Language myth

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An urban myth (also known as an urban legend) is a story or idea which is widely circulated and believed by many in society but which has no basis in objective fact.

Many such myths may originally have had their basis in some sort of fact, but have often been so distorted by something akin to Chinese whispers that they end up bearing little relationship to the original story; others have been simply invented out of whole cloth.

The "urban" in urban legend or myth does not imply that they only relate to towns; it merely serves to distinguish such stories from traditional legends. Consequently a more accurate term might be "modern myth".

This article is concerned only with urban myths which might have some relevance to English language teaching.

English spelling is irregular

An oft-repeated myth – by both teachers and students – is that English spelling has no rules, is chaotic, at best irregular and so on.

However, as David Crystal points out,[1] there are only around 400 everyday words with totally irregular spelling – and it is precisely the fact that they are so frequently encountered that is the origin of the myth. One particular computer analysis of 17,000 words showed that 84% were spelled according to a regular pattern – and only 3% were so irregular that they have to be learned by heart.

We only use 10% of our brains

This frequently repeated statement has no basis in either logic or neuroscience.[2]


The human brain uses a very great proportion of the energy used by a human being. The large human brain is a cause of most of the difficulty in childbirth. It is highly unlikely that evolution would have conserved such a large, expensive organ if only 10% of it were used.


Studies of humans in brain scanners has conclusively shown that this is not true. While not all the brain is used all the time, activity is shunted between areas when and where it is needed. Furthermore large parts of the brain are concerned with activities like keeping the heart beating and the lungs working. The 90% unused portion has simply never been discovered and has no scientific basis.

Relative importance of non-verbal communication

It is often claimed that around 90% of human communication is non-verbal. This frequently asserted concept has no basis in common sense or science.[3]


If 90% of communication (and according to some sources 93%) is non-verbal then words would seem to be pretty nearly unnecessary. But a moment's thought will convince us that - apart from expressing simple commands like "come here" or sending emotional signals - any complex idea has to be expressed in words. The fact that we can understand podcasts or the radio, the fact that we can read books, the fact that we can understand little of what foreigners say to us clearly shows us that it is words which carry the largest semantic meaning.


This particular myth springs from the work of Albert Mehrabian who was interested in the emotional content of communication. However he most certainly never suggested that 90% of all communication was non-verbal and was actually only interested in one particular aspect of communication.[4] Mehrabian's famous study refers to "the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues"[4] and the equation he came up with,

  • Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking[4]

was "derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike)."[4] He insists that "unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."[4]


  1. Crystal, David The English Language Penguin ISBN 0-14-100396-0
  2. Snopes on 10%
  3. Debunking and history
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Mehrabian, Albert Silent Messages

See also