Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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