Home Languages

Excerpt from Chapter 21

Meaning Quicksand


To all the language curmudgeons out there who insist that people ought to speak more logically, I say, be careful what you wish for. You go on about the "logical" mismatch between "everyone" and "their" in perfectly normal sounding sentences like "Everyone clapped their hands." You argue that phrases like "very unique" and "sufficiently enough" don't make logical sense. You harp on "hopefully" and "literally" and "the reason is because," all the while calling logic to your side to defend your righteous anger. Before you judge me as some kind of "anything goes" language heathen, let me just say that I'm not against usage standards. I don't violate them when I want to sound like an educated person, for the same reason I don't wear a bikini to a funeral when I want to look like a respectful person. There are social conventions for the way we do lots of things, and it is to everyone's benefit to be familiar with them. But logic ain't got nothin' to do with it.

And oh, how grateful I am. Do you know how good we have it, how much easier our speaking lives are made by the fact that language and logic part ways? Consider the word "and." Why, you barely have to know what you mean when you say it! When you say you “like ham and eggs” do you have to specify whether you like each of those things as evaluated on its own merits separately or whether you like them served together as an entrée? No. You just lazily throw out your "and" and let context do the rest of the work for you. When you say you “woke up and ate breakfast” do you mean that you woke up first and then ate breakfast? Or did you do the two things simultaneously? Or, maybe your breakfast was asleep, so you woke it up and then ate it. Pshaw, you say. You know what I mean. Perhaps I do, says the Lojbanist. Perhaps I don’t.
Designed by Alex: a mad dreamer and big fan