While reading an answer by John Lawler, I got puzzled by a sentence with unfamiliar phrasing. I for the life of me can't understand the meaning of that sentence. I read it about 30 times. Here is the full paragraph with the bold sentence confusing:

The up particle in the verb tear up doesn't mean 'into pieces'; that's what it means with tear, because of what tear means. Note that, because English orthography, there are two verbs tear, pronounced differently, one transitive, one intransitive, with completely unrelated meanings. And both of them have phrasal verbs with up. The same up.

I want them to tear up the agreement. /tɛr əp/ 'rip into pieces' (transitive)
I want them to tear up at the climax. /tɪr əp/ 'start to cry' (intransitive)

I guess the "because English orthography" after the first comma is a part of "pronounced differently" AND "Note that" belongs to "there are two verbs tear," but it is extremely confusing.

Can anyone explain it a bit? What kind of phrasing is this and which clauses belong to which ones? And how would you say it? Where would you pause while saying it in speech?

(I'm hoping to get an explanation from the person who wrote it)....

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    There are two verbs to tear. They are pronounced differently. One is transitive and the other intransitive, and they have different meanings. Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 13:38
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    I think it is just a question of common sense. Could “tear up at the climax” mean rip into pieces?
    – user 66974
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 14:44
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    The way I phrased it was for native speakers. Every native speaker knows the phrase tear up in the sense of 'feel like crying', with tear pronounced like the noun tears. But it's probly not too common among non-native speakers. If you don't recognize the phrase, you won't hear the pronunciation difference, because English orthography. "Because English orthography" is a new usage of what used to be because of English orthography. Most of us have realized that the of is not necessary. Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 16:33
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    @JohnLawler - "because English orthography" is a little infelicitous, surely? Or else very modern? Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 19:27
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    @MichaelHarvey The latter. Because as a preposition was the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2013. Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 21:40

1 Answer 1


I don't know the technical terms for most of this, but I can explain how the sentence breaks down.

I think the confusion mostly comes from all the parts being separated by commas, when they're actually connected in different ways. The comma is the Swiss Army knife of punctuation marks; or perhaps the universal glue.

It's actually quite common in fluent speech to glue lots of ideas together as we think of them, without paying attention to how long the sentence is getting.

Note that...

This is a phrase on its own, introducing the whole sentence. It basically means "pay attention to the rest of this sentence". We could perhaps use "Note: " instead.

, because English orthography,

This is a parenthetical, or aside - it's an extra detail that's kind of optional. We could perhaps mark it with dashes or brackets rather than commas. Alternatively, this could have been the start of the sentence, if the "note that" wasn't already there.

There's an extra possibility for confusion here in using "because (noun)" which would more traditionally be "because of (noun phrase)". (I am reminded of Gretchen McCulloch's book Because Internet.)

there are two verbs tear

This is actually the core that all the other clauses have glued onto. It could be clarified a bit by adding quotes around "tear".

There's also an implied "which are spelled" connecting "two verbs" to "tear" (we know it's about spelling rather than anything else from the following phrase).

, pronounced differently

There's an implied "which are" here, connecting to the "two verbs" in the previous clause.

This is actually the first of three different details about those two verbs, which are all basically on an equal footing. We could perhaps use a colon to introduce the list of details, and a semi-colon to separate the items in it.

, one transitive, one intransitive

The second detail about the two verbs. Note that the comma in the middle here isn't separating two clauses, but standing in for "and".

, with completely unrelated meanings.

The third detail about the two verbs.

So without changing any of the wording, only punctuation, we could have:

Note that (because English orthography) there are two verbs "tear": pronounced differently; one transitive, one intransitive; with completely unrelated meanings.

Or taking more liberties with the phrasing, but keeping the same order:

Note: Because of the complexity of English orthography, there are two verbs which are spelled "tear". They are pronounced differently; one is transitive and the other intransitive; and they have completely unrelated meanings.


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