I have often heard it said that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. I’m not sure how true this; any language that involves an alphabet different than your own would seem to me to be pretty tough. For example, an English speaker learning Spanish only has to deal with the different grammar rules and vocabulary, whereas an English speaker learning Russian or Chinese has a new alphabet to learn on top of the other things. Nevertheless, in the case of English, there are thousands of exceptions and irregular word usage conventions that must be very confusing for anyone trying to learn the language from scratch.
Here’s a list of perfectly correct phrases that must be frustrating for non-native English speakers. For each example cited, I have provided my own brief explanation on the second line that I hope will reduce reader confusion.
1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
(The first “wound” is the past tense of the verb “to wind” something in a circular motion; the second “wound” is a noun meaning “cut” or “bruise”, as in “injured”.)
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
(The first “produce” is the verb phrase “to produce”, as in “grow something”; the second “produce” is the noun that means “agricultural produce” such as fruits, vegetables, etc.)
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
(The first “refuse” is the verb meaning “decline to accept”; the second “refuse” is the noun that means “garbage or trash”.)
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
(The first “polish” is the verb phrase “to polish”, as in wax or shine a car; the second “Polish” is an adjective that refers to the furniture as being made in the country of “Poland”.)
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
(The first “lead” is the verb meaning “to show the way” or “go in front”; the second “lead” is a noun that refers to the heavy metallic element known as “lead”. The colloquial phrase “to get the lead out” means “to hurry up”.)
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
(The first “desert” is the verb phrase “to desert” or “to leave behind”; “dessert” with a double “s” is the noun for the sweet course after the main meal; the second “desert” is an area of arid land such as the Sahara.)
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
(The first “present” is the noun that refers to “this time or now”; the second is the verb phrase “to present” as in “to give”; the third “present” is the noun for “gift”.)
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
(The first “bass” is a noun that refers to a type of fish; a “bass drum” is a percussion instrument that makes low frequency sounds when played.)
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
(The first “dove” is a noun that refers to a type of bird; the second “dove” is the past participle of “to dive”, meaning “to plunge”.)
10) I did not object to the object.
(The first “object” is the intransitive verb meaning “to oppose or disapprove of”; the second “object” is the noun referring to any material thing that can be seen and/or touched.)
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
(The first “invalid” is an adjective meaning “not officially acceptable”; the second “invalid” is the noun that refers to “a person weakened or disable by an injury or illness”.)
12) There was a row among the oarsmen in the first row about how to row.
(The first “row” is the noun meaning “a disagreement”; the second “row” is the noun meaning “a line of seats”; the third “row” is the noun that means “to propel a boat with oars”.)
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
(The term “too close” means “situated a very short distance from”; the second “to close” is the transitive verb meaning “to shut” something.)
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
The first “does” is the third person singular of the verb “to do”; the second “does” is the plural form of the noun “doe”, which means “a female deer”.)
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
(Both “a seamstress” and “a sewer” are people who make and/or repair clothing by “sewing” the material; a “sewer line” is a trench or pipe that channels unwanted water and sewage to other locations.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
(The first “sow” is the noun for “a female adult pig”; the second “sow” is a verb that means “to plant”, as in “plant some seeds”. Yes, pigs are smart but this statement is unlikely in reality!)
17) The wind was too strong for him to wind the sail.
(The first “wind” is the noun that means “air in rapid motion”; the phrase “to wind” is the verb phrase that means “to move something in a circular or spiral motion”.)
18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
(The first “tear” is a noun that means “a rip”, “a hole”, or “a rent” in something; the second “tear” is the noun that refers to the salty liquid that can flow from the human eye in emotional situations.)
19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
(The verb phrase “to subject” means “to expose”; the second “subject” is a noun that refers to the person to be tested.)
20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friends?
(The first “intimate” is a verb that means “to state” or “to make known” something; the second “intimate” is an adjective that means “closely acquainted” or “very familiar”.)