Tag Archives: pragmatics

Prayers and thoughts and inefficacious speech acts

My latest article for The Week is actually one I wrote a few months ago. We decided to keep it in reserve until another mass shooting brought the topic into the news again. Sadly, we knew that it would happen. And it did. Here’s a piece on that thing that people say as a substitute for doing anything effective:

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became the stock phrase of tragedies



They made a podcast. I know, right?

Sometimes when the weather gets so summery I just get so busy summering that I forget things I did a while ago and sent off. I know right? Well, here’s one: a podcast version of my article on “I know, right?” It’s a nice reminder of how much of what we say is verbal gesture rather than literal denotation.

‘I know, right?’: The anatomy of a wonderfully nonsensical phrase

I know, right?

My latest piece for The Week is about a currently popular expression. It’s idiomatic, and when people hear it they understand it, but some people still insist it makes no sense. …I know, right? Read it here.

What we pay with in word country

In word country, words aren’t just what you buy. You can pay with them too. Not word by word, mind you; a word by itself usually doesn’t work as payment in a value exchange, except for words like “Thanks.” What people want are words in sentences. Words that signify obligations and expectations and negotiate status levels. The economy of social interaction.

This is pretty plain once you see it in action. Every child is taught it: a request with “please” in it is usually worth a little more than the same request without “please” because “please” acknowledges that you don’t have the right to make flat demands, so it doesn’t borrow as much status from the other person. And an indirect request, which allows the other person more latitude, costs you less – is worth more – than a direct request, which demands more of the other person.

Consider Mark, a word grower. He’s tending his words one afternoon in harvest season. He’s by the side of a dirt road, not too far out of town. People walk past every so often. Mark hasn’t set up a stand. He’s not out to sell his words to people who just walk past. But people come out this way not just to listen to the susurrus of the syntax trees and relax in the penumbra of a lexis vine, awaiting Morpheus. There is always the hope of some fresh words to bite into.

“Are you selling words?” A young guy in a hat and T-shirt is standing at road’s edge, looking down at Mark, who is busy pulling some weeds.

“Nope,” Mark says. He’s pretty laconic: he’s not in the business of giving words away for free either.

The guy strolls along a bit but doesn’t really go away. He stands inspecting a particular plant. “Some mighty nice-looking words you got here. Are these Greek roots here?”

“Latin,” Mark says, without glancing over.

“Could I buy one from you?”

Mark jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a guy with a stand up the road.”

Offer made and deflected without any direct request or rejection. You see: not “Sell me one” and “No, go buy from him.” Much less exposure and demand. This is all small-coin stuff.

“I’ve seen his stuff. Yours looks a lot nicer.” There’s something you can pay: a compliment. Coin in the bank.

Mark can see this guy isn’t going to go away so readily either. He stands up, looks up and down the road. He doesn’t want to commit to selling to anyone else. But there’s someone coming. More than one person, in fact. “If you can wait a few minutes, I might have something I can spare,” he says. Low commitment, low demand: not “Wait a few minutes and I’ll sell you something.”

“Okay, thanks.” The guy wanders just a little ways away and looks at the plants.

A young woman approaches. She is what one calls winsome and sporty. She has just a little bit of playfulness and naughtiness in the way she smiles as she walks up, stops abruptly, stands with her hands knit together behind her bum, leaning her chest forward. “Hi.”

Mark gives her an elevator look: top floor to bottom floor, back to top. He wipes his dusty hands on his jeans. “Good afternoon. Something I can do for you?” So far he’s gotten one word out of her and already he’s offering. This is because she has more that he wants: he likes looking at her and talking to her. Attraction is already partial payment.

“You wouldn’t have any words you could sell me today, would you?” She’s offering him lots of latitude. This is bigger payment than a simple request. She puts him in charge.

“Well, I don’t know…” It’s not that he doesn’t want to sell to her, and it’s not that he doesn’t know, either. He just doesn’t want to put himself in a weaker position with that other guy there, who can see this going on, and he also wants to draw out the interaction with this girl. He’ll get as much interaction as he can from her in exchange for some fruits of his labours. “I might have something.”

The girl wanders up to a vine. “These look nice. What are these?”

“Anglo-Saxon,” he says, and is about to step over and show her more closely, but a man wearing sunglasses and an expensive-looking suit has just walked up. Mark wants to ignore him but it’s too late; he’s already glanced at him.

The man pulls a fiver out of his pocket. “One word. I’ll have that one.” All demand, no payment – not in words, even if he’s offering money.

“No,” Mark says.

“I want that word. Give me that word.”

“I’m not a roadside word stand.” Mark isn’t interested in accepting this guy’s high-status positioning at all. If you let that sort of thing pass, it’s like giving a person a permanent line of credit that they don’t have to pay back.

“You’re selling to her.” He gestures at the young woman.

“I’m talking to her.” Pause. “She’s a lot nicer than you are.” Pause. “I already have buyers for all my words. There’s a guy down the road who has a stand.”

The guy thrusts his fiver at Mark. “That one,” he says, pointing.

“If you want Anglo-Saxon words, I can give you a couple you might already be familiar with.” Pause. “Go. Away.” The guy hasn’t once given anything of value to Mark. Mark doesn’t need the fiver, and there’s been no deference, no inconvenience on the guy’s part, nothing that advantages Mark or disadvantages the potential buyer. And he’s taking up Mark’s time.

“Some businessman,” the guy grumbles as he starts away, a last little shot to see if he can get Mark to open up a vulnerability, at least keep talking. But Mark just snorts a little as he turns back to the young woman. If he spent all his time taking fivers for a word at a time he wouldn’t have much of a business at all.

“So tell me about this one,” the young woman says, gently touching a nimshite.

“You don’t want to get any of that on you,” Mark says. He gently pulls her hand slightly away from it, which is exactly what she had designed the gesture for, and he knows it. Physical contact with an attractive person: that’s definitely coin of the realm. It may not be words, but it’s communication too. Value is given. “That’s not a word you can use in too many places. It’s rather rude. Crude.”

“What kinds of words are you growing here?” She steps back a bit and looks over the lot. She’s demanding time and information from him, but in this case it’s welcome because it puts him in the role of knowledge giver to someone he might want to have a positive balance with, and because she’s paying him something he wants from her: attention.

“Well, aside from the Anglo-Saxon, we have some Greek rootstock, lots of Latin rootstock, and I have a section over here that I’m really fond of, some borrowings from East Asia. Including some really interesting hybrids.” He starts walking towards that row and gestures forward. He doesn’t pat her on the back to encourage her to go forward: that might cost him a bit. “I like these ones. Here, look at this.” He points to sarariman. “And this.” Beisuboru. “Loans from English into Japanese. I’m looking at bringing them back into English.”

“Crafty!” she says. “Oh, what’s this one?” Bakkushan. “Could you spare this one?” She glances sideways at him, her head tilted slightly down: a submissive gesture. He knows he’s being played, but it’s fun, at least for now.

“Trust me,” he says. “You don’t want that one. It looks good at first, but I wouldn’t give it to my friends.” He doesn’t say “I wouldn’t give it to a friend” because that might seem too much like he’s calling her a friend. But he did say “give” – not “sell.” He’s loosening his position.

She makes a pouty little moue. She’s playing it maybe a bit too much: now it’s clear that she’s angling for something she wants, not just to spend time with him, so her currency is devalued slightly.

“These are interesting but not all that useful. You can sink your teeth into them, but you might find they don’t go with a whole lot of things.” He gestures towards the Latin section. Lots there that he can spare. That stuff grows like zucchini, courgettes, marrows. Cross-breeds spontaneously with the Greek stuff too.

They walk in that direction, a few accidental-on-purpose contacts between hands and hips as they walk. Just a little more flirting. He can’t be sure it’s of value to her other than for persuading him, but it’s of value to him and he’ll take it for a little longer before getting back to work. He’s not bored quite yet.

“Ooh! Look at this one!” She darts ahead. “I’ll take this one!” Before he can stop her, she’s run up to a word and grabbed it. “Callitrix! I love it! Like two little girls, Callie and Trix! So crisp and smooth and fast and stylish and… feminine! Oh, I just love it!”

Mark stands there, looking at her, lips pursed slightly. She’s overstepped a little, not paid enough respect in this interaction: her direct and demanding approach has taken money off her balance. But it’s done. He can’t unpick the word. He would have liked it to grow a little more – it’s riper with an h after the t, callithrix. But no point in saying that now.

She knows she’s presumed just a touch too much. But she doesn’t want to risk refusal now. She smiles at him, eyebrows lifted. Then she says “Thank you,” darts over and kisses him on the cheek, and scampers off.

Well. That was a brief bit of entertainment. And not all that expensive. And…

The young guy in the hat has been watching from nearby. He takes a few languid steps up, looking at the young woman as she scurries away. At first he’s not sure what sage or witty observation to make. Mark remains tacit. At last the young man says, “Hope you got a good price for that.”

Mark smiles a little. “If she’d given a little more she might have gotten a little more. Such as the definition of the word.” She gets less value, and he gets a little boost: even if she left with a bit of upper hand, he has the upper hand in the long run because he knows she might be in for a little surprise. Heh.

“What was the word?”


The guy starts to laugh. “A little monkey.”

“Business,” Mark says.

“At least she didn’t take this one,” the guy says, pointing to meretrix.

Mark smiles. The young man has shown some interest and a certain degree of knowledge. A common bond is always worth a little something. He gestures towards the crop. “And what were you hoping might be ready for picking?”

“I’m just saying…”

Passive aggression has a currently popular byword – or byphrase: I’m just saying (sometimes I’m just sayin’). It goes into the pantheon of disingenuousness with “Don’t get me wrong,” “Don’t get angry but,” and “present company excepted.”

A person who says something that they then proclaim to be “just sayin’” is giving a point of view that they clearly think should be acted on – advice that they feel the other person needs to hear and heed. But conversational interactions have an economy of status exchanges and give-and-take. You can’t say just whatever you want to whoever you want in whatever way you want; some utterances can only be said to those who are of lower status, or on whom you have some claim, or who owe you something, or who have given you permission to demand things of them.

If you recognize that your attempt to influence a person’s behaviour approaches them too much from above, as it were – you don’t really have the right to give them such bald instructions on how to live their lives – and that they may take umbrage to your positioning of yourself in their regard (and perhaps already have), you have to acknowledge that you don’t have the right to expect them to follow your dictates. This is why we use indirect forms for politeness: “Would you mind closing the window?” rather than “Close the window.”

So you may say “I’m just saying” to pretend that your utterance is nothing more than an act of speaking with no directive effect implied. Sort of like “No, of course you can take as long as you want. I’m just drumming my fingers.” The point is to pretend that you’re not doing what you’re doing, because you both know you don’t actually have the right to do it. It’s an entirely unnecessary disclaimer for those who actually do have a claim: it would be odd for a parent to say to a child “Your room looks messy. I’m just saying,” and odder still for an officer to say to a private “Soldier, your tie needs straightening. I’m just saying.”

It’s not out of the realm of reason, of course, for people to make suggestions for other people’s behaviour when they have no real claim on the others. We expect as much from our friends. We often give them the explicit right to say such things as “Don’t wear a bowtie! You’ll look like a dork!” But this is something that is negotiated individually, and sometimes you just don’t have the right to give the directions you want to give. There are various ways to disclaim, to adjust the status position, to make an even exchange in the conversational economy:

“Interesting. You’re wearing a bow tie!” [expresses surprise, implying that it is unusual in your experience, but not giving any direction]

“I wouldn’t have thought you would wear a bow tie for this.” [a statement of opinion, but without elevating the opinion; it leaves an opening for response]

“Are you sure you want to wear that?” [puts the speaker in the response-requesting position, which is a deficit stance and gives control to the respondent, while at the same time implying an instruction]

“May I suggest a straight tie for this evening?” [requests permission, putting the speaker in the lower-status deficit position, and gives the option of a negative response]

But of course each of these has its clear implied direction, its tug. The hearer knows very well what you’re doing when you say them. There is the ostensible deniability, which preserves the ostensible status relations and balances the economy, but you’re saying it for a reason. Even if you pretend you’re not.

The hearer knows this very well because we all know very well that all saying is doing. Every act of utterance is an act, an action. You are doing it because you have something you want to accomplish, an effect you want to produce, in response to a need or a stimulus. Even the simplest bit of abstract information is shared because you feel it will be useful to the other person, or it will make you sound smarter, or it’s your turn to fill a gap in the conversation, or you want to recruit affirmation of your interests for personal validation and/or social bonding, or or or… You no more “just say” anything than you “just punch” or “just kiss” someone without any implication or expectation of effect or response.

There are, thus, the following points of disingenuousness in I’m just saying:

I’m – The speaker is attempting to disclaim any real personal action, involvement, or effect, but of course he or she is directly involved.

Just – There is no “just saying” in the sense of “only saying,” and when you pretend there is, you are not saying justly, i.e., rightly and righteously.

Saying – Words are not physical force, but they exist precisely so that a person can have an effect on another person without physical involvement. They also allow us to cover more abstract topics in our quest to increase and consolidate our intellectual mastery of our world. Saying is doing.

So. Why am I saying all this? Just so you know…

This statement is false

Last weekend my brother and I were discussing the statement “This statement is false.” Today a colleague mentioned a similar statement, “The following statement is true. The previous statement is false.” Another colleague likened this kind of pure self-contradiction to the Cretan paradox, also known as the Epimenidean paradox: the statement “All Cretans are liars” said by a Cretan, which would seem to be a false if it’s true and true if it’s false.

But the difference between the Cretan paradox and pure self-contradiction is that the Cretan paradox has a real-world referent. It makes a statement about something external to the assertion. Pure self-contradiction has no real-world referent. It makes an assertion about nothing other than itself and thus has no truth value ascertainable.

As it happens, the source of the Cretan paradox is something Epimenides wrote in support of the immortality of Zeus:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides was himself a Cretan. Thus we know through simple pragmatics that he must have been excluding himself without saying so. To treat it as a paradox is to be disingenuous. It’s fun sport, but in the end it just shows one of the things you can’t do in logical reasoning.

Statements such as the Cretan paradox are an illusion caused by conflation of one level of analysis with a higher level of analysis: an evaluation of the members of a set cannot itself be a member of the set evaluated; evaluation is a comparison of something against one or more criteria from an external perspective – what is being analysed is subsumed within its perspective. Once we acknowledge that the statement “All Cretans are liars” cannot be part of the set of statements evaluated (making it thus a simple problem in pragmatics rather than a trick of logic), we identify an unstated assumption that makes it function, without which we get a sort of Escher staircase illusion, something that can’t exist in the real world.

But with mutually evaluative statements such as the pure self-contradictions, each must be on an evaluative level above the other – each must subsume the other within its perspective. And at the same time each has no further reference; it has no claim to truth or falsehood as the set of all other statements by Cretans does (and as that set’s members individually do).

Analyzing an utterance or set of utterances is like weighing an object. In order to weigh an object, you have to lift it (or anyway support it) and you have to be resting on something that is not part of what you are weighing. In the Cretan paradox, we see that the statement that pretends to be part of the set of Cretan statements is actually weighing them and so cannot be part of them; it is evaluating them against their real-world references – that’s what it’s resting on. In the mutual contradiction case we’re looking at, each is weighing the other, and neither rests on anything else, because neither is being evaluated against anything external to itself. It’s like two dudes trying to lift each other simultaneously. In empty space.

Meaning in human communication, ultimately, is not a question first of all of logic; it is a question first of all of pragmatics. All communication is behaviour; when you utter something, you are doing something with the aim of producing a certain effect. The person hearing you will be conjecturing what effect you are trying to produce and responding accordingly. Logic helps serve this function, but pragmatics is the true basis. And the pragmatic value of things such as paradoxes is sport – mental play, fun. And a demonstration of the invalidity of certain kinds of reasoning.

Sears and the cooperative principle

Last week I was in a Sears store in downtown Toronto. I had in mind that I needed some more socks and, lo and behold, they had SALE signs all over their socks racks. I went up to a rack of multi-packs. The sign said, buy 1, get 25% off; buy 2, get 30% off, buy 3, get 35% off. Now, their socks were not outstanding prices, but when you knocked that much off it was persuasive. I selected two packs of three socks and took them up to the cash. The girl rang them up. The price seemed a bit much. I asked her what it came to before tax (just in case my math had been wrong). She explained that the sale didn’t apply to multi-packs.

I said, “Well, I’m not buying them” and took them back to the rack, about four metres away. As I was hanging them back up, I said, “Why would you do that? Now I’m not buying the socks, and you’ve just pissed me off.” One of her co-workers came over and helpfully pointed to the line of 8-point type at the bottom of the sign saying that multi-packs and certain brands were excluded. I pointed out that the sign was on a rack that had nothing but multi-packs on it. Now, why would you put up a sale sign on a rack that did not have any items on it that were on sale? A reasonable person would simply not expect that. Effectively, the sign that proclaimed in large type that these socks were on sale had, in print you had to lean close to read, “except everything.”

Sure, sure, caveat emptor. Well, I didn’t buy, and – having heard about a similar experience my wife had – I don’t now really have any inclination to shop at Sears. So caveat vendor. That was a stupid thing for them to do.

But of course you don’t expect me just say that and leave it be, do you? That’s not what this blog is about. Naturally, I’m going to explain why it was a stupid thing for them to do and how that all works. Continue reading