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If You Don’t Find a Workaround, It Can Really Work You Over!

EritreaRecently, I started helping a friend of mine, an immigrant from Eritrea in east Africa, with his English.  A few days ago, he asked me about the word “work”.  As you might expect, I started explaining about performing useful labor, and so forth.  While he listened attentively, I could tell my explanation didn’t match his experience with English.  It just wasn’t, well, working.  When I finished he said; “yes, but what about …..”, and he began to enumerate a very surprising number of variations on the use of the word “work”.

I could hardly believe the complexity of what he had noticed.  It occurred to me that the idiomatic nature of English must be a near nightmare for a non-native speaker.
langConsider the following 15 English phrases – all various applications of the word “work”.  Each is very similar to all the others, and each is made up of 3 words or less.  The only differences between the phrases are the prepositions and word order.  Yet there is a wide range of difference in the meanings.

Just think about the 28 (or more) entirely different meanings and connotations the 15 phrases carry.  Frankly, it’s a little mind-boggling.  How could someone learning English ever successfully sort this all out?

1) Work 1) a task or job
2) a piece of art
3) a completed task
1) I’ve got to get to work.
2) That’s a priceless work of art.
3) This is really good work!
2) Working 4) has a job
5) is currently at work
6) is functioning correctly
7) suitable for a given task
4) It’s expensive, luckily, she is working.
5) He can’t talk now, he is working.
6) The washing machine is working now.
7) Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.
3) Not working 8) is out of order / broken
9) is out of a job
10) is not currently performing work
8) The machine is out of order.
8) He hasn’t been working since 2010.
10) Tom isn’t working on his homework.
4) Out of work 11) doesn’t have a job 11) Bill has been out of work for 3 months.
5) Working out 12) is exercising
13) is meeting some expectation or standard
14) to solve problems
12) Larry is working out at the gym.
13) The new clerk just is working out well.
14) He is working out the issues.
6) Not working out 15) is not meeting some expectation or standard
16) is not exercising
15) We tried it but it’s not working out.
16) He’s at the gym but not working out.
7) Worked out 17) past tense of work out
18)  ended up satisfactorily
17) He worked out hard yesterday.
18) In the end, everything worked out fine
8) The works 19) everything
20) the internal mechanism
19) I ordered a pizza with the works.
20) There’s a monkey wrench in the works.
9) In the works 21) is in progress 21) Your order is in the works.
10) Workout 22) a series of exercises or a completed workout session 22) I finished my workout.
11) Work on 23) to focus ones work on a particular subject. 23) Tim worked on his homework for hours.
12) Work through 24) to find a solution 24) Alice worked through the problem.
13) Workup 25) a specified set of procedures 25) The nurse did a complete workup on her.
14) Work over 26) to subjected someone to something unpleasant. 26) The thugs really gave him a work over.
15) Work around
or Workaround
27) To continue work despite an obstacle
28) an expedient technique
27) The lack of a computer will be difficult but we’ll just have to work around it.
28) We’ll have to come up with a workaround

qmI was at a loss to explain some of this to my friend.  It was difficult enough to explain the 28 different meanings, but even more difficult to suggest a reason why “work” would be used in so many different ways.  Do you think you could you could satisfactorily master such frustratingly similar phrases in another language?

I had heard that English was difficult to learn, due to its heavy use of idiomatic phrases, its spelling exceptions, and its peculiar pronunciation, but I had never had the complexity of multiple meanings revealed to me quite so directly, until I tried to explain an aspect of it to someone.  While there are terrific tools, like Anki, available to help with language learning, they will not help with this kind of complexity

Helping my friend with his English has given me a whole new perspective, for a number of reasons.  I can only imagine how difficult his transition to America has been, when even grasping the language is such an obstacle.  The fact is; he and his family have done a remarkable job – it was good work!  🙂

In spite of all this, my Eritrean friend is so happy to be here that he will tell almost anyone he encounters about it.  He works in a relatively menial job but is glad for the opportunity and works harder than virtually anyone I know.  He says simply; “work is life”.    And he smiles broadly and says that his wife and children are much better off here.  He is happy about their prospects for the future because they go to school every day.

So, the next time you hear someone struggling with the English language give them a great deal of credit and, any help you can.

Since English is an important work-related skill for my friend, I guess he’ll have to work on it or, ahem, or work through it or even find a workaround, so that it doesn’t  work him over.  🙂

questionmanAd now for some additional craziness of the English language:

Why aren’t put and but pronounced similarly and why don’t Buick and quick sound the same?
How it is that a house can burn up, and burn down at the same time?
Why do we park on the driveway and drive on a parkway?
Why do we recite at a play and play at a recital?
How is it that we can “make amends” but have no such thing as one “amend”?
Why is there no egg in eggplant and no ham in hamburger?
Why do we call it a guinea pig, when it’s neither from Guinea nor is it a pig?
Why are sweetmeats candy, while sweetbreads are meats (and they aren’t sweet)?
Why are boxing “rings” square?
If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth?
How come you can have noses that run and feet that smell?
How is it that a “slim chance” and a “fat chance” are the same . . . while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
Why isn’t daughter pronounced as “dafter” . . . like laughter?

Finally, on a much more somber note:
 The current situation in Eritrea is tragic.  The repressive dictatorial government has been compared to North Korea and President Obama had condemned the Eritrean government for modern day slavery and human trafficking.  If you’re not familiar with Eritrea, you might want to check out the following resources:

Dr. Gerard Prunier on Eritrea
Eritrea:  Wikipedia
Map of Eritrea
Human Rights Watch on Eritrea


As always, we’d love to hear your comments and thoughts!

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3 thoughts on “If You Don’t Find a Workaround, It Can Really Work You Over!

  1. Sue Goodman

    After reading this about the English language, glad it was my first language and so much of how I speak is second nature. And now I will go look on the map for Eritrea.

  2. admin

    Hint — there’s a map right in the post that shows where Eritrea is (look on the picture of the globe.) There’s also a link at the bottom of the post that shows a detailed map. 🙂 Eritrea is near Ethiopia, on the eastern coast of Africa. In fact, it was once part of Ethiopia.

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