The renowned linguist Eddie Izzard devoted at least one of his standup comedy routines to the proposition that English grammar is unusually straightforward, at least in comparison (if I recall correctly) to Latin and French. It's a sentiment that I've heard expressed by various people, and my gut tells me it's correct, but I was wondering if there was any concrete evidence for it - or for the contrary.

Like most Englishmen, I was traumatised by being forced to learn French at school. That language occupies a frightful region of my brain to this day: a tangled octopus of elaborate conjugations, pointless genders and historical spellings. I had a better time with Latin; its structure is intricate, but it's also clear and - for the most part - logical. As a man, I made a couple of attempts a few years ago to learn Italian; while I'm hardly fluent, I have always been struck by the minimalism and elegance of Italian grammar. (I've been told that Italian is afflicted with a painfully large number of irregular verbs, but I never got far enough to suffer through that.)

As a native speaker of English, I'm obviously not qualified to judge the grammatical complexity or simplicity of my own language compared to someone else's. And yet all those languages - even Italian - left me with the impression that their grammar was more convoluted than my own - even when I try to compensate for my familiarity. But is that right? Does the picture change very much when we consider languages outside the Indo-European family?

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    "renowned linguist"? I love Eddie, but that's stretching it a bit. – Voo Sep 23 at 12:21
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    'most Englishmen'? I don't recall any trauma; I just wasn't very good at it. Or perhaps it was so traumatic, I've buried it deep within my unconscious. – Strawberry Sep 23 at 13:00
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    @Voo It was clearly facetious to me. – Barmar Sep 23 at 14:54
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    Any time I hear people talk about English being straightforward/simple or other languages being difficult, I'm reminded of the speech the commandant of the Defense Language Institute gave when I was starting there. He asked one question: what is the past tense of "I can go"? Hundreds of native English speakers in attendance, none could answer correctly – Kevin Sep 23 at 14:55
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    For the benefit of anyone who forgot to press the ON button on his or her sense of humour before reading my post: the reference to Eddie Izzard being a renowned linguist is not to be taken seriously. While he has attained a level of fluency in several languages which would outclass most native speakers, I'm sure even Eddie himself would concede that he knows relatively little about linguistics. – Tom Hosker Sep 23 at 18:39

When Eddie Izzard, and many other lay people, talk about complexity of a language's grammar, they usually refer specifically to the number of distinct inflections present in a language. As English is pretty isolating, it is certainly pretty straightforward by this metric.

Unfortunately this perspective ignores the fact that English conveys a lot of grammatical information through syntax, something that probably seems fiendishly complex to a monolingual speaker of a polysynthetic language with very free word order. English is also renowned for its enormous lexicon and, despite much of it being so infrequently used that one has to wonder the extent to which it actually exists in people's heads, this does result in some distinctions of nuance that might seem like needless nitpicking to many second language speakers, rather than simple straightforward language.

Examining the underlying assumption (that the number of distinct inflections reflects the complexity of a language's grammar), Finnish is often given as an example of an incredibly complicated language (after all, just look at how huge any of the verb tables on Wiktionary are), and yet each suffix behaves in a fairly predictable way and looks pretty much the same no matter what word it appears on, all whilst being able to put the words in different orders with much less risk of accidentally asking a question or saying something unintelligible.

Ultimately I think it's just a perspective bias. As English-speakers we take our complex syntax for granted, but we aren't used to complex inflectional morphology and so that is the only thing we tend to notice when asking "is this language's grammar simple or complex". Add to this the fact that native English-speakers are less likely to be exposed to other languages at a young age than speakers of many other languages and so don't have our assumptions challenged so much, and that bias can get pretty overwhelming (and on the converse, this means that, e.g. native Finnish-speakers, being exposed to English and other more isolating languages like Swedish from a young age, are less likely to take the biased position that Finnish is straightforward, and it is the English and Swedes who are overly complex with all their rules on word order).

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    Are you saying then that all perceptions as to the relative complexity of various languages are 'just a perspective bias'? Are all languages equally complex and equally simple? If that is what you think, I'll need more convincing. If not, could you say where English fitted into the hierarchy? (Interesting answer, though.) – Tom Hosker Sep 22 at 15:21
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    @TomHosker Not all, but a fair part of it. Cases like French and English are close enough that bias adequately explains most of it; but something like Mandarin is fairly unequivocally simple in structure, being completely analytic while also having fairly rigid and straightforward syntax, while languages like Greenlandic or Amharic are unequivocally more complicated, having very complex morphology and complex syntax as well. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 at 19:31
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    Almost all. There are far more differences between individual speakers and how well they learn their own language than there are between languages generally. Some people will learn any kind of language easily and quickly; others will never learn more than a few phrases outside their native language. And there is every variety in several dimensions in between. One can generalize; it's not too hard to learn to read English, if one has patience and a dictionary, because it's not inflected much. The easiest language for an English speaker to learn is Indonesian. And so on. But not a lot. – jlawler Sep 22 at 21:14
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    The fact that Finnish is not that complex is actually emphasized especially by the fact that there are so many large tables -- no one would write them by hand, they are machine generated :D – phipsgabler Sep 23 at 9:06
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    @phipsgabler Finnish is a good example that the size of a morphological system (as counted in discrete potential forms) is not equivalent to the complexity of the system. Many forms, created (largely) by simple and regular concatenation, is easier than fewer forms that require the application of complicated phonological rules and processes. It is regular in Old Irish, for instance, that negating dosluindi ‘he refuses’ yields nídíltai ‘he does not refuse’, but the phonological processes required to derive the latter from the former are staggeringly complex. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 23 at 17:25

As a native Ukrainian and a teacher of English (for 20 years already), I can give evidence of what is complicated in English from the point of view of Ukrainian or Russian learners.

In Ukraine, everybody speaks Ukrainian and Russian, so the idea of being able to speak different languages is present since the early childhood. However, Ukrainian and Russian are very similar, they don't have any principal differences, although differences are present on all the levels of the language, beginning with alphabet and phonemes and ending with syntax. When Ukrainians start learning English they are usually shocked with the idea of how enormously different a language can be from what they thought a language should be.

In Ukraine, the majority of English textbooks and dictionaries are in British English. The first difficulty a learner faces is the amazingly complicated sound system of English, especially the vowel system. Ukrainian has 6 vowel phonemes, /a, ɛ, i, ɪ, ɔ, u/, English (RP) has 20 (excluding triphthongs), which is about 3.5 times more than in Ukrainian. And they can be short and long!.. And there are diphthongs!.. All of them are different from the Ukrainian vowels, none is pronounced the same way, and they all should be distinguished in pronunciation!.. Half of the consonants are alveolar (no alveolar consonants at all in the Slavic languages). And the consonants are not palatalized before /iː/… Really? How can that be? And the aspirated stops… None of the Slavic languages has aspirated consonants, few learners ever master them. And those /θ/ and /ð/… Then goes the spelling… The Ukrainian spelling is pretty phonetic, but strictly prescriptive, especially punctuation, at school Ukrainians have to learn lots of long and complicated rules, e. g. when to write the negative particle together with, and when separately from the following word or where to put a comma and where a semicolon. In English you've just got to learn the spelling of each individual word and no obvious rules (actually, there is one spelling rule), which is a relief for some, but a baffling difficulty for others.

The English noun doesn't have any genders, a luxury which only learners of French and German can fully appreciate. And no case forms! Still, it has something that is so complicated that most Ukrainian and Russian learners of English never master it fully. As for me, I cannot dare swear I've mastered it as much as I would like to. That thing is the number-countability-definiteness complex. The very idea of the noun category of definiteness / indefiniteness is alien to the majority of the Slavic languages except for the closely related Macedonian and Bulgarian languages. In order to begin using articles correctly Ukrainians have to learn to analyze the reality in quite a new way, to change their way of thinking from the moment they learn about the existence of articles and to the end of their lives. Few succeed. I think this category is much more complicated than gender and case taken together, since remembering the gender and case forms of a noun is mechanical work, you use this or that form automatically, the syntax suggests which form should be used. Definiteness is different. It's up to you which one you choose, a or the, but! the meaning of the whole utterance depends on this choice of yours, and you cannot skip the choice since it is mandatory in English that definiteness / indefiniteness should be explicitly marked on every noun, which means you really have to learn the analysis of the reality for definiteness, a skill which is needed only when you talk or write in English, that is, which is useless for most learners who usually use English for reading or watching films and who talk English only at English lessons.

The English adjective is a real candy with just one single form (in the positive degree) as compared to 24 gender-number-case forms in Ukrainian and Russian and 48 gender-number-case-declension forms in German. But the English verb… Everything about the English verb is very complicated. Well, the Ukrainian and Russian verbs are also complicated, but they are complicated in an absolutely different way, their synthetic morphology is tangled, all those numerous prefixes with unpredictable meaning, irregular forms that even native speakers have problems with (remember, our grammar is highly prescriptive), and many seemingly grammatical categories which are realized not by inflection, but lexically, by derivation. Still, in the indicative mood active voice Russian has 3 tenses (present, past, and future), Ukrainian has 5 (present, past, pluperfect, and 2 future tenses with exactly the same meaning) or 4, pluperfect being practically not used nowadays. And English has 16… Simple, Continuous, Perfect, Perfect Continuous times Present, Past, Future, Future-in-the-Past is 16 tenses. Whyyy? Sooo? Manyyy? What's the purpose of that unbelievable number, if one can well live with 3 or even 2 tenses? How on earth can there be 4 present tenses while I live pretty happily with just 1? Here again, in order to be able to use those 16 tenses one has to learn a new way of analyzing the reality, tracing the actions for continuousness and perfectness (needless to say that continuousness and perfectness are alien to Ukrainian and Russian ways of seeing the reality), and watching closely for a non-past tense not getting accidentally into a sentence with the past in the main clause. The Ukrainian and Russian tenses have relative meanings, and in the subordinate clauses of sentences like “He said he knew me” and “He said he would find me” Ukrainian and Russian use present and future verb forms respectively, so an English learner has to understand the idea of an absolute tenses which is extremely difficult, it's not because the very idea is complicated, but because that idea contradicts all of one's life experience, it's a fundamental difference which is usually learned by many, but understood and used in practice by few. And then, there's that weird question and negation do/does/did thing which is aggravated by the fact that some verbs need it and some don't… Slavic native speakers aren't even usually aware that there's such a thing as a negative form of the verb, you just put the particle ne before the verb, and that's all! (Czechs and Slovaks are, perhaps, aware, since ne is written together with the following verb in their languages). But in English, negating a verb is a complicated thing to do, it comes out that those “negator” don't / doesn't / didn't is inflected for tense, number, and person, very much like it's in Finnish, one would hardly expect such a situation from an Indo-European language. Because of that, the first English tense which is usually presented to a learner is Present Continuous (‘I am doing’), but here again, one faces all these I'm, you're, isn't, aren't, the words made of words of different parts of speech fused together into one, and you have to know when you can use them and when you're to use the full form. And also, there are phrasal verbs, like “go on” or “give up” with unpredictable meaning which compensate for the Slavic prefixed verbs. The English verbals have continuous and perfect forms (e. g. ‘to have been doing’, ‘having done’, etc.) which are not complicated to construct but very complicated to grasp the meaning of, and the way to use them correctly. Then go the modal verbs (“can”, “might”, “must”, and the like) which are not a simple thing in practically all the languages, but in English they are especially complicated, since one is supposed to distinguish the minute details and distinctions of, say, “can do”, “could do”, and “could have done”. I wrote “minute details”, since in Ukrainian and Russian the distinctions among the modal words are very rough. For example, we have the same word for “can” and “may” (U. могти, Ru. мочь) and Russian has the same word for “must”, “should”, “ought to”, “to have to”, “to be to”: должен (actually, there are different words for the latter must-like words, but they are rarely used).

As for the syntax, it's been already mentioned in other answers here, the fixed, rigid word order of English is what makes it complicated. Slavs are used to beginning a sentence with whatever word first comes to one's mind. Subject pronouns are often dropped (Polish, Czech, and Slovak are consistent pro-drop languages). Not so in English, the SVO sequence is practically never broken, which means that to be able to speak English correctly you've got to know what the subject and what the object in the utterance are, that is, you have to learn the sentence analysis, which can be rather difficult, especially for adult learners (children study sentence analysis at school and they usually remember how to do it). Additionally, the ability to find the main clause of the utterance is needed for following the sequence of tenses rule.

Also, English uses different infinitive and participial constructions which are not found at all in Ukrainian and Russian, e. g. “I like her to sing”, “I heard her sing” (oh, no ‘to’ here…), “I heard her singing”, “It turned out to be good”, “I waited for her to sing”, “The rain having stopped we went home”, etc. The correct usage of all those numerous forms of the English verbals is such constructions is a fine art not easily mastered by the majority of learners (not even by the majority of the learners who were persistent enough to reach this point of the curriculum).

And also there are the dialects of English. When I heard Australian English for the first time I couldn't make out anything. For the native speakers of the Slavic languages who are used to long and beautiful words, English words are too short and generally hard to make out in the stream of speech, the English language has a strikingly low level of redundancy as compared with the Slavic languages (cf. American English “I can't take” sounds exactly like “I can take”). Compare a rather typical Ukrainian noun розповсюдження [rɔz.pɔw.ˈsʲu.d͜ʐɛnʲ.nʲa] and its English translation, “spread” (like in ‘spread of HIV’)

In general, the level of analyticity English displays has no parallels among the languages of Europe, and, perhaps, among all the Indo-European languages. “Analytic” is a derivative of “analysis”, and it is deep and complicated analysis of reality that one has to perform in order to be able to use English well.

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  • I'm not a linguist so I might be misunderstanding something, but I'm rather certain that "no alveolar consonants at all in the Slavic languages" is wrong. – Dan M. Sep 24 at 13:18
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    This is the beautiful thing about learning languages: languages beyond your mother tongue have features, concepts, and ways of looking at the world that you would never even imagine if only knew your mother tongue. I've spent a lot of time editing the writing of non-native English speakers and I have seen a lot of the things noted here being fiendishly difficult for many non-native speakers (not just native Slavic speakers). Unusual constructions like "I waited for her to sing" and subtle phonetics like the difference between "she can do it" and "she can't do it" are great examples. – WaterMolecule Sep 24 at 16:00
  • @YellowSky I just want to iron out any ambiguities in your last paragraph. Are you saying that, to the best of your knowledge, English is the most analytic Indo-European language? – Tom Hosker Sep 24 at 21:42
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    @TomHosker - Well, there are, naturally, creoles and pidgins which are more analytical than English, and also some Indian languages I don't know about... Anyhow, I put “perhaps” there. :) – Yellow Sky Sep 24 at 22:46
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    Some linguists have argued that English has only two tenses (i.e. using a morphological definition, restricting the notion of tense to synthetic tenses). But the complexity of the compound constructions is of course still there regardless of the terminology. – rjpond Sep 25 at 19:21

After Tristan's good answer I felt that I should add my perspective of a native Portuguese speaker who learnt English, French, and German, in that order.

For me, when learning English, the complex syntax as mentioned by Tristan was never taken for granted. I had to learn it from scratch, as Portuguese is, in structure (in syntax, morphology, and grammar) far more similar to French, and I would dare to say nearly identical apart from some typical constructions and idioms that have no sense whatsoever in the other language.

However, that may not have "unbiased" me as I, today, continue to perceive English grammar as much more simple than French and even my native Portuguese. I normally see native English speakers in this site saying that the perception of English as a simple language is native bias. I disagree. (Maybe that is my bias on its own?)

As for your so-called "concrete evidence" mentioned in your question... I think that it is complicated. We cannot provide concrete evidence of A being more complex than B without having a very precise definition of what complex is. If it is indeed a matter of perspective, I would say that yes, English is simpler than French or Portuguese, even from a POV of a non-native speaker.

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    Dunno, as a native Italian speaker I'm finding German grammar way easier than English grammar. Yeah, there are more rules, but that's the point: there are more rules, you just need to learn them, as opposed to the frightful mess that is English word order... – Denis Nardin Sep 24 at 6:54
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    I would like to point a difference between hard to learn and complex. – embedded_dev Sep 24 at 6:57
  • @DenisNardin probably depends on your learning approach. When learning German I've found it much harder to internalize all the rules and also remember all the genders and verb forms. While I feel like with English it was much easier to start "consuming" the language (thus internalizing its implicit rules) from the get go. Probably also biased by the fact that I've learned English first and at a younger age. Foreign languages are not alone in that regard. I had trouble (still do) remembering all the rules taught in school for my native tongue. For me the best approach was to get a "lang. feel". – Dan M. Sep 24 at 13:24

There is no such evidence, because English is not straightforward. The root of the problem is the mistaken belief that English is a single language.

English has roots in multiple ancient languages, from the various tribes who conquered the country up to the Norman Conquest and beyond, as well as loan words from other languages, and entirely new words constructed from (usually) Greek or Latin roots. Historically, England had literally hundreds of local dialects, which may even have been different enough to constitute a different language - remember Caxton's story about people trying to buy eggs. Most of these have not completely survived, but there are still many local dialect words which remain, perhaps the most obvious example being what you call a bread roll.

Caxton and printing generally started to apply some standardisation to spelling, but this was not entirely consistent. In some ways, this started the development of written English as at best a separate dialect of English and at worst a separate language - consider the similar issue of Mandarin and Cantonese using the same spelling system, but translating those written characters to different spoken words. Unfortunately, just as spellings started to become somewhat standardised, the Great Vowel Shift took place and pronunciations changed dramatically, making the written language entirely non-phonetic. This leads to obvious problems with teaching systems such as phonics, which inherently assume that English spelling has phonetic patterns. It does sometimes, but there are many rules, and many exceptions. English schoolchildren quite literally have lessons dedicated to memorising these exceptions, typically lasting from around age 6-7 until they start secondary school at age 11.

Spelling English words is hard enough that we actually have the concept of competitive spelling. This is a concept which is completely alien to any language such as German where spelling is (almost) entirely phonetic. (Of course German has its own complexities - Germans have a similar challenge to learn the gender of words, and some very irregular prefixes, but that's another story.) The problem of irregular spelling makes dyslexia a major issue for English people.

Of course spelling is not grammar. However the multiple roots of English words create multiple, conflicting rules for noun plurals, verb tenses, and other grammatical constructs such as negation, comparison and superlatives, plus some cases which are simply irregular. With this being the case, it is not easily possible to separate spelling and grammar when it comes to these grammatical features. And as I said, written English is its own dialect and has different rules from spoken English, including grammatical rules, which these issues feed into. This has not been helped by Victorian amateur lexicographers attempting to "standardise" these based on sometimes-incorrect beliefs about the origins of words, and their varying success has tended more to confuse matters than to simplify.

Moving on from there, how do we construct sentences? There was a period from the 1970s to maybe the 1990s or so where English grammar was not really taught, and many people only found out that grammar rules existed when learning foreign languages and having to identify the corresponding rules in their own language. These days though, grammar also forms a part of the primary school curriculum in England - often to the confusion of parents, who have to Google what their children are asking them because they were not taught this themselves!

Basic English grammar does generally have fewer rules than some other languages - verbs mostly do not change significantly depending on subject or object. However it also has a fair degree of flexibility and inference from context, which can be both a strength and a weakness. As previously said, irregular forms are a problem for many situations such as plural nouns. It also has rules which are not often formally stated for native English speakers, which are simply absorbed implicitly. Adjective order is a good example of this - all native English speakers would notice an incorrect use of adjective order as being "wrong", and most could correct it, but most would be unable to say why it was wrong. And across the British Isles, basic sentence structure can be slightly different between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, so even these rules of grammar are not set in stone.

The situation is complicated further by Britain's expansion around the world, taking the English language with it. Dialects of English now exist all round the world, and since each dialect has developed separately, English people (and speakers of English in other dialects) may not be able to understand them. American English is the obvious example - we mostly know that "sidewalk" means "pavement" and "pavement" means road, for instance, but American English also has some words such as "catercorner" (meaning "diagonally across a crossroads") which simply do not exist in Britain. (In the case of American English, these are often older English words which have fallen out of use in Britain, which complicates the issue still further - an English person in 1700 might have understood them, but we don't today!) The situation is even worse for Indian English where not only are there significant dialect words to deal with, but the influence of Hindi affects the basic grammar.

All this does have an upside though, and this is where Eddie Izzard may have a point. With the number of dialects and the variations in grammar, words and accents, most English speakers are relatively used to having to understand people who don't speak exactly the same as themselves. For people who speak English as a second language, this is a definite advantage because native English speakers are highly experienced in interpreting meaning from context. The results may be unintentionally amusing, but we can still pick up on what was intended, and it can be relatively easy to get your meaning across with relatively little command of the language. This should not be mistaken for English being "easy" though - it's just that we generally have a high tolerance for errors before comprehension completely breaks down.

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  • @PeterMortensen Thanks for the tweaks! :) – Graham Sep 23 at 14:45
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    Caxton's story is about the lexicon, not grammar. And the Great Vowel Shift mostly affected pronunciation, not grammar. And spelling complexity also doesn't affect grammar. – Barmar Sep 23 at 15:02
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    And regarding all the different dialects, I think they mostly differ in lexicon, as your examples demonstrate. There are some grammar differences, but they're minimal. And I suspect Izzard wasn't really talking about all the dialects combined, but the British English that he's familiar with (most speakers of any language don't need to interact much with people who speak a different dialect). – Barmar Sep 23 at 15:07
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    @Barmar As I said, the reason English is different is that most speakers do regularly need to interact with people who speak a different dialect/accent, or do regularly consume media where people speak with different dialects/accents. And because of this, the tolerance for errors (whether in word choice, spelling or grammar) is generally higher because our "normal" range is wider to start with. This compares with a language such as French where there is literally a government organisation to standardise what French "should" be. – Graham Sep 23 at 15:53
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    @Graham But the same is true of the vast majority of languages. Apart from a few edge cases (most either creoles or located in the UK), the vast majority of English dialects are actually extremely similar, particularly considering their enormous geographic spread. And most English-speakers do not deal with significantly different dialects very often. Americans rarely hear Glaswegians or Belfasters, and they often need subtitles when they do. Overall, English is one of the most homogenous languages in the world, relative to number of speakers and geographic spread. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 24 at 0:06

As one of my English teachers used to say, English is like a cactus: it looks very simple from a distance, but when you get close, you can see all the spines.

I can't comment on most of the languages out there, but in comparison to some of the few European languages I know at least a bit about, English is indeed very simple on the usual first stumbling blocks:

  • English only uses 26 letters. No diacritics. French has the same 26, to which one has to add at least àâéèêïôùûüç. Even french people have a hard time with many of those.

  • English has three genders, but they are mostly straightforward: other than a few amusing exceptions such as ships, only people are male or female, everything else is neutral. Compare that with French (only two genders, but they seem to have been randomly assigned) or German (three genders, apparently randomly assigned as well).

  • English has only four forms of nouns: singular or plural, and possessive variations thereof, and which one to use is straightforward. No accusative, dative, genitive, or other such cases as in German, Latin, or Russian, where you need to learn which form goes with each verb (possibly several). Of course English uses prepositions, which you need to learn, but German uses both!

  • English adjectives do not change with gender, count, case, or anything else.

  • English has at most 8 different (non composed) forms of a verb, and that includes all variations in person, case, tense, etc. Other than to be and to have, all other verbs have at most 2 forms which can be irregular (hence the irregular verb list). Compare that to French which can have dozens, not including composed forms.

    Even comparing composed forms, English is much simpler than French and its 4 modes and 20+ tenses (granted, a few of those are rarely if ever used, but a good selection remains).

    English verb forms to not change with gender, and only in limited cases with person. Compare that to french and its complex rules to decide when the past participle needs to follow the gender and count of... well, it depends :-)

  • Sentence structure is easier in English that in German, where verbs can be pushed at the end.

Also, it is worth noting that if you can speak English, you can mostly write it, and have little risk of getting it wrong if you pay attention to a few tricks (it's/its, your/you're...). Note that the opposite is not true, you cannot read aloud English without context and knowledge, the same letter sequence can be pronounced in very different ways (e.g. ough and its 12 different pronunciations, as in though, through, cough, ought, drought...), and even the exact same word can be pronounced differently in different contexts (e.g. read).

This is very different from French for instance, where a verb finishing with an é sound could be spelled with é, ée, és, ées, er, ez...), depending on grammar. You just can't imagine how many french people just can't get those correctly.

All in all, at least compared to French, German, Latin or Russian, English is indeed quite simple. Things may be quite different if compared to Chinese dialect for instance, though.

A good indicator is perhaps the frequency at which national authorities publish "reforms" or "simplifications" of the language. Both French and German underwent such reforms in the nineties...

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    English adjectives do change for the degrees of comparison, e. g. big – bigger – biggest. Also, a typical English regular verb has 4 simple forms, not 2, e. g. work – works – worked – working and a typical irregular verb has 5: write – writes – wrote – written – writing. – Yellow Sky Sep 24 at 4:13
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    "if you can speak English, you can mostly write it" - from the point of view of a German native speaker, that claim sounds extremely far-fetched. How would you decide between "if"/"iff", "you"/"yoo", "speak"/"speek"/"speeque" without memorizing the correct spelling, for instance? Not to mention that there are several inaudible letters in there. – O. R. Mapper Sep 24 at 6:39
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    Quite a bit of this is about orthography, not about grammar. The German language has never been reformed nor officially encoded; there only was a small orthography reform. Also, English orthography only has never been reformed because it lacks a central authority to do this and it’s such a mess that you wouldn’t even know where to begin (thanks to the Great Vowel Shift). If there is any true language absolute, it’s that English has the worst orthography. There is a reason why spelling bees are only a thing in the Anglosphere – disproving: “if you can speak English, you can mostly write it”. – ˈvʀ̩ʦl̩ˌpʀm̩ft Sep 24 at 6:40
  • @ˈvʀ̩ʦl̩ˌpʀm̩ft: "The German language has never been (...) officially encoded" - umm, I'd say in German, there is a definitive sense that there is one "officially correct" spelling and grammar, at least individually within Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and along with that, an equally definitive sense that what is not covered by any of those "official" definitions is, plain and simple, "wrong". It is at least my impression that this aspect is a lot hazier in English. – O. R. Mapper Sep 24 at 6:47
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    @YellowSky "2 forms which can be irregular". Of course the base form (infinitive) is the starting point, and 2 of the forms are regular (s suffix and ing suffix), and do not need to be memorised in any way. That's why irregular verb tables only have 3 forms, infinitive (base form) and the 2 forms which can be irregular (preterite and past participle). The main exception is of course to be. – jcaron Sep 24 at 16:25

As a counterpoint to the other answers, I will say that the linguist John McWhorter has argued that it's not meaningless to talk about languages having more or less complex grammatical and syntactic rules, and that English is grammatically simpler (even including word order issues) than a lot of languages. But only weakly, and the difference is especially small compared to the other major world languages. He thinks languages that, as he puts it, "have been subjected to a lot of second language learning" get a lot of their tricky rules dropped. This would include Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Chinese, among other languages. The really complicated ones are the indigenous languages spoken by only a few hundred people.

I believe there is controversy around his argument, but it seemed relevant to this discussion. I don't have a specific reference to cite, but he has written about this a fair amount, so it shouldn't be too hard to track down.

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