Strictly Speaking

By Cyberquill 12/24/200910 Comments

Hard drives crash. Computers flatline. Insidious malware corrupts and obliterates our precious data. Thus I decided to invest in a state-of-the-art online data backup system. Gentle on the wallet, and should my Windows machine ever fall prey to a burglary, a flood, or get niblicked beyond repair by a jealous blonde chasing after me with a nine iron and causing all sorts of collateral property damage in the process, at least my files will be safe. (Unless, of course, whatever domestic misfortune may befall me coincides with a meteorite strike at the remote date storage facility–but what are the chances of such ill-fated concurrence?)

The project of backing up my data proved a shade more technically challenging than I had anticipated, so in flagrant defiance of the doctrine which holds that men neither ask for directions nor read manuals, I grudgingly resolved to consult the accompanying literature.

On page 17 (out of 50), the following statement perplexed me:

It is worth mentioning that Live protect requires adequate System resources.

It seems that protect should be capitalized and System should be lower-case, but let’s not sweat the small potatoes. What I found several orders of magnitude more troubling was that none of the statements in the preceding 16 1/2 pages had been prepended by a clause to the effect that they were worth mentioning. Strictly speaking, as per the text of the manual, I had consumed 16 1/2 pages of alphabet soup until finally hitting upon a valuable piece of information. A quick scrolling through the remaining 32 pages revealed that no additional statement had been flagged as meriting mention.

Apparently, the fact that Live Protect required adequate system resources was the sole snippet of intelligence deemed worthy of sharing by the manual’s author. Then why, one might rightfully wonder, did he bother to pad this lonesome morsel of import with 50 pages of inconsequential blather?

Imagine a mycologist compiling a list of, say, ten types of mushrooms and putting the word poisonous next to three of them. Now, if I pointed to any of the other seven varieties on the list and inquired whether they were poisonous, our list-making mushroom maven would naturally assume that either (a) I wasn’t the brightest candle on the cake, or (b) I was trying to mock him. For obviously, having labeled only a few of the given mushroom types as poisonous suffices to convey the notion that the others are safe. To ask whether any or each of the types not designated as poisonous was poisonous as well would accomplish little save to cause the list maker to bang his head against the wall in frustration.

Here’s the underlying principle:

Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.

This fairly intuitive rule of textual interpretation–one of several so-called canons of construction–states that the expression of one signifies the exclusion of the other. If I go to the movies and there’s a sign above the box office which reads Women Pay Half, it makes no sense to ask whether the 50% discount applies to me, being male, as well. It clearly does not. Except for the uncommonly benighted among us, putting up a second sign that says Men Must Pay Full Price would add nothing in the way of clarity.

Pursuant to this canon of construction, the prefacing of exactly one statement in a text as worth mentioning plainly signifies that all other statements contained therein are not worth mentioning. If only one in a line of skin-care products is labeled unscented, it must be assumed that all others are not. And I just don’t see the point of plowing through 50 pages of predominantly useless information.

Now you may argue that this appears to be no more than an instance of clumsy writing rather than a conscious or sub-conscious attempt at negating the significance of 99.9% of the total amount of information provided. I concur. Even though, strictly speaking, this single ham-fisted slip of the pen consigned the rest of the manual to conspicuous irrelevance, chances are its author considered all of his statements to be prodigiously informative. Yet something possessed him to highlight, seemingly at random, one of precisely those pieces of information as worthy of mention which contributed the least to my understanding of the product.

Ideally, either all of the statements in a given composition should be prefaced as worth mentioning, or–even more ideally (yes, more ideally is possible in a more perfect Union)–none of them; for to haphazardly select isolated text fragments and tout them as worthy of disclosure not only looks frightfully butterfingered on the page, but ambiguous phrasing of any kind is liable to occasion unanticipated and potentially precarious reactions in compulsive literalists like Rain Man (recall autistic Raymond stopping cold in the middle of the street the moment the light changed to Don’t Walk) or in dyed-in-the-wool logicians like Commander Spock.

(Indeed, such seemingly innocuous lapse of logic could easily bring down the Enterprise: Picture Mr. Spock–all onboard technicians have been hijacked by the Klingons–consulting the manual of a vital yet malfunctioning navigation system aboard the starship. The instructions contain exactly one statement flagged as worth mentioning. The Vulcan will immediately zoom in on this one single statement to the exclusion of all other potentially crucial information surrounding it. Consequently, the faulty system won’t get fixed, and the Enterprise will crash into a mountain on Planet Minnobia. Could happen.)

Inserting prefatory gibberish into spoken language is more defensible, as doing so aids in maintaining our verbal flow while giving our brains a few extra nanoseconds to construct the meaningful portion of our statements. Naturally, once a sentence has been spoken, one cannot go back and delete the superfluous claptrap. In writing, on the other hand, there’s plenty of opportunity to revise and expunge all addlepated surplusage.

Roughly 100 pages into a book I recently read I happened upon this stunningly redundant whopper of non-information:

In this context, it is furthermore interesting to point out that…

In this context? What other context is there? Unless otherwise specified, it seems reasonably clear that all points are being made in the context in which they occur. If someone gives a lecture on cytogenetics and talks about homologous chromosomes and free-floating nucleotides, prior to being issued a change-of-subject alert it is unlikely that anyone in the audience will mistake the term messenger RNA for a baseball maneuver or wonder if Gregor Mendel may have been a composer.

And it is interesting to point out? One seldom encounters statements expressly introduced as not interesting to point out. The mere inclusion of a particular point in a given text implies that the writer thought it was an interesting one. Unless, of course, an exceptionally ingenious wordsmith decides to refer to only a selected few of his points as interesting, in which case he effectively declares all others to be dull. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.

A little later in the same book, another classic eye-roller had escaped the editor’s attention:

Before we conclude this chapter, let us discuss…

As long as we subscribe to conventional notions of time and space, every topic discussed in a given chapter is being discussed before the chapter ends, just as every topic discussed in a given book is being discussed before the book ends. On a deeper and more existential level, everything occurs prior to the termination of that which it is a part of. The statement Let’s go to the beach! automatically means Before we die, let’s go to the beach! By explicitly adding before we die, we are–strictly speaking–implying that a post-mortem stroll a la playa would be feasible.

In keeping with our by now familiar exclusion rule, preluding only one of several sub-topics included in a chapter with before we conclude this chapter squarely states that all other sub-topics in this chapter are being discussed after it ends, and this seems oddly irreconcilable with the geographic location of the writing on the page, namely before the following chapter’s headline.

Let’s examine a fairly typical opening sentence of a letter:

I am writing you this letter to inform you that I have received yours, and I would like to respond.

In the Sheer Meaninglessness category, this line deserves a Pulitzer. First of all, letters are always written, which obviates the need to explain, within a given letter, how it was produced. (Anything sculpted or baked is generally not a letter.) Second, there is no need to point out that this letter is the one being referenced, as it is this very letter the reader is looking at while reading those words. Third, letters typically aren’t used as snow shovels or to cut vegetables, so the sole purpose of a letter is to inform.

Finally, since one cannot respond to that which one has not received, the fact that the letter was, in fact, received will become fantastically obvious to the recipient of the response to it simply on account of, well, having received a response to it. (Of course, getting to the actual substance of the response itself is delayed by having to maneuver his eyeballs past a bunch of preliminary hooey.) And in lieu of affirming one’s desire to respond, why not simply begin?

In fact, the verbiage here is so conspicously barren of meaning, the letter’s recipient may conceivably be tempted to consult Robert Langdon. Given that the sentence itself neither sparkles with beauty of expression such that it could rightfully be considered poetry, nor appears to communicate anything beyond Look at me–I’m a sentence! it stands to reason that its particular arrangement of letters and spaces constitutes some sort of secret code–the key to the Holy Grail perchance? Why else would someone have bothered to compose such vacuous monstrosity?

A while ago, Chase dispatched the following bulk e-mail which opened thus:

We’re writing to let you know about updates we’ve recently made to some of our online disclosures and agreements.

Obviously, a streamlined We’ve recently made updates to some of our online disclosures and agreements would have worked just fine–so what’s up with this mysterious we’re-writing-to-let-you-know part? Whoever composed that e-mail must have been aware that every recipient smart enough to be able to open and read it would also be smart enough to know that electronic messages don’t come into being via sexual reproduction and that their exclusive purpose is to deliver information, i.e., to let know. Ergo, there must be more to the ding-dongy intro than meets the eye.

Chase is by no means the only financial institution to leaven its formal correspondence with suspicious chunks of potential code. The other day I received this dilly from Capital One:

We would like to notify you that changes have been made to the Online Banking Terms and Conditions…

To learn of someone’s desire to notify me of something which I am being notified of immediately following the profession of such desire in the very same sentence seems obtusely pleonastic. We’ve made changes to the Online Banking Terms and Conditions would have done the job equally well with less scriptural clunkage.

In Capital One’s defense, their desire to notify was expressed as well as fulfilled. This is not always the case. For instance, how many actual thanks have you ever received?

Sure, people constantly want to or would like to thank us, but how often do they follow through? Anytime someone professes how much they would like to thank me or want to wish me a happy birthday, I am curious what mysterious force stays their tongue and precludes them from taking that extra leap and doing so. Stating that I’d like to move to Fiji means neither that I’m already packing my bags nor that I’ll ever actually move there. It merely constitutes an aspirational declaration. I may move there. I may not. Why should a different logic apply to your stating that you’d like to thank me?

On 17 December 2009, in a Letter to the Washington Post , Sarah Palin wrote:

I’d like to thank Eugene Robinson for highlighting Alaska’s achievements on climate change.

One can almost hear the unwritten portion of that sentence (“…but because Mr. Robinson is a flaming liberal, I can’t quite get myself to do it”). Accordingly, no thanks were forthcoming in any of the subsequent paragraphs.

A few days earlier, the best-selling Alaskan governatrix of all time had posted the following on her Facebook page:

Todd and I would like to offer our best wishes to the Jewish community as they celebrate Hanukkah. …

Todd and Sarah may have been too busy picking off reindeer from a chopper to extend their best wishes to the Jewish community, but it was nice of them to at least take a moment to announce that that’s what they would have liked to do. Oh well. Perhaps they’ll get around to it next year. Meanwhile, her latest post starts Todd and I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! (As we speak, I’m waiting with bated breath for those wishes…)

The good governor seems to suffer from a dubious-opening-line fetish in general. This is how her penultimate Facebook post, flaring out at Obamacare, kicks off:

Last weekend while you were preparing for the holidays with your family, Harry Reid’s Senate was making shady backroom deals…

Since I hadn’t spent the weekend preparing for the holidays with my family, I stopped reading right there; obviously I wasn’t included in the target group for this article. She might as well have opened with Dear moose-stew-loving Martian SUV-owners: Last weekend while you were bungee-jumping off a blimp over Wasilla… Well, I ain’t and I wasn’t. Good-bye.

Now, at first blush, all this linguistic parsing may sound like a pipeload of nitpicky mumbo-jumbo only a control freak could love. Not so fast. Being mindful of what people are actually saying versus what they appear to be saying can yield important clues. Although often the proverbial cigar is just a cigar (i.e., an awkward turn of phrase is precisely that), equally often the apparent cigar turns out to be a trumpet, a lawn mower, or a battle ship.

Statement analysis is premised on the thesis that we generally say what we mean and mean what we say. Lying through our teeth makes us nervous and uncomfortable, and so we tend to avoid it whenever possible. Our natural inclination is to play verbal dodge ball instead, to say things that are, strictly speaking, correct while ever so subtly manipulating the listener into drawing the wrong conclusions, i.e., to get them to hear what we want them to hear, not what we’ve actually said. And even when we make a premeditated effort to lie, given that the truth–at least the truth in the sense of what we believe to be true–is foremost on our minds, it frequently leaks out in the way we phrase things.

In 1994, O.J. Simpson famously declared that he was absolutely 100% not guilty of committing the double murder. Trouble is, in his oddly titled 1995 book I Want To Tell You (the title would be correct even if the book contained nothing of what he wanted to tell us, because he never said he would tell us) he remarked that he had one thousand percent faith and trust in Nicole’s decisions regarding the kids. So according to Mr. Simpson’s unconventional way of applying percentages, he de facto swore to being ten times less “not guilty” than he’d had faith in his wife, and God knows how much faith that may have been in absolute terms. Oops.

Statement analysis is being used, among other areas of application, in the interrogation of criminal suspects. Imagine a defendant, upon being asked whether he killed his aunt, responding like this:

I’m innocent. I would never do nothing like that. I’m not a cold-blooded murderer.

To the casual listener, this may sound like a forceful denial of the deed. Yet strictly speaking, there’s not a shred of denial within a 50-mile radius of this statement:

In our legal system, everyone is officially innocent until a verdict of guilty has been handed down by a court of law. So yes, at this point the suspect is innocent, whether he killed his aunt or not. And would never do is the opposite direction from have never done. The former refers to the future, the latter to the past. Our suspect also tossed in a little double negative there. So not only is he silent on the past, he’s flat-out saying that whatever he’s accused of, he would do it again. And not being a cold-blooded murderer simply means his present body temperature clocks in at a hale and balmy 98.6°F. He makes no reference to his blood temperature at the time of his alleged crime. For all we can tell from his testimony, his blood could have been anywhere between frozen solid and boiling then. Furthermore, since the term murder connotes premeditation, if the killing was spontaneous, he would neither be nor have been a murderer, cold-blooded or otherwise.

In fine, our suspect may have chopped his hapless aunt to pieces with a bolt cutter and relished every moment of it, yet his statement would be completely truthful on all counts. He did a little verbal tap dance that covered everything plus the kitchen sink, except that he artfully steered clear of denying the killing.

Although I didn’t follow the recent Amanda Knox trial all too closely (the American convicted of murdering her British roommate in Italy), I was struck by this excerpt from her final statement to the jurors:

The first thing to say is that I am not calm. I am afraid of losing myself. I am afraid of being defined as something I am not and by actions that are not mine. I’m afraid of having the mask of a murderer forced on to my skin.

I have no idea what else she said. She may well have denied killing her roommate at a different time or in a different part of this particular address to the jurors. Clearly, though, the above excerpt contains about as much of a denial as it contains a recipe for buttermilk pancakes, yet it was this particular passage which was widely disseminated with no actual denial published in conjuction with it.

When standing trial, lack of calmness and fear of losing oneself most likely attend guilt and innocence alike. Having the mask of a murderer forced onto one’s skin simply means that one was caught–presumably, most murderers are afraid of being caught. And afraid of being defined as something she is not and by actions that are not hers? Alright, so she’s worried she might get charged with witchcraft and the Kennedy assassination in addition to whatever crime or crimes she may really have committed.

What we have here is a beautifully crafted and momentous-sounding statment which, strictly speaking, amounts to a hill of beans, and which, in doing so, incriminates more than it exonerates. This is not to suggest that the poor girl is guilty; only that, unless she’s guilty, her lawyer or whoever else may have been responsible for feeding this particular excerpt to the press should, strictly speaking, be whacked over the head with a bunch of soggy fettuccine.

Before we conclude (when else?) I’d like to–nay, I shall!–quote the great Sherlock Holmes:

It is, of course, a trifle, but there’s nothing so important as trifles.


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  • Andreas

    Have you read Steven Pinker?

    He tackles similarly bizarre tropes, such as: “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.” You hear this at tables all around America every day, and yet it is absurd.

    His answer: Deniability. A lot of our communications are really meant to preserve that.

    • Cyberquill

      I hear that passing the guacamole is a lot easier in California, because there it’s all multiple choice–is that true? You’re not deniabiliting it, are you?

      That’s a dumb question, of course, but people ask lots of dumb questions even without trying to be funny. Like when they ask whether we know or have the time. And Could you tell me the time? is like asking whether we could pass the avocado spread. (We certainly could, but perhaps we don’t want to.)

      I always get a kick when an out-of-towner, instead of asking for directions, asks me if I’m from New York, and then turns around and tries his luck with someone else before I’ve even had a chance to voice the but following my no. (Easier to find a real Apache in Vermont than a native New Yorker in Midtown, so with such brilliant questioning, the poor lost soul will be spending all afternoon chasing after his dopey directions.)

      While many cases of linguistic absurdity seem fairly open-and-shut, it has been my experience that one (meaning I) can get into an awful lot of trouble either by (a) taking what people say too literally and ending up labeled a nitpicky, arrogant smartass, or (b) not taking it literally enough, thus getting accused of sloppy listening and/or of being too dense to retain and follow instructions exactly as they had been presented. In fact, I find that trying to decide whether I’m expected to take literally or to interpret consumes quite a lot of energy when dealing with people in general.

      I highly recommend I Know You Are Lying by Mark McClish. It’s sort of the nitpicker’s Bible with a capital B.

  • Thomas Stazyk

    A brilliant post that could generate a year’s worth of commentary, if only in the ‘I can top that’ genre.

    With respect to opening lines in corporate communications, what is worrisome is that the larger the organization, the more people would have been involved in the drafting and editing (it would have been “run by” them). So I guess the deck is stacked against coherence.

    I remember sitting in a mahogany gilded conference room with a lot of high priced lawyers and consultants and client executives and huge time was spent debating whether the sentence “Would you please respond directly to our Shareholder Relations Department” required a question mark at the end. The argument hinged on the fact that although the sentence was worded as a question, it was really a demand. Finally the boss seemed to remember something his fifth grade teacher told them about interrogatives and, mercifully, the question mark stayed.

    • Cyberquill

      Hmm. I’m feeling a bit … what was the expression? … oh, cognitively dissonant about that question mark. After all, your sentence is a demand, not a question. Although technically an interrogative, to me Would you please close the door from the outside! looks and feels more correct than Would you please close the door from the outside?
      Watch this clip from Glengarry Glen Ross–would you really stick question marks on all the Will you go to lunch’s? (especially the one at 0:50)

      Also, for example, why not in the sense of OK (”Alright. Why not. Let’s go.”) seems to call for a period or an exclamation point rather than a question mark.

      Sometimes interrogative words are simply used as intensives, as in How wonderful! or Why, we’re married, of course! Likewise, I suppose, would you or will you can be used as intensives as well.

      • Thomas Stazyk

        Ahh, Glengarry Glen Ross. Imagine if during the opening pep talk Alec Baldwin said, “Would you please put the coffee down?” Instead of “Put the coffee down.”

        • Cyberquill

          He wouldn’t have said, “Would you please put the coffee down?” He’d have said, “Would you please PUT THE COFFEE DOWN!!!” (And Jack Lemmon could have replied, “Put the coffee down?”)

          • Thomas Stazyk

            They stole the phones? They stole the phones!

  • Douglas

    Let’s outlaw adverbs and unnecessary adjectives, shall we?

    • Cyberquill

      Not sure as to the fate of adverbs, but I hear that various clauses in the pending 2,000-page health care bill ban unnecessary mammograms, tonsillectomies, adjectives, and blog comments, respectively. Let’s just pray it passes.

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