You know what you mean, but does anyone else?

Image credit: Conceptdraw

English is a non-inflected language, which means we rely on word-order and clarity of exposition in order to make our thoughts clear to others. In an inflected language such as Russian, word-order doesn’t matter as much because word-endings tell us precisely who is doing what to whom. In English, word-order and clarity are essential for comprehension. This seems obvious, but it’s often forgotten in practice.

John gave the ball to Peter is entirely different from Peter gave the ball to John. We all know this, but that doesn’t stop us from saying things such as “he gave the ball to him.” Here, the information embedded within word-order is completely lost due to the infelicitous use of pronouns.

Sentences, in theory, require at a minimum subject, object, and verb. In real life, however, things often don’t run so smoothly.

I once sat in a small boutique San Francisco coffee shop for over an hour, during which time two thirty-something women behind me were engrossed in a conversation that ran like this:

“So I was like, totally, and she was like, you know?”

“And then I was like, hey, and she was like, sure!”

“So then we were like, there, and she was like, you know?”

“Why not, right? So then we were like, all, let’s go for it!”
“Me too!”

Even after an hour of unwillingly listening in to their conversation I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

In context, however, it was obviously unimportant that no meaningful information was exchanged. We humans, like other group primate species, use mutual grooming to establish and reinforce social bonds. Unlike chimps, we don’t pick salt and insects out of each other’s hair; we perform social grooming using words. The two women in the coffee shop were simply making noises that were intended (whether they realized it or not) to reinforce their relationship.

Human males do precisely the same thing, often using sport as the nominal subject of the conversation, as per:

“Did you see the game last night?”
“Sure did!”
“Man, I can’t believe we traded Karzinscky for DeLong!”

“Me neither! What a fumble!”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“I mean, what was Coach Drubbings thinking about, right?”

Although the sports-oriented conversation has more formal structure and it’s just about possible to follow the logical flow, it’s also apparent that the nominal purpose (discussing the sporting event) is subordinate to the real purpose of social grooming.

When we’re using language for the primary purpose of communicating, however, our habitual imprecision becomes a liability. This is especially true when we’re writing, because the reader will have little or no opportunity to seek clarification. In conversation the listener has (at least in theory) the chance to ask, “Wait a minute, who said that?” or “Who pushed her into the pond?” whereas a reader is constrained to search for meaning entirely within the text in front of them.

When we write, it’s important for us to remember that writing is not the same as thinking. We need to be conscious of the words we write because it’s very possible they may not adequately convey the thoughts in our head. We often see problems of this type when we look at the writings that have come down to us from semi-literate societies.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe returned to being largely a feudal pre-literate society. The Catholic Church became the most powerful organization in western Europe because it had the power of fear, a trans-national structure, and a near-monopoly on literacy. Monks became the means whereby events were recorded for posterity. Usually these events were focused around the Church itself, such as the appointing of new bishops or the consecration of a new building. History was thus, for nearly five hundred years, largely a record of ecclesiastical matters. The literary skills of these monks were limited and any conception of a reader lacking strong contextual knowledge was absent because the monks were writing for other monks just like them.

In Britain, four major chronicles are known to have survived, the most important of which is what we call the Peterborough Chronicles. This is of course generally a record of Church matters but sometimes the outside world intrudes, so that in the entry for AD775 we have the following:

Then upon the morrow, his thanes, whom he had left behind him, heard that he was slain, then rode they thither, and Osric his ealdorman, and Wiferth his thane, and the men whom he had previously left behind. And at the town wherein he lay slain they found the etheling, and those within had closed the gates against them; but they then went onward. And he then offered them their own choice of land and money if they would grant him the kingdom, and showed them that their kinsman were with him, men who would not desert him.

It’s pretty clear that this sensational news was so important that the monk rushed to his desk and began to write, eager to spill the information onto parchment as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he committed a cardinal error: he forgot that the reader wouldn’t have access to the pictures inside his head. As a result, the over-use of pronouns makes it exceedingly difficult for us, all these years later, to work out who is doing and saying what to whom.

In everyday speech it’s not uncommon for us to make the same type of mistake. We forget that while we may have a reasonably clear idea of what’s happening, our interlocutors are entirely dependent on us making those relationships obvious.

“I told him it wasn’t his so he had to give it back to him but he liked it so much he said he’d buy him another one instead.”

Here we have absolutely no idea whatsoever what’s going on. But conversely, with a little care, we can instead provide:

“I told John the toy wasn’t his, so he had to give it back to Michael. But John liked the toy so much he said he’d buy Michael another toy instead.”

It’s often very difficult for us to operate consistently with the knowledge that others are not automatically privy to the information necessary to decipher our utterances. Often, when we’re merely taking part in social grooming, it doesn’t matter. But when we’re trying to convey information, it matters very much. And of course the in-between case can also cause great frustration: when one person is essentially performing social grooming while the other person thinks the intent is to convey information.

Occasionally, vagueness can be intentional. The author Henry James cultivated an intentional obscurity in his prose for the purpose of inducing uncertainty in the reader. His aesthetic of “the figure in the carpet” shaped the manner in which he wrote most of his books including his novel of the same title as well as well-known works such as The Bostonians, What Masie Knew, The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl. A literary critic once joked that James’ aspiration was to write an entire chapter in a single sentence, the precise meaning of which would elude even the most assiduous reader.

Most of us, however, aren’t aiming for a recondite literary effect. So it’s important for us, most especially when we are writing, to put ourselves into the position of a reader and ask ourselves: if this was the only information I had, would I be able to know what is going on?

One very useful technique is to re-read what we’ve written and systematically remove pronouns.

“It wasn’t important, she said” can be transmuted into the more informative “Jane told Sue that Carolyn’s choice of hat wasn’t important.”

In time and with assiduous practice, the habit of precision can become second nature. It’s a habit our readers will appreciate, even if they are unaware of the fact as they effortlessly read our suitably explicit texts.


Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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