Monday, July 28, 2008

Relying on nuance to complain

When a complaint about language is merely a statement about preference I have no reason to argue against it. I have my preferences too. When it's based on faulty understanding or analysis of language structure or history my response should only go as far as saying that the logic is incorrect. So while the conclusion might still stand it needs a different rationale. But what if the complaint itself doesn't make any sense?

I've mentioned Minnesota Public Radio's Grammar Grater® podcast a couple times before. As I've said before the show is pretty good at not complaining about language abuses. The writers usually accept that language change is not a sign of weakness. And I find no major fault with last week's contribution Episode 56: The Essence of an Expression.

The episode is "inspired" by Bryan from Seattle's very uninspired complaint. They quote him:

I hear time is of the essence all the time, and it's almost always misused. It does not mean we are in a hurry—it comes from contract law, and means that cited dates and times are part of the fundamental trade-offs in the contract, or part of its essence. It means that if something is supposed to happen by noon the next day, before the end of the year is not good enough.

My response: What are you complaining about Bryan? You're saying it means pretty much the same thing. That a task has to be accomplished before a certain point in time.

He gets a fair response. GG turns to the business law expertise of Paul Muilenberg who says The reality is that in almost every case, time is very important essentially means the same thing as we are in a hurry,

Bryan is probably picking on a reading of the phrase to mean 'we are in a hurry' but that's a peevishly chosen reading. The phrase is similar to 'remember there's a deadline' or 'time is running out.' Those are true at any point in a timeline and they don't directly mean 'we are in a hurry' or 'you should hurry up.' But they are really only used when the fact might affect behaviour. It is typically the context that leads the conversation implicature that it's worth noting that time is of the essence because we are uncomfortably close to that essential time.

It's not really the fault of GG but it is pretty clear that the listeners and readers feel it is their job to offer up simple complaints. The comment boards are riddled with peevological rants and opinions. Tho not uniformly. There are also comments disagreeing with the rants or just saying 'calm down.'

It's a fascinating if at times frustratingly common pattern of discussions about language being dominated by those who are just looking to shoehorn a complaint into an observation.

1 comment:

Thanks for reaching out.

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