Wag the dog… on thought and language


The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris


It seems pretty obvious that the way we think influences our language. What is less obvious is that our language also influences the way we think.


I remember having an argument once with my mother over whether it is possible to think without using words. She said it wasn’t, and I thought it was. Looking back, I think the real basis of our disagreement may have been a difference in what we each meant by the word “think.” To my mother, it just wasn’t really thinking if it didn’t involve words. It was something else, something more nebulous, like feeling, perhaps, or something more primitive, like reacting. On the other hand, I’m darn sure I can think without words. I’m reminded of the fact every time I get stuck because I can’t think of the right word for whatever I’m trying to say. I know I’m looking for a word that means just exactly… well, that… and it seems that there must be one, or at least there ought to be one…


Does that ever happen to you?  (Let’s see a show of hands…)


I’m getting off the subject, but the point is that our language and our thought processes are very intimately connected.  So much so that we often make the mistake of thinking that a thing must exist simply because we have a word for it – or that a thing must be possible just because we can say that it is. We fall into the error of believing that words or phrases define the world, rather than merely being imperfect tools used to describe it.


Safe.”  I once read an entire book on the subject of “acceptable risk,” the whole point of which was that nothing is absolutely safe – totally without risk of any kind. Yet people who ask, “is it safe?” routinely expect to be given a yes or no answer. When the doctor, scientist, or government official comes back with, “the levels are too low to pose a significant health hazard,” people aren’t satisfied. The think that’s weasel-wording, or government-speak for, “we want you to think it’s safe, even though it really isn’t.” In fact, the poor guy is just doing his best not to lie to you.

Other words like “clean” and “pure” – or any word that implies some absolute condition – have similar limitations. Did you know there is a maximum number of insect parts allowed per standard volume of ketchup? Yuck! Why doesn’t the government insist that there not be any insect parts in there? Because there is no possible way in any real universe for the manufacturer to insure that there won’t be any. The best you can do is to establish a level that is as low as possible while still being reasonably achievable.

Freedom.” Increasingly cavalier use of this word as a thing that is always desirable and good is saddling it with so much emotional baggage that it’s in danger of becoming an empty shibboleth – a catch-word thrown about to make you feel good, hook your emotions, or convince people that someone is on the “right” side. We’re starting to believe that freedom is always good, and so anything that limits anyone’s freedom must automatically be bad.  In fact “freedom” really just means the absence of coercion or constraint in any choice or action. In short, it means being able to do what you want. This is fine as long as it’s you getting to do what you want, but what if it’s someone else and what he wants to do is to hurt you? It’s perfectly legitimate linguistically to talk about freedom to rob, freedom to rape, freedom to kill, etc. We’ve begun to think that “freedom” is a treasured value of our democracy when in fact it is specific freedoms, such as freedom of speech, that are our treasured values.

There are two questions you always should ask when you hear the word “freedom” being bandied about: Whose freedom are we talking about? And, freedom to do what, exactly?

I heard a sound bite in which a member of the U. S. Congress said something like, “government should protect our freedom, not tell us what to do.”  I’m sorry; a government that doesn’t tell us what to do creates a society with no rules. And who is likely to benefit in the absence of rules? The strong, the rich, and the clever will benefit for starters – also the irresponsible, the unprincipled, and the ruthless. Government can’t protect any freedoms for the weak, the poor, and the well-meaning but perhaps a bit naive nice guys, except by curtailing some of the freedoms of those who would otherwise take advantage of people less able to defend their own freedoms.

Making money.” Let’s face it, the only people, apart from counter-fitters, who actually make money are the people who work in a mint. The rest of us don’t make money, we acquire it from other people – hopefully in exchange for having done an appropriate amount of useful work, or having provided the other person with a product of appropriate value. Why make this point? Because the word “make” implies something is being produced or created, and it’s hard to see any possible moral issue with that kind of activity. Once you realize that all the money you’ve accumulated came ultimately from other people – directly or indirectly – it puts things in a different light.

We can all be rich.” While it’s possible to say this, it isn’t actually true, because the word “rich,” in monetary terms, is defined as one end of a scale. “Rich” has no meaning in the absence of “poor.”  Simply put, “rich” implies having significantly more money than a significant number of other people. We could potentially all be prosperous, since “prosperous” implies having enough to meet one’s needs, with some to spare. I think we could all achieve that, especially if we helped each other. Yet I heard that half of the 2012 college graduates in a recent poll expressed a desire to become rich. I don’t blame them; I blame us older folks who are giving them the wrong message. We use “rich” in a non-monetary sense to mean all kinds of good things, from “a rich cream sauce,” to “a rich cultural heritage.” We’ve lost track of the negative moral implications of becoming rich monetarily. (There was something about camels fitting through narrow openings…)

With that, I think I’ve probably gotten myself into quite enough trouble.


Clarity First – on understanding one another

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substra...

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substrate for Natural Language Understanding ] (Photo credit: brewbooks)


I think I’ve already said that clarity is the first priority in communication (especially written communication, which potentially could transcend the ages). I’ll probably say it again. What I won’t say, though, is that there’s no excuse for not being clear. There are lots of excuses.

Here are some of the things that limit clear communication:


  1. Language is an imperfect tool under the best of circumstances. It was invented by a bunch of rank amateurs, using a process of trial and error, and is constantly being reshaped by its users, most of whom are also amateurs. It’s a complex system of sounds/visual code associated with meaning, and while we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our language necessarily must be able to express anything, this is in fact boloney.
  2. People (the users of language) are imperfect. They may be tired, rushed, or in the throws of some strong emotion. They also can vary widely in their natural language ability or acquired level of skill.
  3. Any language, and especially English, is not a uniform beast. Not only does it change over time, but it also contains variants at any given time (regional dialects, cultural idioms, jargon).  In order to understand each other, we have to agree on what the words mean, as well as on the basic grammatical structure – and we don’t always do either one.
  4. The interpretation of language is terribly context-dependent. Basically, we’re not all coming from the same place, and where we’re coming from varies with who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

All things considered, it’s amazing we actually manage to understand each other fairly well most of the time.

So I’ll always forgive you for not being clear. It’s a little harder to forgive people for not at least trying to be clear, but even then I know there are times when communication isn’t really a person’s top priority. And whenever I realize that I’ve just been misunderstood, the first thing I do (well usually) is reexamine what I actually said to see if I can identify the problem. Did I just say it badly? Or is there some possible alternate context that I failed to take into account? Of course, if I’ve got the other person face-to-face, I can also explore their insights into the issue – or just try again with a slightly different approach.

One thing I learned from being on the teacher side of the education fence is that, no matter how carefully you word the question, someone will manage to misinterpret it. My reaction when this happened was always to feel bad. Not because I assumed the misunderstanding was my fault – because of course it wasn’t necessarily – but because it meant my attempt to find out what the person had learned about the subject of the question had failed. (That’s failure of the assessment tool, rather than failure of the student.) The student may or may have known the answer – and I’ll never know which it was. (I always hated to mark those questions wrong, and tended to be very generous with any partial credit I felt I could assign.)

Now, I have encountered teachers – and, of course, others – whose reaction to being misunderstood went something like, “well I know what I was trying to say, so if you didn’t understand me it must be your fault.”

That is a position I find pretty unforgivable.






To lay or not to lay… (or, remember the eggs!)

English: Brown chicken eggs

English: Brown chicken eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help it; “Lay Lady Lay” will always sound to me like someone talking to a chicken…

…a rather fancy, well brought up chicken, perhaps, but still a chicken.

That’s Bob Dylan being ungrammatical there with the chicken lady, and of course what I’m alluding to here is the whole “lie” versus “lay” debacle. This burning issue more or less divides the English-speaking population into two groups: those who have difficulty with these two words, and those who don’t. I’m one of the latter. I take no credit for that fact. It’s just that when I was acquiring language, the people I learned it from (my parents) used the two verbs correctly and so I learned to use them correctly. I’m sure this was reinforced by all the reading I did as a child. (I was an incorrigible bookworm.) While it has spared me a lot of grammatical grief over the years in my own writing, it also has the unfortunate consequence that whenever I read something written by someone else who has gotten it wrong, I notice. It hangs me up. It makes me pause and mentally insert the correction. I don’t like having to do that; it takes me out of the story. It spoils my enjoyment. I therefore have a very selfish interest in keeping lie and lay in their place at least in the writing that actually makes it to print.

There are lots of places to get explanations of lie and lay, but of course I just have to offer my two cents’ worth for anyone who may find it helpful.

Lie and lay are two completely different verbs with non-overlapping meanings.

Lie means to assume a recumbent orientation (generally on some more or less horizontal surface).

Lay means to place an object on a horizontal surface (one on which it will not slide or roll away).

Lay requires an object (something to be laid), while lie distinctly does not want one.

Since someone or something tends to end up resting on a horizontal surface in either case, it’s understandable that some confusion might arise. Add to this the fact that the past tense of lie is lay, and confusion becomes really quite forgivable. The most problematic tenses break down like this:

Lie, lay, lain

Lay, laid, laid

(In each case, that’s present tense, past tense, and past participle.)

The problem is simply that many people are mistakenly using lay for both meanings.

If the trend accelerates, we could be looking at language change here, in which English loses one verb (lie) while a second verb (lay) broadens its meaning and become less precise. Would this really be so bad? Well, probably not, since actual ambiguity or confusion of meaning rarely if ever occurs in this case.  I, however, would not be a happy camper. I would feel even more like a dinosaur than I do already, because I will probably keep doing it the way I learned to do it until I write my last word. The other way just feels too wrong.

So, everyone repeat after me:

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

I’ve put “eggs,” the object of lay, in red. If the action is being done to something or someone, then laying is what’s going on. (No sexual innuendo intended.) If the person or animal or thing is doing the action all by itself, it’s lying. So, remember the eggs! If you’re contemplating using some form of the verb “lay,” there had better be an egg-equivalent somewhere in sight.

But be careful; there are nuances. (In these examples, lie is in blue, lay is in green, and the object of lay is in red.)

Inanimate things can lie, or lay. So can things that are not concrete nouns.

The knife had lain so long in the weather that the blade was half rust.

The mist lay like a shroud over the fields. (past tense of lie)

I waited for night to lay its cloak across the land. (present tense of lay)

We never know what lies ahead.

What bounties had providence laid in store for us?

It is entirely possible to lay oneself, or parts of oneself.

Let me lay my head on your shoulder.

Lay your body next to mine. (Compare with: Come and lie down by my side.)

I laid myself down to rest in a little hollow among the leaves.

Now I lay me down to sleep…  (Yes, the object of lay can be an object pronoun: me, us, them, him, her, it, or you).

“Lie” can also mean to be in a place or in a given direction.

The village lies just over yonder.

The road lay straight before them. (past tense)

My heart lies beyond the sea.

Finally, the subject of the sentence can be implied rather than explicitly stated, which can be particularly confusing when “lay” is involved.

Please lie down. (The subject, “you,” is implied here and in the next two examples.)

Lay it down over there.

Lay the timbers straight.

The dead were laid in a common grave. (Someone had to do the laying. We’re not dealing with zombies.)

What about you? Would you be glad to see lie supplanted by lay, or would you become a dinosaur like me if that happened?