Tuesday, June 29, 2010

If Words Aren't Important, Why Don't You Make Up New Ones Instead of Using Others to Say What You Mean and Not What They Are Supposed To?

Okay, longest title ever. And that's an answer to something I've heard (stupid) people say when I pointed out that I misunderstood them because of words they used wrongly. (So again, continuing on that theme: would you understand what I mean if I said "gobblygook wrokic majon linow"?  "But they are just nonsense words!" "Exactly.")

One of the most annoying grammatical mistakes I come across is the use of "would" for "will". Yes, do you remember "will"? We all learnt it in school, didn't we? No, "I would go to work" does not mean the same as "I will go to work." In fact, it doesn't mean much, because I'm still waiting for you to complete your sentence and tell me what's stopping you from going to work!

The Guy told me a funny story from work. An Indian colleague was in a meeting with an American colleague, and the Indian asked for advice about a work situation. The American suggested, "I would do ABC." The next day, the American colleague asked if the Indian had, in fact, done ABC. The Indian, of course, was flabbergasted, because hadn't the other said yesterday that he would do it?

And what's this about using words like "propose" and "affair" to mean something they don't mean? You don't propose to someone when you say "I love you". You propose if you ask a question, such as, "Why don't we kill your boyfriend so that I can move in with you?" or "Will you marry me?"

One day I'm chatting to a senior at work and he says, "When I was having an affair..." And I'm trying really hard to not show shock while thinking, "He cheated on his wife? WHY is he telling me? What am I supposed to say?" Thankfully, I am quite good at keeping a poker face, and only let out a smile when I finally realised that he was referring to when he was dating his now-wife.

What else bugs me? This one isn't grammatical as much as it is political. It's men (yeah usually men in my experience, though women might do it too) referring to a person in the abstract (usually a customer - internal or external, or an employee, or some other abstract figure), and using, every single time, the pronoun "he".

I am a woman. In office. Is this fact so difficult to grasp? Look around you. I bet quite a few of your colleagues are women too. Yet saying "she" is so much more difficult, is it? (Now picture me with my face close to yours, saying in my soft dangerous voice, "IS IT?")

Another story from the Guy, this not so funny: he sat in a meeting with a couple of men from his office, and some client contacts. The employee who was presenting went on referring to the user of the product they were discussing as 'he'. But three of the four client contacts were women. Do you want to tell me they didn't notice?

Are you telling me it's so difficult to say "he or she" instead of "he"? Why not use "their"? Oh, it's not grammatical, is it? Come on, language evolves with changing times, and Enid Blyton used this seventy years ago. If you are such a stickler, why not just use 'she' once in a while, and 'he' the rest of the time? (This is my favourite approach.) But you're not a stickler, are you? You're just stupid. If you were a stickler, you wouldn't make the error of saying what you don't mean in the first place. (Of course you don't mean only men can be your clients/employees/whatever. Do you? DO YOU?)


Sue said...

Woah, breathe, girl. I'll link to this in my update today. Thanks for mentioning 'propose' and 'affair'. Those have bugged me forever.

Aneela Z said...

so with you on the " propose" bit...really confusing as I would wonder what was happening to all the commitment phobic people out there.
Thanks for the " lets kill bf and live together" example, you do know I am going to quote you on that A LOT.

When it comes to the s/he issue, you cannot believe how " he" has become part of our common sense truth...Babycentre alternates between using he and she when it comes to the baby and the other day there was a mom who was really upset. Why do they refer to my son as she, hainjee? I dont like using "it" , the best strategy is to alternate between the two....but there are people who get really mad about it.

Unmana said...

Sue: inhale, exhale. inhale...

Aneela: Please do. I'm quite proud of it myself!

So it's okay if you say 'he' when it's a mixed crowd but not if you say 'she'? THAT'S the kind of attitude that makes 'he' the norm in the first place.

starry eyed said...

Ooooooh...I like you when you're raging...and I looove your soft dangerous voice. Nice!

I tend to alternate he and she or use he/she or s/he. Whyever the hell wouldn't anyone refer to half the population?

I ROTFLed at your senior having an affair. That's so common, when people announce their kids''love' marriages..."my son is having an affair and we're marrying him". LOL!

Unmana said...

starry: *grin* Maybe I should do it here more often instead of just forcing the poor Guy to listen.

You know what, I've noticed recently that some people are so used to "he" that they often use "he" when referring to people who are obviously (from their names) female. *sigh*

Sue said...

I'm all for replacing the he/she confusion with 'they', 'them' etc. It felt weird when they introduced it but it's simpler in the long run and people do know what you mean.

Unmana said...

Sue: Yes, I think that makes sense. And it also solves the problem of how to refer to trans folk when you may not be sure.

shub said...

Absolutely. The "would" annoys me no end. It's an Indian thing, isn't it?
As does "affair". The phrase "going around with" too, in fact. I don't know if it is correct usage in the first place.

Sumedha said...

Girls and boys started "liking" each other when I was about 13. At that time, all of us would say a guy has "proposed" to a girl when he went and told her that he "liked" her. It wasn't even that he asked the girl out (and in my neighbourhood, the guy was the one who took the first step). He just told the girl that he liked her. If she liked him back, they would become boyfriend and girlfriend. There was no dating, there was no proposing of any kind. But it was still called a proposal.

At that time, I used the phrase without thinking about it. It seems so dumb now!!

And I'm totally with you on the he/she thing. I've made it a point to usually say "she", which also is a generalisation, but it makes a point to other people. A friend at a temple once smsed me saying "You'll never believe who I met!" My reply said "Did God herself come down and grant you your wishes?" To which he said "You feminist girl". No one would have thought twice if I'd said "God himself".

Unmana said...

shub: I'm not sure if it's an Indian thing. I think I have heard/seen non-Indians say/write it too, but I can't be sure.

Is "going around" not correct either? What is? I like "dating", but it's sometimes not entirely accurate. "Seeing each other"?

Sumedha: Ah yes, those days! But I was used to reading novels, so the first time I heard a friend say "He proposed" when I was about thirteen, I went, "What! They're getting married?!"

I use 'she' that way too. Of course, when you use the male pronoun, that's just normal: when you use the female, you're being an unreasonable feminist.

Anonymous said...

Hey Unmana,
You've been tagged! (and I think this is a tag you'd like to do) ;D