Be Careful What You Say

Debbie Fenton

[This article ran in the May/June 2011 issue of The SCOOP.]

For the first few years of our marriage my husband and I had one longstanding disagreement, and each of us believed the other to be contrary to the point of obsessive compulsion. If, for instance, he wanted to know my vegetable selection for the evening meal he would phrase it as follows: What would you like besides peas? To me, that always meant we were certainly having peas, and I should select an additional vegetable.

Apparently to him the comment 'besides peas' meant that we were out of peas, and that I had a choice of any other vegetable as long as it was not peas. When I sat down to eat, I did not find peas on the menu and the circular conversation would begin once more. It took us an amazing couple of years to discover that when he said 'besides' he meant 'instead of', and when I used that phrase I meant 'in addition to'.

Now I know what you're thinking: she has a husband who makes dinner, what the heck does she have to complain about? I'm not really complaining; I suppose I’m either picking an argument or just marvelling at the English language. How can the same phrase mean two completely opposite things, and how can two relatively intelligent people take so long to figure this out?

Perhaps it is because I have recently restarted my love affair with the French language by taking a conversational class that I am reminded of the many inexplicable nuances of language. Faced with a barrage of questions from a classroom of adult learners struggling to discover and relearn the complexities of a language we haven't studied since high school, our frustrated teacher, trying to explain yet another anomaly in the grammar, only half-jokingly proclaimed: Because I said so!

It suddenly made sense to me — nothing in a language really plays by the rules all the time. Imagine trying to explain to a newcomer to the English language why we pronounce the words: bough, dough, rough as we do. And what is the rule that dictates that we cut a tree down, in order to chop it up? And it is 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' ... with the proviso of many exceptions. How do we explain that it makes perfect sense in English to say to the person on the phone: My wife will be down as soon as she is up? And don't even try to think about explaining the huge difference between a house cat and a cat house!

There is an old joke about a bridge game in which new players are introducing themselves to each other. Naturally, this turns to, “And what do you do?” “I'm a doctor,” says one, “I'm a lawyer,” says another, “I'm a scientist” states a third.” The fourth proclaims that she is a high school English teacher. An awkward hush falls on the crowd, and one of the first three, after a pause, asks “Okay, whom deals?”

I remember once trying to explain to a class that 'whom' was not 'who' wearing a tuxedo, dragged out of the nether regions of the subconscious when trying to impress the listener. To no avail.

To many of us language has become such a habit we don't even hear ourselves talking; we're just filling up space with phrases. I remember my husband coming home from a hardware store one time. He was amused and perplexed all at once. He had just purchased road hockey balls which our dogs love to chase and swim to retrieve. We lose several of these a year since the dogs suddenly tire of the game and the current takes them downstream. He had decided to buy in bulk, and purchased two dozen of them. The clerk looked up helpfully and asked automatically (because she had been trained so well), “Would you like these in a bag?” Now imagine for a minute the alternative.

I suddenly had a vision of my husband adeptly juggling two dozen orange balls as he proceeded through the parking lot, dodging traffic and opening the trunk without losing rhythm, in order to deposit his purchase.

Enjoy the many nuances of language, but think before you speak. Why? Because I said so!