Wood on Words: Here’s how to simplify the English language

Barry Wood

About five weeks ago, one of my blog readers posed the following question:

“What would you do if you were appointed to make the English language easier to use and easier to learn?”

I’ve been mulling that one over, and this is my attempt at a response. It will focus on three S’s: syntax, semantics and spelling.

The first, pronounced the same as “sin tax,” which is something entirely different, concerns sentence structure, how words work together to express ideas.

This is where you need to grasp the ideas of parts of speech, subject and predicate, phrases and clauses — the list is a long one. I think this is where many students get irretrievably lost, snowed under by terminology.

Unfortunately, some of it is absolutely necessary for understanding how to put a sentence together. But I would urge trying to teach English with as few terms as possible.

As for the “rules” of syntax, I prefer to call them “guidelines.” One of the constant frustrations in learning English is encountering all of the exceptions. English is indeed an exceptional language.

You need to know the guidelines, because they tell you how things work most of the time. And if you understand why things usually work a certain way, it’s easier to understand why they don’t sometimes.

I would try to get as many language experts as possible to vote on what the guidelines should be and where exceptions are allowed, and that would be the last word on syntax — until the next time.

When it comes to “semantics,” that is, what words mean, I’m for flexibility. For example, some people are being taught that you can “have” a meeting, but you can’t “hold” a meeting. This is not a matter of right or wrong, it’s just someone’s opinion.

The dictionary supports this particular use of “hold”: “to have or conduct together; specifically, to carry on (a meeting, conversation, etc.)”

Does this mean you should use “hold” this way? No. But it does mean you can.

A good dictionary will warn you if a particular usage is debatable or inadvisable. There is no substitute for a dictionary, but read it carefully. A word can have a different personality depending on whether it’s functioning as a noun or a verb, for instance.

The dictionary also will stipulate meanings that are considered outmoded or rare.

And don’t ignore the entries for idiomatic uses of words. That’s where much of the fun is in English, where words break their literal bonds to take off in colorful and frequently surprising directions.

As for spelling, I don’t think there’s any acceptable alternative to learning the difference between “chews” and “choose.” More is lost than gained by trying to make spelling “easier.” Each particular combination of letters offers clues about where a word came from and what it might mean. It would be like altering a word’s DNA.

The idea of adopting phonetic spellings — like “chooz” for “chews” and “choose” — is great for pronunciation, but I prefer it be confined to those places in a dictionary that serve that purpose.

I would hate to have “seez,” for example, replace “seas,” “sees,” “seize” and “C’s.”

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

Barry Wood is a Register Star copy editor. Contact him at or read his blog at