The How and the Why of it: Why language actually matters

“Don’t be so picky. Enough people say it this way now in many pockets of our culture, therefore words have changed their meaning. Get over it and move on.”

“Oh you’re so pedantic. Why worry about the details of whether what I said is technically right or wrong? Language is all about communication, and people know what I mean so just chill out.”

I’m not a hateful person. I’m fairly likeable, so some people tell me (right Mum?). But I hate, hate hate people who say things that resemble either of the two sentiments I quoted above. I am moved to consider them as the Psalmist considered God’s enemies, “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21). People who do this are not merely unintelligent (in fact I’m sure that in many cases they are not unintelligent). They are traitors. They are vandals. They are cultural saboteurs. They are leaks in our bucket of well-being (I came up with that analogy myself. Make a donation before using it.)

Why am I so bent out of shape over this? Because I’m (among other things), a philosopher. To do philosophy, you need to really make use of language. There are features built into the English language that are there to be used, and which are vital for making certain distinctions in what one means, and these features are lost – or at least forgotten – when people decide that because they can’t be bothered learning what those features are and how they work, they will encourage their fellow member of our culture to believe that they literally don’t exist. In doing so, they participate in a great robbery. They steal away our ability to communicate – ironically believing that in doing so they are more concerned about “communication” than “correctness.” They are concerned about neither. What they are concerned about is disdain for other people’s will to preserve. They have a hatred of “pickiness” on the grounds that it is anti-social. And to an extent it is. Discouraging people from getting things wrong can be anti-social because it doesn’t affirm people exactly as they are. But why should we affirm people exactly as they are?

Often the vandalism is subtle. At other times it is not. A recent example: In a blog post about ten days ago, Matt Flannagan explained the ins and outs of the fallacy of “begging the question.” One of the first things that he noted, as I have often mused, is that the phrase “begs the question” is commonly misunderstood and so misused. Here’s an example: It would not be unusual today to hear somebody say “I just can’t afford to buy a house right now, which begs the question – Why do I read so many real estate newspapers?” Now in fact this does not beg the question at all, since begging the question is the informal logical fallacy of using circular reasoning. What this guy actually means is “I just can’t afford to buy a house right now, which raises the question – Why do I read so many real estate newspapers?” Well, a commentor got (or at least appeared to get) a bit indignant and self-righteous over the fact that Matt would appeal to such rules. He quipped: “Give up. The meaning of ‘begs the question’ has changed and it now means ‘raises the question’. I’m cool with that; there’s no point being pedantic when clear communication is your aim.” Here’s the problem with this lazy lollygagging approach to language: The informal logical fallacy of begging the question is still discussed today as much as it ever has been, and the meaning of that phrase has not changed. Our English language is now, as it has always been, equipped to speak of the act of “raising the question,” namely, by just saying “that raises the question.” By lumping them together into one phrase and thinking “meh, everyone makes the mistake, so let’s all agree that it’s no longer a mistake,” you are stealing something from our language. You are destroying our ability to refer to the fallacy of begging the question with the phrase “begging the question,” because you’re trying to get everyone to believe that it means something else – something for which an already perfectly good phrase exists. In doing this, you are sabotaging the precision of language. You are actually hurting the ability of people, both now and in the future, to express themselves, because you are blunting the tools that they have to do so.

Another example – and this happens all the time – is the confusion of “how” and “why.” Imagine this conversation between me and my eleven year old daughter:

Her: Look at this! [doing something silly]

Me: Don’t be silly.

Her: Why am I being silly?

At this point, she wants me to explain what’s silly about her actions. But notice that she has not asked me this. Because she’s a child and because I care about her and I want her to develop into a skilled adult, I do not cater to her ignorance. Instead I answer:

Me: That’s a good question. Why are you being silly?

Her: [thinks for a moment] Oh! I mean how am I being silly?

If she had protested at my first answer, saying “you know what I mean,” I would not have been impressed. What she initially said to me actually has a meaning. Those words are “spoken for,” as it were. They aren’t available just to be re-assigned to whatever meaning I wish to express. By instructing her in this way, I’m giving her the tools to remain precise in her adult life. The language that she’s going to be using is equipped with the required features to make distinctions that will be lost if she gets lazy and just banks on people knowing what she means. I want people who hear her speak in future to know what her words mean because she has told them what they mean when she uttered them.

The why/how distinction becomes important when asking philosophical and theological questions and it is important to specifically state one thing and not another. For example, today somebody asked, “What’s the difference between these two questions: 1) Why is there something rather than nothing? 2) How is there something rather than nothing?” And these questions really are different. What’s more, the second question is written in a way that probably doesn’t express what is really meant. Here’s why: “Why” questions have to do with reasons. “Why did you do that?” What, ultimately, is the reason behind something? “How” question are asking about the way things are or the way things happen. “How did this happen?” “How did you do that,” or “how is the weather outside?” In answering my friend’s question, one person suggested that the “how” question that he offered is really a question about how it came to be that there is something rather than nothing. On reflection I’m fairly sure that’s what the questioner means to ask, but it’s not actually what the question means in its current form. The question actually doesn’t refer to a process of coming to be. It merely refers to a state of affairs. Consider a parallel: There is a difference between saying “how is the sky blue and not green?” and saying “How did the sky get to be blue and not green?” The first question is asking us about the way the sky is, and we can answer it by describing the blueness of the sky, in virtue of which it is not green. The second question is about a process, namely the sky’s “getting to be” blue rather than green. In answering the second question, we would describe the process by which the sky became blue, in virtue of which it did not become some other colour. In exactly the same way, the question, “how is there something rather than nothing” would literally be answered by describing how there is something. We would describe what there being something is like, in virtue of which there isn’t just nothing. However, if the question had been “How did there get to be something rather than nothing,” then we would answer by describing how something came to be, in virtue of with it was not “nothing” that came to be.

The long and short story is this: The person who just says “meh” in public to grammar nitpickers and semantic pendantics like me (assuming we’re not just being silly and going overboard) is not just injuring himself. He is vandalising the tools by which we as a people will communicate ideas. He is diminishing our capacity to communicate, and in the long term he is making it harder, rather than easier, for people to just listen to the point and not get snagged on details.

Your friendly neighbourhood OCD grammarphile

Glenn Peoples

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24 thoughts on “The How and the Why of it: Why language actually matters

  1. To further your analogy of the blunting of tools, it should be noted that tools go blunt over time, and that a good worker must either sharpen his tools from time to time, or occasionally get new tools.

    Similarly in language, if cultural conventions shift to where you lose the richness of language you needed to describe something, it is up to you (and the rest of your subculture) to refine your terminology or come up with new terminology.

    Take “begging the question”. It isn’t really that good a phrase for capturing what you mean by it. So philosophers would probably do well to, over time, surrender that phrase to the masses, and instead coin a phrase like “smuggling the question” or “assuming the question”

    The point is that changes in language will happen, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they need to happen slow enough that different subcultures can still communicate without being pwned by each other.

    And while we’re at it. ‘Thru’ should be the correct spelling of ‘through’, and ‘U’ should be the correct spelling of ‘you’.

  2. A leading case on contract scope and interpretation in the US reasons:

    “When a court interprets a contract … it determines the meaning of the instrument in accordance with the ‘…extrinsic evidence of the judge’s own linguistic education and experience.’ * * * * If words had absolute and constant referents, it might be possible to discover contractual intention in the words themselves and in the manner in which they were arranged. Words, however, do not have absolute and constant referents. ‘A Word is a symbol of thought but has no arbitrary and fixed meaning like a symbol of algebra or chemistry….’ … The meaning of particular words or groups of words varies with the ‘…verbal context and surrounding circumstances and purposes in view of the linguistic education and experience of their users and their hearers or readers…. A word has no meaning apart from these factors; much less does it have an objective meaning, one true meaning.” Pac. Gas & Elec. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage & Rig. Co., 69 Cal.Rptr. 561 (1968) (Traynor, C.J.)

    I have problems with that case because the attitude toward language supports the proposition that two private parties can never really know what they are communicating to each other, thereby justifying state intervention to interpret even objectively clear contracts. It is also representative of a contextualist approach to law and rule following that suggests that whether you have a duty to do something — like perform a contract — is entirely dependent upon the context in which the contract was formed, rather than the words the parties used to create that contract.

    But it is true that much of communication is context-driven. While the consequences of accepting a balkanization of language meaning depending on context group are really bad, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. What it does seem to mean is that we are losing our ability to communicate with others who do not share our context, without first incurring huge costs to lay the foundation for the ground rules of grammar and communication.

    Ultimately, this is just a long-winded way of saying that I think you’re raising a normative claim that people should (but don’t) follow the rules of grammar in attempting to communicate, but that normative claim is at odds with the positive claim that many people have developed different (and usually less precise) acceptable norms for communication.

  3. Yes, I know that “OCD” isn’t actually an adjective, that’s a bit of modern colloquial usage that isn’t really correct. But in my defence, even when people make a point of noting this, as in http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-the-doubt/201002/pssstocd-is-not-adjective , they still fall into the trap themselves – the author of this article called “Pssst…OCD is NOT an Adjective” still refers to the rest of us as having “non-OCD brains.” Well if non-OCD can be used as an adjective….

    But yes, true. It’s not an adjective. However, in using it as an adjective, I’m not taking existing phraseology and using it wrong, thus robbing us of its correct use.

    A weak defence, but it’s all I’ve got!

    Also: I do not really have OCD.

  4. I have to admit to being a bit anal about apostrophe crimes but I think this rant by Stephen Fry is pretty spot-on:

    . Almost every word we use came about without too much conscious design and would have been seen as bastards at their birth.

  5. WC, believe me, I’m all in favour of artistic licence. The trouble is when people don’t realise they’re taking licence, and they think they’re being precise.

  6. In fact, let me add to that by saying that I don’t even mind when people screw up and get their words wrong every now and then. I’m not about to be a jerk about it. The problem is when people defend doing so on the grounds that language really ought to cater to them, and that language should be less precise just because people are getting mentally fatter and lazier.

  7. Take “begging the question”. It isn’t really that good a phrase for capturing what you mean by it. So philosophers would probably do well to, over time, surrender that phrase to the masses, and instead coin a phrase like “smuggling the question” or “assuming the question”

    Colin, the incorrect usage only arose because people had no idea what the phrase meant and applied it in a context where it did not belong. It makes perfectly good sense in the context where it rightly belongs.

  8. “and they think they’re being precise”
    Yeah like if someone confused ‘sound’ with ‘valid’. I can’t stand people like that.

    I think we can all agree that “What I said isn’t what I meant” is not a valid defense when losing an argument.

    And despite the constant flux of language, it is every communicator’s responsibility to do their best to be understood.

  9. Another good book is The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg. It’s not too dry, and written in biography style.

    To further add to the crimes against English, the confusion of:

    There / Their
    Aye / Eh

  10. “Oh you’re so pedantic. Why worry about the details of whether what I said is technically right or wrong? Language is all about communication, and people know what I mean so just chill out.”

    I have traditionally subscribed to this view; I hate anal retention like you hate sloppy language, Glenn, and as much as I enjoy your work, your anal-retentive pedantry has *always* bugged the out tar of me – to the point that I have, at times, considered stopping to consume your work out of spite. I mean, you *do* know what I mean, so stop being an ass.

    Ergo, this is a very good post for you to write, because you make the case for sticklerism as well as it can be made, and I’ll consider changing my view. However, my personal inclination is still to believe that while precision is important in the context of formal academic works or other serious arguments, it’s not worth getting exercised over in casual conversation or internet debate.

  11. Hey Samson, I just read your two last blog posts, and they appear to contain fastidiously correct language. Maybe it’s the idea of being anal about using correct English that bugs you, rather than the practice. 🙂

  12. Yes, hearing “begs the question” misused in this way is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I’ve even heard this mistake from people trained in philosophy who should know better.

    By the way, you said: “It would not be unusual today to here somebody say ‘I just can’t afford to buy a house…'”

    The word “here” specifies the location in which you are currently present. The word “hear” means to receive audible information through your ears. Get it right already! 😀

  13. And see Jared, I won’t even try to justify it by claiming that since you know what I meant, it’s not even a mistake. 🙂

    I’ve fixed it now.

  14. @ Glenn – Sorry I was away from the computer for a couple of days. “Mother Tongue” is a history of the development, spread, and usage of the English language. Very interesting and eye opening. I think you’d enjoy it.

  15. This is another of your spot-the-mistake-game posts yes??

    My guess then is that while I know “semantic pedantics” has a satisfying rhyme, I have a feeling they should just be “pedants”

  16. This post makes me feel quite uncomfortable because I’m not anal about my communication, but perhaps I should be.

    I do have a simple request though in this context: please be nice to us. Sometimes there are nuances in language we’re not even aware of – particularly around specific-domain language, like ‘begging the question’. So, it’s not always that we’re flippant; sometimes we just need to be (nicely) made aware of some of these nuances.

  17. Until we start pronouncing ‘old’ as something more like ‘awld’ (short O) or spell it olde (long O, or ohld as it’s normally pronounced, thanks to the E on the end) spelling, grammer, and pronunciation in English is pretty much a lost cause…

    If we’re gonna drop the e in olde we might as well spell ‘you’ just ‘u’, cause rules and consistency don’t matter.

    I remember going to school in the States as a kid and they actually taught that the word ‘been’ is a special phonetic exception to the ee rules so they could pronounce it ‘ben’…

    Honestly, I’d be way more comfortable if they just changed the spelling to ‘ben’ to fit their enunciation, as it is they just make English even more needlessly complicated.

    A lot of this snowball got started with not minding your ‘ps and qs’. Once the P in Psalms becomes silent because people are lazy and don’t really care what the word objectively meant or where the word came from then we pretty much allow the word to be re-defined freely of its roots. Once you can re-define the proper enunciation you can pretty easily re-define the proper meaning becasue in English the enunciation ties the word to the meaning of its root in another language (Old French, Germanic, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, ect). You lose your historic objectivity.

  18. 1) The silly daughter missed out on a good opportunity to blame shift.

    2) I think precise tools have a place in your toolbox. I think you want some blunt ones in there too. Both viewpoints are valid but you need to factor in context. An Axe I like sharp but a log splitter is safer dull. If someone misuses my axe and dulls it I don’t like it, it required effort to make it sharp.

    Worthwhile discussion.

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