Pot, Meet Kettle
We snicker when non-native English speakers say things incorrectly, as when old Chinese ladies say things like “long time no see,” but we often overlook the many confusing and ungrammatical or illogical sayings that already exist in English. Does this, in a sense, just like “the pot calling the kettle black?” The more we think about it, the more we realize English can be ridiculous at times, too.
Please look at this dialog between an American and two international students:
Immigration Officer: Please fill out the form.
Student A (whispering to B): Did you hear what he said, “fill out the form?”
Student B: I don’t get it. There are many boxes and blanks in the form, and we’ll be writing in these boxes and blanks, so shouldn’t he say “fill in the form?”
Officer: You must fill in the form by filling it out. Are you with me?
Student A (looking at student B): Yes, but you just said “fill in the form by filling it out.” What exactly do you want us to do, fill it in or fill it out?
Officer: Well, in English, in is in and out is out, though sometimes in means out.
Student B (shrugging): Sorry, we just can’t figure out why you said fill it out. Well, whatever, when do we need to turn in the forms?
Officer: In two days, (looking at his watch). It’s now 10:00 a.m. You can make your appointment to review the forms the day after tomorrow, after 10:00 am.
Student A: I’m confused again: “The day after tomorrow, after 10:00 am.” That wouldn’t be in two days, but out of two days, because after 10:00 a.m. would be more than two days, right? We wouldn’t want to be late in making our form review appointment.
Student B to Student A: It’s two forms, you forgot the “s.”
Student A: I already added “our” because it’s more than one form, so why would I have to add an “s” to make it plural? It seems redundant. If I have to put an “s” there, why don’t I have to put an “s” on form when it’s two pages, like a “two-page form?”
Student B: OK, could we make our appointments this morning if we fill in the form by filling it out right now?
Officer: Sure. You can turn them in before I go to lunch at noon 12:00, or after I come back from the lunch in the afternoon.
Student A: See, 12:00 is noon; so, “in the morning,” that’s before noon. So it’s “in the morning,” not “out of the morning.”
Student B: No, it’s still out; it’s actually outside of noon. 12:00 is p.m., if we come back at 12:00 p.m., we can’t say “Sir, good noon;” rather, we have to say “good afternoon,” because we are outside of noon, which is exactly 12:00 p.m. on the dot. Oh, come to think of it, Americans don’t even say “good noon.”
Officer (talking on his cell phone): Are you turkey? You think my wife wears the pants at my house?! Of course, she doesn’t…
Students look at each other, B asked A: “Turkey?”
Student A: It means someone is stupid. He doesn’t mean the bird or the country.
Student B: I see! But is it appropriate to ask what someone else’s wife wears at home…
Student A (smiling to the officer): What did you have for lunch?
Office: Rice. And you?
Student B: Noodle!
Student A: Wait, wait, “noodles,” not “noodle.”
Student B: Why can he say “rice” without an “s” but I have to say “noodles” with an “s?”
Student A: “I ate a noodle” means you only ate ONE single noodle strand.
Student B: I see, so does “I ate rice” mean that I ate a large number of pieces of rice, or just one rice?
The officer reviews the forms and asks student A: Do you have a wife?
Student A (hesitating): Well….
Officer: Do you?
Student A: Yes, but you could be joking with me by asking “Do you have a wife,” because “a” in English is “one,” implying that I might have two or more.
Student B (nodding his head): Yes, that’s right.
Officer: Sorry, then how should I ask so as not to insult anyone?
Students: You should ask “Do you have wife?” Drop the “a.”
Officer (shaking his head): Without the “a?” I am an American and speak English, you know; dropping the “a” makes it ungrammatical. Okay, are you Chinese?
Student A: Yes, I am a Chinese.
Student B: No, you shouldn’t say it that way.
Student A: Really? But, I am a Chinese! I am one Chinese person.
Officer (smiling): Yes, I see what you mean; English really doesn’t make any logical sense sometimes. English speakers generally say: “I am Chinese” without the “a,” not for grammatical reasons, but because “a Chinese” actually sounds very offensive in English. That’s very confusing.
Student B (laughing): We haven’t even been to our school yet, but we’ve learned a lot. The “a” is a necessary measure word for Americans, but the “a” is very important nonsense for Chinese people.
Officer: Welcome to America! Now I’m also confused. Enjoy your English studies here in the States.
Students: Ha, ha, ha…long time no laugh!