Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Can Words Kill?
In my earlier post on Words Matter, I explored why it matters what we call things. It matters whether we call something a lie or an alternative fact, an alt-right group or neo-Nazis, or even, according to the highway patrols, an accident or a crash. I argued then two points:
The words we use shape our perceptions and attitudes
We have the power to resist
Recent events have made me want to revisit the topic. Words matter, but how much?
Can words kill?
Of course, I’m especially thinking of the case of Michelle Carter, the young woman found guilty of manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. At one point, he got out of the truck that he had filled with exhaust fumes, apparently deciding for himself that he didn’t want to go through with it. His girlfriend texted him. She told him to get back in the truck.
Did she kill him?
She had been encouraging him to kill himself for weeks, according to the record of her messages, and she without a doubt did tell him to get back in the truck. She is obviously young, and she acted foolishly and cruelly.
This case has been notable not only for the apparent heartlessness of the young woman but also for its conclusion that words can kill.
Manslaughter requires that someone act recklessly and with wanton disregard for the likely consequences of the actions. It seems clear to me that Carter’s actions meet that standard. Or she knew exactly what she was doing and was acting not recklessly or with disregard but with full regard for the likely consequences.
Previously (as I understand it from my many non-years of legal training), manslaughter required physical action. The defendant at least had to be physically present to be charged with, much less convicted of, manslaughter. But here is a case where the defendant is not present, except by phone. She doesn’t act, except through text messages and phone calls.
If she killed him, she killed him with words.
The judge focused on that moment when the young man had gotten out of the truck, feeling sick and stopping himself, as he reportedly had done many times before. He reached out to a loved one, a friend or family member, as he reportedly had done many times before. Many times before, those loved ones had said words that discouraged suicide, that reminded him of why he should live. This time, his loved one said words that encouraged suicide, that told him to go through with it.
This time, words killed.
So I’ve got to ask: In previous attempts, did words save him?
If, according to the judge’s verdict, Michelle Carter had the power to kill Conrad Roy III with her words, “Get back in the truck,” do we have the power to save a suicidal friend by the words we use?
That’s a lot of pressure on the family and friends of a suicidal person. Many people have known the pain of saying everything they could think of, offering many words of love and support, and still experiencing the suicide of a loved one. We all know that words are not always enough.
Others have commented that the judge erred in allowing words alone to kill, saying that the young man is the one who got back in the truck, who had bought the equipment, drove to the secluded place and set up the equipment. In the end, the very end, he is the one who killed himself.
But past history showed he wouldn’t have done so if not for the heartless words of Michelle Carter. Had he called someone else, he might still be alive.
Who is responsible?
I wrote before that words shape our attitudes and perceptions, but we have the power to resist.
It’s hard not to think that Michelle Carter’s heartless words and actions contributed to Conrad Roy III’s death. It’s hard not to think that Roy would be alive otherwise. And if words matter, as I and others argue they do, words surely matter in this case.
But do they matter that much?
Because if so, then words are not just shaping but determining, not just powerful but inescapable.
As much as I believe in the power of words, I can’t believe in them that much.
If words have that much power, then language and rhetoric are instruments not just of influence or persuasion but of force.
I started this post thinking that the judge was right, that words can kill, and here is a case where words most definitely killed. After all, how many times had I argued that it matters what we say, that saying is doing, that genres are not just linguistic forms but actions (nod here to genre followers!). How can I say that words matter, that language is action, and not accept that words can kill?
Words act on us, shape us, influence us, create us, but we can resist.
Contrary to the words of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, resistance is not futile.
I preach not only that words matter but that we can become aware of how words shape us and choose to act differently. If we start to notice words, their power shifts. If they depend on a subconscious effect—like the use of pronouns to include some and exclude others—calling attention to them weakens that effect. If they depend on conscious manipulation—like using the pronoun “they” for singular people of any gender identification—calling attention to them gives them the only power they have.
What about Conrad Roy III? Would it have turned out differently for him if he had become aware of how Michelle Carter was using her words to manipulate him? Would it have turned out differently if he had realized that he wouldn’t win the love of this young woman by doing what she told him to do?
Or was he more aware of the power of her words than the news accounts have generally given him credit for? Did he contact her precisely because he knew what her words would be, because he needed, this time, to hear the words that would help him carry out what he had long planned but been unable to complete?
Either way, I find I have to stop short of accepting that words can kill, without other actions accompanying them. Words alone can perjure someone, libel someone, or slander someone, but words alone can’t kill someone.
Words can incite riots, encourage voting, instill hatred, and promote violence. But words alone can’t riot, vote, hate, or shoot someone.
The implications of this case go way beyond what I’ve begun here. And the power of words needs still more exploration.
I don’t buy the schoolyard saying
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”
Words can hurt me. Words can definitely hurt. But there are limits. The case of Michelle Carter and the pitiful Conrad Roy III may just have proved what those limits are.
(Un)Happy Father’s Day
This piece is for all of us without fathers on Father’s Day, whether our fathers died or left us or were never around in the first place.
For those without wonderful fathers on Father’s Day
For Mother’s Day, I wrote about Mother’s Day and Mother’s Day cards, and I shared the difficulties of finding a card for my unconventional mother.
But what about my father?
He died twelve years ago now. I think of him often and miss him terribly. But on Father’s Day, I feel his absence like the big gaping hole in the world that his death created.
Where is the Father’s Day card — or any genre — for my situation? What is there in writing, speech, image, or video to acknowledge, or recognize, or lessen my missing him?
It doesn’t exist.
Where’s the card or any genre for all the others without fathers on Father’s Day? Those with fathers who’ve died, yes, but also those with(out) fathers who’ve left. Or with(out) fathers who’ve never been there.
Shouldn’t there be something to help us through Father’s Day? A card? A ritual? A traditional greeting?
I went looking for one. I thought I would find Father’s Day cards to comfort those whose fathers had died, like I found for Mother’s Day. But my search turned up no such card (doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it does mean that such a card may be hard to find).
I did find websites, images, and blog posts for fatherless children like me, ones whose loving fathers have died. But not one of those images or websites that I could find would be appropriate for those whose fathers were not so loving, or whose fathers were absent, or whose fathers left.
One elegant typescript was “For Those Grieving a Beloved Father.” Another image “For the Fatherless on Father’s Day” showed a man and toddler walking on a beach, the father holding the child’s hand. Tributes abound to wonderful dads, loving fathers, great men. Other sites offer comforting religious quotations.
Social media platforms offer some ways to acknowledge one’s own father, like posting a photo of your father or making him part of your profile photo. That’s one loving way of acknowledging fathers who’ve died, and it might even be becoming a Father’s Day tradition. Father’s Day brings a mixture of pain and joy for those of us whose fathers have died, so it’s good to have a way of sharing the positive memories, too.
But not everyone wants to honor their missing father that way.
Not everyone wants to honor their father at all.
Maybe the rest of us could change our Facebook profile photo for the day to an image of a black hole, a deep well, or an entrance to a dark cave.
So while at least some sites and messages exist to acknowledge that Father’s Day is tough for those whose fathers have died, they still leave others out.
What they don’t seem to acknowledge is how tough Father’s Day is on those whose fathers left them while living, who were never there or were abusive, or who, for whatever reason, didn’t act as loving fathers or wonderful dads, who didn’t walk on the beach holding their toddler’s hands. The children, young or old, who didn’t have wonderful dads to honor or remember.
Those fatherless children find Father’s Day tough, too.
What is there for them?
I’m not trying to bring everybody down. Death is a fact of life. Missing fathers are a fact of life. Two sociologists studied fatherhood in the inner city of Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, to learn why fathers leave. As David Brooks reported in a column in the NY Times, they found most of the fathers wanted to be good fathers, but then fell away in repeated patterns: The pregnancy was unplanned; the parents don’t have a strong bond; each keeps looking for someone to better meet their needs; the parents split; a new man enters the household; the father’s role shifts; he tries again with another woman.
Lots of fathers leave, for lots of reasons — whether those reasons come from accident or divorce, death or life. That leaves lots of children without fathers. Leaving lots of children with pain on Father’s Day.
In the American cultures I know, we don’t deal with pain well, whatever the cause. And we don’t deal with the pain of grief well. And we especially don’t deal well with pain suffered long ago and still hurting. But maybe we could try, for Father’s Day. After all, there are a lot more of us missing fathers than missing mothers, though yes there are mothers who’ve died and left, too.
My plea is for all of us:
For one day, along with celebrating the joy of those children — young or old — who can enjoy the presence of their fathers, let’s just try to acknowledge the pain and grief of those who can’t.
What card, ritual, greeting, or tradition could we come up with?
There could be a tradition of sending a message on Father’s Day to those we know without fathers. A sympathy card, an email, a text message, or even a phone call. We could send each other sad emojis.
Maybe there could be a meme, with missing fathers at the center. Or one featuring strong adults who were fatherless as children.
We could even send flowers to our fatherless friends, recognizing that they might need a reminder of beauty on Father’s Day. Or invite them for a walk on a trail or through a park, letting nature help soothe the pain.
To those, like me, who grew up with loving fathers, Father’s Day has been a happy day, full of appreciation and joy. To all of you, I offer the traditional greeting: Happy Father’s Day!
To those, like me, whose fathers have died, I offer my empathy for the depth of that grief and the reminder of happier memories.
To those whose fatherlessness has been a fact of life rather than death, I offer my sympathy and regret. Even those who survived fatherlessness strong and proud can feel the pain of what could have been but wasn’t.
To all of us, let’s notice and acknowledge each other on Father’s Day instead of keeping awkwardly silent and ignoring the mixture of joy and pain.
Here’s a greeting you’re invited to offer me and others like me living with the absence of a father:
“(Un)happy Father’s Day. I see you.”
You can add a sad emoji if you like
What a week for language and rhetoric nerds like me. James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee led to all sorts of interpretations. What did he say? What did he mean? Who's telling the truth?
But it's not really about who's telling the truth, unless the president ends up testifying under oath that he did not say those words. It's about how he meant what he said. We're constantly interpreting meaning that goes way beyond the words.
Hence one of my favorite sayings:
It’s not what you say. It’s what you mean
Several others have written great analyses of the exchange between the President and FBI Director, as James Comey reported it. One of my favorites so far is Anthony Lane’s essay in The New Yorker on the meaning of “I hope,” not least because he hands off to salivating professors of semantics (linguists who study meaning), who are primed for just such a question.
It’s professors of pragmatics I’d hand off to—experts in the ways cultural context shapes meaning. And professors of rhetoric—experts in the ways people use words to influence other people. Both fields of study can have a field day with this exchange.
What did he mean when he said . . . ?
Depends on the rhetorical context—who was talking to whom, in what setting, on what subject, for what purpose? And cultural norms—how do people in this culture usually get across such meanings?
That brings me to my other favorite piece so far—Nicole Serratore’s op-ed in The New York Times on “James Comey and the Predator in Chief.” She compares Comey’s situation and his responses to the situation of a woman “being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss.” The eerie similarities brought shivers—from Comey’s wondering if he should have been “stronger” to trying to resist the increasing pressure.
Who was talking to whom—a boss to his employee? Or a colleague to another colleague?
In what setting—an awkwardly intimate dinner that was supposed to have a group? Or a casual dinner between soon-to-be friends?
On what topic—an ongoing investigation? Or a personal worry?
For what purpose—to change the course of an investigation? Or to discuss current events?
It’s the participants who know best what the context was, and it’s the participants who best interpret the meaning of what was said. But we can apply our cultural knowledge of roles and relationships and how we talk with one another to make our own reasonable interpretation, to judge the meaning that’s most likely in that situation—that’s pragmatics.
Because we know it’s not what he said, it’s what he meant. And we interpret what he meant by understanding the whole situation, especially situations we’ve encountered before.
As we do all the time in our every day life:
Joe Blow: “Did you get the text I sent you?”
Susie Q: “Oh, sorry. Yes, I do want to go to Pat’s party.”
Why isn’t Susie’s response, “Yes, I did”?
Susie Q: “What time is it?”
Joe Blow: “You’re right, we’d better go!”
Why didn’t Joe tell Susie the time? How rude!!
Amy: “Are you cold?”
Amy’s spouse: [gets up and shuts the window]
It doesn’t take words to show you understand more than someone said.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Sometimes we show that we know what someone means with our silence.
We do this all day long—say one thing on the outside, but mean something apparently quite different on the inside. And the person we’re talking to knows that. And we both know what we mean.
Because we both know it’s what we mean, not what we say, that matters.
It helps if we know each other well and have been interpreting each other’s indirect meanings for years. With new acquaintances, it can be harder to get the nuances. Then we have to depend on the usual cultural meanings and on what we do know of the person.
Did Comey or the President think of all this?
Comey did testify that he started taking detailed notes because of the situation:
A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI's core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.
He was paying attention to who was speaking, in what setting, and on what topic. He was noticing the rhetorical situation.
And describing the meeting where the President asked the attorney general and others to leave the room, Comey was noticing the variation from the usual cultural conventions.
My impression was something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken, and again, I could be wrong, I'm 56 years old, I've been, seen a few things, my sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn't be leaving which was why he was leaving and I don't know Kushner well but I think he picked up on the same thing so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.
He’s “seen a few things” and knew from that experience how to interpret what was to come. What kind of conversation happens after asking everyone else to leave the room? We all know that.
In his article on the meanings of “I hope,” Anthony Lane also referenced the philosopher J. L. Austin’s ground-breaking How to Do Things with Words. Our words don’t just mean; they do.
Our words do things themselves. They perform actions.
“I promise . . .”
“I swear . . .”
“I vow . . .”
“I deny . . .”
“I apologize . . .”
Or we do thing with words, through words—asserting, arguing, informing, asking, answering, insulting, complimenting, taunting, recording, testifying, dodging, threatening, coercing, obstructing
Or wishing and hoping
It’s certainly possible to misunderstand one another’s meaning. We do that every day, too.We have to interpret not just the words but the situation, putting together who is speaking where and when and why and what does it all really mean?
Whether those actions through words add up to something Congress wants to do anything about is a different question.
The Washington Post published an analysis of the 3 major cable news networks and the captions used below their coverage of the live testimony. Each emphasized different statements, whether it was Comey's saying the president lied about the reasons for his firing or his saying the president was not under investigation. Different focus, and probably different interpretations of what it all added up to
But not different words. And not different contexts.
So it may come down not to what did he know and when did he know it, but rather what did he say and what did he mean by it
Because we all know how to do things with words, and we all understand what’s being done
And we all know that it’s not what we say but what we mean that counts.
Lordy, I do hope you understand me
Which English Language?
Do you speak English? Oh really? Which one?
I spent the past three days attending the conference on Studies in the History of the English Language (SHEL). It was the tenth SHEL conference but my first time attending. I had a great time with great people, and I learned about a lot of interesting facts and features of the English language.
“the English language”
Of all the great stuff from the conference, I thought I’d focus this time on those last three words—“the English language.” Because the conference presenters discussed and showed over and over again how misleading that phrase is.
Which English language?
Those are just a few of the Englishes I heard about at the conference.
So when we say “English” which English do we mean?
Even one person’s English has lots of Englishes in it. I can speak fluent classroom teacher talk, and I can write academic scholarly article writing. I hope I can also speak friendly everyday small talk and write more relaxed blog posts without sounding completely like I’m using an academic version of English.
I’m not an oddball (at least not in that way). Everybody speaks and writes multiple Englishes.
The conference presenters also showed that specific bits of language (features) even vary in “English.”
Which of these sentences could you say or write?
My question of which you could say or write is not a question about “right” and “wrong” English. Each of those sentences is a sentence that people DO speak and write. I was just wondering which ones YOU could say or write.
Because all of those sentences have also been said or written in other ways, as the research at the conference showed. The “who” becomes “whom” and “whom becomes “who.” The “whose” becomes “of which” or even “whereof.” Most of us readily say, “It was like,” even if we don’t notice or admit that we do (start listening to yourself and you’ll hear it), and some of us would easily say, “I was like he must be the most un- like sympathetic person to say that.” And commas come and go talking of Michelangelo (sorry for the Prufrock reference, but I can’t say any things “come and go” without wanting to finish with “talking of Michelangelo.”)
So which English is the English language?
The question matters.
One presenter, Peter Carillo, talked about his study of “official English legislation.” Most states in the US have adopted Official English policies, and they often designate “English” as the official language of the state and its government.
But which English?
Peter showed that these laws use the word “English” as if there is one and only one English. As he said,
“English” “is treated as if it is a single, timeless entity”
So the policy of the state of Kansas, my current state, says
“English shall be designated as the official language of the state of Kansas.”
But which English? The academic English I use in my scholarly articles? Or the English that high school boys use in the hallways of Lawrence High School? The English used on the farms of western Kansas? Or the English used on the assembly floor of the Cessna plant in Wichita?
Because saying that “English” is the official language acts as though there is just one English. Which one?
Which English do the legislators mean by “English”? What English has the power to be legislated? Whose English wins?
Many of the talks at the SHEL conference noted the complexity of “the English language” in its many forms and its many places. In fact, as the conference showed repeatedly, “the English language” is really the English languages, or Englishes. But it’s hard not to talk about it as though it’s singular, just English.
Maybe if we treat "English" like "fish." One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. There are many fish in the sea. There are many varieties of English, even if one of them does try to become the big fish in a small pond
Which ponds do you swim in? What English worlds do you inhabit? How many Englishes do you speak and write?