Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Smog Between Us

by Jean Roberta

There is a story about punctuation from colonial India. A local man had been convicted of some crime by an English judge, and he was sentenced to hang.  His distraught mother sent a pleading note to the judge. English was not her first language, but she was able to write: “Hang him not save him.” Someone told her the sentence needed a comma, so she changed it to: “Hang him, not save him.” They did.

It’s unlikely that a better-placed comma would have saved the man’s life, but a comma in the wrong place certainly didn’t help.

Another sample sentence that is used to demonstrate the importance of punctuation is:
1) "Woman, without her man, is nothing. Or
2) "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."

Punctuation is hard to hear. Spoken aloud, this sentence would have much different meanings for different listeners.

Miscommunication. I hate it. This is not a pet peeve. It’s feral and out of control.

I’ve spent many a frustrated noon hour waiting for someone who said s/he would meet me for lunch in a certain place – but s/he never appears. Later, the response is likely to be: “Oh, were we supposed to meet on Tuesday? At twelve? At the Steaming Wok in the mall? I thought it was Wednesday at one at the Greasy Grill on Main Street. Well, you said something about the Greasy Grill when we were talking about Bob’s bout of food poisoning, so I just assumed that’s where you wanted to eat. On Wednesday at one.” Gah.

Many a first-year university student has picked up the notion that literature (especially poetry) is completely subject to interpretation, and has run with it. Here is the opening stanza of a poem I teach to expose students to sophistry, or false logic:

"Out upon’it! I have loved / Three whole days together,/And am like to love three more/If it hold fair weather."

One of my students wrote an essay on this poem, claiming that the speaker is mourning his dead wife. The student claimed to be deeply moved by the widower’s sincerity.

"Show me the dead wife," I said. "In which line is she hiding?"

"I’m entitled to my opinion," said the student. "That’s what I think the poem means."

The student knew a few things. He knew that all poetry of that time was serious, and most of it was about death, True Love or marriage. Or all of the above.

Many years ago, I was in my last year of high school. As I walked along a downtown street with my boyfriend of the time, he said something I didn’t hear, or didn’t want to hear. I was already thinking ahead to university, where I hoped to find more interesting companionship. “Dreamer!” laughed Boyfriend. We had passed the display window of a department store where a mannequin in a white lace wedding gown filled the space.

Boyfriend knew in his bones that I really wanted him to marry me right after high school graduation. After all, I was a girl. He knew how tricky females are, and how determined we all are to manipulate guys into long-term commitments. The more I insisted that I hadn`t even noticed the plastic bride (although once she was pointed out to me, she was hard to ignore), the more he laughed.

Boyfriend assured me that we could get married in the summer. I was tempted to leave town the following day, and begin life as a mysterious hermit with no name. It seemed the only way to avoid drastic expectations based on misunderstandings.

I try to avoid making assumptions, though I`m sure I`m sometimes guilty. If misunderstandings were visible, they would look like smog that swirls around us all, in all parts of the world. We peer anxiously through the haze like Sherlock Holmes pursuing a mystery in Victorian London. Unlike him, we often lose the body, the suspect and the key witness.

And now I`ll read the comments to find out whether anyone thinks I just said that public hanging would be a good way to lower the crime rate. :O


  1. I'm with you on the subject of misunderstandings, Jean! I sometimes even jump in when other people in a family gathering or whatever are talking at cross purposes, and I seem to be the only one who realizes they're talking about two different things. Mishearings are, of course, a huge factor, and I mourn the loss of high-fidelity phone infrastructure in the shift to portable technology. I'm not shy about telling an interlocutor I couldn't make out what (s)he just said, and despite having pretty acute hearing I have to do it a lot; so I can only imagine what kinds of misunderstandings occur among people who are mishearing half of whatever their friends and family members say to them over the phone and don't want to ask for repeats. (Then again, I've observed that most people aren't very interested in paying attention to what other people are saying to them in the first place, being more focused on their end of the conversation.)

  2. Jean - several years ago, I worked with an Armenian woman who came into work very upset. At our daily meeting, she poured out her woes to us. Her husband, an electrical engineer with the Jet Propulsion Labs, had traveled to Texas to oversee a project. The hotel had put him into a handicapped accessible room. He was highly insulted and interpreted that to mean that the Texans thought that because he was a foreigner, he was mentally and physically defective and they put him in that room as a huge insult. No matter what we said to her, we could not convince her that her husband had not been insulted, and that most hotel rooms across the US would be handicap accessible - by law!

    So even when everyone reads the same words with correct punctuation, they're still going to read something very different into the meaning.

  3. Actually public hanging might be a way to lower the crime rate. It worked for China.

    When Mike Kimera was around his emails always had this signature "What you read is not what I wrote" and I discovered there is a lot of truth in that. People really don;t read well, and reading can be as much of an art as writing.


  4. Jeremy, you are so right. I can never be sure how many misunderstandings are due to actual hearing problems and how many are due to listening problems. When I was in elementary school and complained to my parents that no one listened to me, my mom told me I would just have to learn to outshout other people, as if that would work.

  5. Kathleen, OMG. Cross-cultural misunderstandings are the worst. And to think that the accessibility of public places (hotels, restaurants, public transportation) has been lobbied for by disabled (or differently-abled) people & their allies for years.

  6. Garce, I'm sure that all sorts of public penalties for crime (the pillory, branding, flogging, drawing-&-quartering, etc.) have had effects on the general population. Just imagine. According to a recent poll, a surprising number of Canadians who are liberal on other issues want to bring back the death penalty for certain crimes (serial murder, sex-killings of children). (Hanging was the usual method before all capital punishment was outlawed in Canada in 1976.) I can't see any evidence that chaos has reigned since hanging was taken off the table, so to speak.
    Oh yes, I remember Mike Kimera's signature line -- very true. He had some good things to say above it too.

  7. Miscommunication is a dangerous pet peeve, Jean, because honestly, I don't think we can escape it. Not only do we mishear things (or fail to listen) - our preconceptions and beliefs are so ingrained that we're not even aware how they influence our understanding.

    Still, I imagine that consciously aspiring to communicate clearly has to help.

  8. You see, Lisabet? Discussing pet peeves (or wild peeves)is not simply self-sabotage. It can remind us of what we want to work on.


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