The Write Stuff

Logic and colour

2004-07-14 13:35

Two or three people accused me of nit-picking after my article titled "Facts are facts" (November 17, 2003), in which I wrote that sentences like "I question that fact" did not make sense, since by definition facts were established truths and could not be questioned, and that we should write/say "I question that statement/assertion/claim" instead. Call it nit-picking if you like - I still maintain that we need to be logical and precise wherever the language demands it.

That last phrase (or clause, if you want to be grammatically correct) is important, because language does not always follow the rules of logic, and certain things are not meant to be taken literally. For example, we say "The kettle is boiling" when we mean "The water is boiling", and native speakers learn when to allow for a non-literal or metaphorical interpretation of certain words and phrases. (That is why I chuckle when people use the word "literally" to describe something that is clearly not to be taken literally, for example, "I'm literally snowed under with work"; but even in such cases we seem to know where to draw the line - I have yet to hear someone say: "The kettle is literally boiling.")

It is probably this absence of consistent logic in language that leads us to enjoy the humour in quips like the following:

Why are apartments called apartments when they're joined together, and why are flats called flats when they usually rise so high?

Why is a skewer called a skewer when it could hardly be straighter?

Why do we say "presently" when we mean "futurely"?

How can ebriated and inebriated mean the same thing?

If an untidy person is unkempt, why is a tidy person not kempt?

Non-literal and metaphorical usage undoubtedly contributes to the "colour" in language, and while I will continue to insist that we need to guard against sloppiness of thought and imprecision in our writing (and speech), I have never advocated the suppression of creativity or the natural evolution of colourful language usage, as articles like "Like it or not" (June 19, 2003) and "So?" (August 28, 2003) will have shown.

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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