Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Language is not like math...

For some strange reason, some of my friends come to me with their grammar questions.  It's true that I earned a degree in English, but I was a pretty mediocre English major.  In fact, I took a grammar elective in college, but I earned a C.  It's probably because I hate sentence diagramming.  I don't know why I took that class, since it wasn't required for those who weren't planning to be teachers.  I think I figured it would be useful.

Even though I wasn't a star at grammar when I studied it at school, some people seem to think I'm good at it.  It's true that I get kind of stabby on social media, even though I surely make grammatical errors myself.  I get annoyed by dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and run on sentences, among other things.  However, as a writer, I also embrace artistry.  I like that language isn't always black and white.

You can have words that are synonyms, yet their meanings convey shades of different meanings.  For some people, words are kind of like paint on a palette.  The words you choose can make all the difference in what you're actually communicating.  Words can be instruments of art and lead to creations of great beauty.  Or, they can make something seem downright ugly.

A few days ago, a friend asked me a grammar question.  She wanted to know if the sentence "You're not wrong." contained a double negative.  That was a question I could easily answer.  There is nothing wrong with "You're not wrong."  An example of a sentence with a double negative is "You're not never wrong." or "I ain't never wrong."  "You're not wrong." is grammatically correct, though informal.

My friend is an American and speaks perfect English, but she lives in France, has French children, teaches in a French school, and has a French fiance.  I suppose it's possible that all of that French influence may have caused her some confusion as to grammar rules between French and English.  I'm sure I would probably have that problem myself if I were constantly using a language other than the one I grew up speaking.  I don't speak French myself, so I don't know if a sentence like "You're not wrong." translated into French would be incorrect.

Anyway, several friends chimed in on that post, though none disagreed with my assessment.  Then, this morning at about 2:30am, I woke up to a comment from a friend who posted this...

Double negatives are fine -- as long as you know they equal a positive. "You're not wrong." means "You're right." Either works. 

Apologies in advance if that particular friend happens to read this post, but I have to interject.  Language is not like math.  In math, you usually have right or wrong answers.  I say "usually" because I barely got through my five statistics courses in graduate school and never got past Algebra 2 in high school (I passed the class with a C).  I couldn't tell you if there are cases in math where there are no right or wrong answers and I don't care enough about math to seek the answer.  I absolutely suck at advanced math, although I am aware of the double negative rule.  Yes, I know that --9 is really +9.  But the same does not necessarily hold true for language.

In language, you don't always have concrete answers.  Whether or not something is correct or incorrect sometimes depends on the situation.  That could be especially true in a case where there truly are no wrong or right answers.  

If a psychologist asked me if I felt more tired at night or in the morning, there would not be a "right" or "wrong" answer.  There would only be my truthful response regarding my personal experience.  In that sense, if I answered that I feel more tired in the morning and then commented that it seems "wrong" to be tired at that time because the world mostly functions during the daytime, the psychologist might say, "You're not wrong to be tired in the morning."  But that doesn't mean I'm "right" to be tired in the morning, either.  It's just what is.  In that sense, the psychologist couldn't say "You're not wrong." and actually mean "You're right."  In that case, there is no wrong or right.  There's just what is.

I have to admit my friend's comment about double negatives kind of upset me, especially since there is no double negative in the sentence "You're not wrong." and that fact was established.  But even if the original poster had asked about "You're not never wrong.", which does contain a double negative, it still wouldn't necessarily be correct to say "You're not never wrong" is akin to "You're right."

I hate to see language equated with math.  I don't like black and white/ right or wrong thinking.  I started to argue with my friend, but then decided better of it, since I knew the excitement of an argument would only keep me up longer and the end result might be a situation similar to what happened in June.  I wanted to get back to sleep, so instead of debating, I removed myself from Facebook and started reading the book I've been wading through about a gay Mormon missionary in Japan.  I should be finished with that book soon, so stay tuned for a review.

On most days and in most places, if you said the grass is blue and the sky is green, you'd literally be wrong.  But then there are days when the weather does strange things and the sky does appear to be green or red or yellow or any other out of the ordinary shade.  And if you're in Kentucky, you might run into some bluegrass, right?  I'm not writing of the music, by the way.  There is a type of grass that is called Kentucky bluegrass.  From what I've seen in pictures, the grass doesn't look blue.  But maybe it does when the sun hits it a certain way.  There must be a reason why they call it bluegrass.  It all has to do with perception.  If the grass looks blue, who am I to say it's not blue?  I think that's why I prefer words to numbers.


Would I be correct in saying the sky is not blue in this picture?

Anyway... no, in my humble opinion, the English language is not like math. You can have a situation in which a person might say "You're not wrong." But that does not mean the person is necessarily right, either. It just depends.

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