7 Rules of the English Language that Most Native Speakers Don’t Know

Image shows a heap of black-and-white fridge magnets with words written on them.

Learning English can feel a struggle at times, and it can feel as though you’ll never be able to speak the language as easily and fluently as a native speaker.

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But look at it another way: in starting from scratch, you have a major advantage over the majority of English speakers, and that is that you get to learn the rules governing how the language should be spoken. Native speakers have mostly picked up English as they’ve grown up, with little conscious knowledge of the rules, and unaware that their grammar – subconsciously absorbed by listening to those around them – leaves much to be desired. There’s less focus on learning grammar in primary school these days, and successive generations of English speakers grow up surrounded by poor grammar. That means that there’s a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance of rules that those learning English as a Foreign Language will have mastered as part of their course. This is behind the observation that those who speak English as a second language are actually better at speaking it than a lot of native speakers. With this consoling thought in mind, let’s look at a selection of English language rules that most native English speakers don’t know.

1. “That” versus “which”

Image shows a flawless red velvet cake.
The cake that Tom made looks delicious.

Many native English speakers think “that” and “which” can be used interchangeably, or even think “which” should be used because it sounds marginally more formal. This is not the case, and the rule is: “that” defines; “which” informs, or adds extra information. Take the following, for example:
“This is the cake that I made. This cake, which Tom made, looks better.”
In the first sentence, “that” is used to define the cake as being one made by me. The second sentence refers to a second cake that looks better than mine, with a bit of extra information added – “which Tom made”. The sentence would work equally well without these words. If you were to change the second sentence to say “The cake that Tom made looks better”, you’d be changing the emphasis of the sentence so that the fact that it was made by Tom is more important. It’s worth noting that sentences using “that” still make sense grammatically when you remove the “that”, but if you remove “which”, they don’t: “This is the cake I made. This cake, Tom made, looks better.”
“That” and “which” can also be used to make another subtle distinction. Look at the following two sentences:

Image shows rows of tomatoes on vines.
Which tomatoes are you watering?

“I’m going to water the tomatoes that I grew indoors.”
“I’m going to water the tomatoes, which I grew indoors.”
The distinction here is that in the first sentence, I’m referring to some of my tomatoes – the ones I grew indoors; there may be others that I grew outdoors. In the second sentence, I’m referring to all the tomatoes, which were all grown indoors.
Using the wrong one can lead to your saying something you don’t mean. For example, if you were to ask, “should dogs, which run free in parks, be kept on leads?” you’d be implying that all dogs run free in parks and therefore that all dogs should be kept on leads at all times; the correct wording, “should dogs that run free in parks be kept on leads?”, specifies that you’re only talking about the dogs who are allowed to run free in parks.
If you’re not sure whether to use “which” or “that”, remember that a clause containing “which” is contained in commas (unless it’s used to express different options, as in “I’m not sure which to choose”).

2. Ordering your sentences

Unlike “that” and “which”, some rules of English grammar are used correctly by English speakers, but purely by instinct rather than through any concrete knowledge of the rules behind their usage. A good example of this is the way in which we order our sentences when using multiple adjectives. English speakers “just know” which order to put them in, and know that the wrong order sounds odd. But they don’t consciously know the rule behind this, which is that adjectives should be ordered thus:

Image shows a spaniel puppy.
Or, as the case may be, an adorable cute teeny-tiny little snuffle-nosed cuddly brown spaniel.

So, as Mark Forsyth comments in his book The Elements of Eloquence, “you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” You wouldn’t normally use this many adjectives in one sentence; this is just an example. But it’s a good rule to know if you’re ever unsure of what order to put your adjectives in. Let’s suppose I wanted to describe a dog:
“An adorable little brown Spaniel.”
Referring to the rule: “Adorable” is an opinion, so that goes first. His “little” size goes next. His colour, “brown”, goes next, and finally, the noun, “Spaniel”. Now look at how wrong the sentence sounds when we mix up that order:
“A brown little adorable Spaniel.”
It’s hard to put your finger on why it sounds wrong: it just does! And that’s because you’ve messed with a rule that most people don’t even know exists.

3. “Like” versus “such as”

Image shows George Clooney.
Which celebrities are used to being photographed?

A common mistake among English speakers is to use “such as” and “like” interchangeably, or more commonly to use “like” when “such as” should be used. This is another instance in which there is a rule that most native speakers aren’t aware of. It is: “like” excludes; “such as” includes. Use “such as” when you’re giving examples of something, and “like” when you want to express similarity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
“Celebrities like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie are used to being photographed.”
“Celebrities, such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, are used to being photographed.”
In the first sentence, we’re talking about any celebrity on a par with Clooney and Jolie; not necessarily these two specific actors – just ones like them. In the second sentence, we’re naming them as specific examples of actors who are used to being photographed.
To give you another example, if you were to say, “Programmes like Eastenders aren’t worth watching”, you wouldn’t necessarily be talking specifically about this programme – just ones like it, say Coronation Street or Emmerdale. Changing it to “Programmes such as Eastenders” includes Eastenders at the same time as implying that you have a similar opinion about other such shows. It’s a subtle distinction, so it’s little wonder that few people understand this rule.

4. “As” versus “since”

Image shows a white horse.
“It’s been years since I last rode a horse, as I moved to the city.”

A common slip-up among native speakers is to use “as” and “since” interchangeably, and to use “since” instead of “because”, as in, “I’m not going to the party, since he is going.” This is incorrect. The rule is: “as” is causal; “since” is temporal. Think of “since” as being linked to time. A correct example of the use of “since” is:
“It’s been years since I’ve ridden a horse.”
“As” can be used in place of “because”. For example:
“I’m not going to the party, as he is going.”
“I’m not going to the party because he is going.”
This is a particularly important rule to remember when you’re writing essays; don’t be tempted to replace “because” with “since” just because you want to vary your wording a bit more.

5. “-ed” versus “-nt” endings

Many native speakers are unsure whether a word should end in “-ed” or “-nt”: should it be “learned” or “learnt”, for example? The rule is that “-ed” is the past tense form; “-nt” is the adjectival form. For instance, “she learned the music” is correct because we’re talking about an action – the learning – taking place in the past. An example of the adjectival use of the verb “to learn” would be “learnt behaviour” (as opposed to innate or instinctive behaviour). Another example of this rule is “burned” versus “burnt”: “she burned the dinner” versus “the dinner is burnt”.

6. When to use capital letters

Everyone knows that you use a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, but there are various other occasions when the first letter of a word should be capitalised, and many Brits don’t know what these are. The trend these days is towards capitalising fewer words, but the most important rule is to be consistent. These rules should help you.

Proper nouns

Image shows an Oxford Royale Summer Schools sign in Balliol College, Oxford.
Oxford Royale Summer Schools is a proper noun, and should therefore be capitalised.

Names of people and places, and official brand names, should be capitalised: John Smith, London, the Citizens Advice Bureau, Oxford University, Marmite. Adjectives derived from proper nouns should be capitalised, such as “American”, “English” and so on. Brand names may be lowercase if that is how the company refers to themselves (such as “adidas”); you should also employ any random capital letters in brand names, such as “iPad”.
You should capitalise job titles when they’re referring to a specific person by their job title, but not when referring to the job in other contexts: “President Barack Obama”, but “the president’s car”; “Colonel Mustard”, but “the colonel said…”. There are exceptions: you’d probably refer to “the Pope” with a capital P regardless of the context, for example. The main thing is that you’re consistent throughout a piece of writing. The names of seasons are not capitalised (spring, summer, autumn, winter).

In titles and headings

Image shows a library bookshelf.
The capitalisation of titles varies.

The most obvious example of these is an essay title, but it could also be newspaper headlines, blog post titles, book titles and so on. This one’s a matter of preference; provided that the first letter of the sentence is capitalised, along with any proper nouns, it’s up to you whether you use capital letters for the title. A long title would probably look better without capitals, as they can look clunky. Shorter titles could use capitals if you want; but there are rules over which words should be capitalised and which shouldn’t. Articles such as “a”, “an” and “the” should be lowercase, as should co-ordinating conjunctions such as “and” and “but”, and prepositions and other very short words, such as “for”, “of”, “to”, “by”, “off” and so on. Both of the following examples are correct in the context of an essay; which you choose is up to you:
“A Journey Across the Sea to a Land of Opportunity: English Settlers in America in the 16th Century”
“A journey across the sea to a land of opportunity: English settlers in America in the 16th century”
Abbreviations and acronyms
The other obvious use of capital letters is in abbreviations and acronyms: NASA, IKEA, the MOD (Ministry of Defence). Opinion differs on whether acronyms pronounced as words should be all capital letters or just have the first letter capitalised; a good rule of thumb is to look at how the organisation refers to itself (NASA, for instance, refers to itself thus). Note that not all abbreviations have capital letters; speeds and measurements, for instance, are written in lowercase, such as “15mph” not  “15MPH”, or “30cm” not “30CM”.

7. Formatting dates

Image shows an open diary with a pen on it.
This gets even more confusing given Americans write dates with the month first – so the 15th October is 10/15, rather than the UK version, which would be 15/10.

Most native English speakers know that when you’re referring to a date in history, you write “BC” (Before Christ) or “AD” (Anno Domini) to signify that it occurred before or after the year 0 (the year in which Christ was born). But not many people know that “BC” goes after the date, while “AD” goes before it: “AD 500”, “500 BC”.
Confusion over how to format dates also extends to how to write individual dates in UK English. Is it the 15th of October? 15 October? 15th October? October the 15th? Spoken out loud, you’d probably say “the 15th of October”. If you’re mentioning a date when writing, however, it’s best to put “15th October” or “15 October” for simplicity and a degree of formality. Which you use is a matter of personal preference, but again, ensure that you’re consistent. “The 15th of October” is very formal, and would normally be used in official documents or communications, such as legal contracts or wedding invitations.
There were many more little-known English rules that we could have included here, but we’ve run out of space for now. If you have a favourite English grammar rule, why not share it in the comments below?

Image credits: banner; cake; tomatoes; spaniel; George Clooney; horse; books; diary.