Words Matter (II)

December 14, 2008

From an article in today’s NY Times Magazine on DFW and philosophy:

“It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

His conclusion:

“If Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.”

The greatest defense against a philosophically unsound argument made to appear sound by semantics is, I’d say, a strong grasp on language and its workings.  I’m not perfect on this by any means — but I doubt anyone truly is, especially in conversation.   Still, I fight like hell for those last few vestiges of the English subjunctive and against the laziness of declaring two words “synonyms” and just leaving it at that.  Words have meaning, and those meanings are important; syntax infuses meaning into sentences, and this meaning is important as well.  We’re not just more articulate and intelligent when we grasp these points: we protect our language — and therefore ourselves — from abuses and manipulation.

One of the difficulties of being a native speaker (of any language, probably) is that we don’t think so much about syntax and grammar — it just seems natural.  I’ve learned more about English grammar from Latin and Greek than anywhere else, and that’s not the fault of my English teachers.  But we do need to think about it, or to be capable of it, when we’re approaching complex and complicated thoughts — the ones where nuance really matter.  So why study a foreign language, even if you’re intent on never using it after finishing the course?  To learn something important about the one you are using every day.

I really can’t stand it when I hear someone try to excuse linguistic laziness and/or ignorance with a claim along the lines of, “Well, I’m not reading Shakespeare every day, so what does it matter?”  Let’s set aside Shakespeare for a moment — he’s important, but secondary here.  It’s about communication — Forster’s imperative to connect fits in here somewhere — and the English language has at least a millenium’s experience and wisdom more than anyone alive.  We ignore it at our peril.

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