect of English. There is no justifiable grammatical basis for it to be incorrect to split the infinitive, i.e. include an adverb between “to” and the infinitive, as in “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Some claim that it comes from the fact that infinitives were never split in Latin and, therefore, they can’t be split in English. Seriously, that’s the only explanation I have ever heard (add more below if you know any…PLEASE!). Er, English is not derived from Latin so there is no need for any of their conventions to be similar, moreso when Latin infinitives were one word and, logically, cannot be split. The Style Guide shows deference to this practice by encouraging writers to avoid that practice. Why? What is the justification??? If you are a skilled writer, you can create sentences that are provocative and insightful by using a split infinitive when it would not be possible to have the same effect without it (the example above is a fantastic illustration). If you are a bad writer, you are going to mess a lot of things up so trying to avoid certain conventions will make little to no difference.
- Belgium. Stepping outside of strict English usage issues, but remaining within the scope of translation issues, is Annex 2 “Notes on Belgium”. Wow. Read that only if it is highly necessary. It lays out the various conventions concerning when to leave names in Dutch or French. Suffice it to say that I think we should treat that lovely little country like an Etch-a-Sketch, shake it up, and let them come up with clear and concise language guidelines so that we can work quickly without having to worry about which exact community we are working for and how angry they will be if we leave a word in the wrong language.
- Serial (“Oxford” or “Harvard”) comma. I purposely avoided it because there is no solution. And I will kick anyone in the shins who says they don’t think it should ever be used. My shoes are sharp, too.