Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Impossibility of Saying What We Mean

I found the quotation, below, scribbled on a piece of paper. Does it make sense to you? It makes perfect sense to me, but then I have spent years of my life contemplating how easy it is to reach colossal misunderstandings with others. I suspect that I copied this from something by Vardis Fisher, the little known but worthwhile American novelist. Probably from his book "God or Ceasar."

"In no language can we say what we mean. We conform what we mean to the limitations of the language(s) we happen to speak."

If Fisher didn't say this, it is very like something I know he said in "God or Ceasar"about English not being a precise language. If you don't qualify what you mean very carefully, you will regularly be misunderstood. Fisher advised the writer to keep this in mind. It is one of the reasons for re-reading your own writing before sending it out into the world. On second reading—or third, or fourth—you will probably catch an ambiguity that you didn't think about when you were writing your letter, essay or story. You didn't see it when you were writing it because you knew what you meant, of course. There was no ambiguity in your mind, just in your careless choice of words, and that could only be recognized when you stood back and read your own words with more remove, if not quite the eyes of a stranger.