Friday, 28 November 2014

It's Easy to Misunderstand Plain English

The University year is over, my 19-year-old son's last exam is complete, and he wanted me to drop him off at a mate's place to relax. Some of his friends rent a small townhouse together, a perfect place for young bachelors, and my son's been known to stay with them for a fortnight at a time. The guys make no plans, but tend to take each day as it comes.

I asked him, "How long are you staying for this time. It'd be nice if you could give us a clue when you'll be back."

"One day," he said, with his head behind the fridge door.

I took that as a definite response, meaning just one day. I thought he'd only stay overnight and be back by tomorrow. I was surprised, but quite pleased. "Good. Thanks."

Half an hour later, we were parked in front of his mate's driveway, and I said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."

He blinked at me and started protesting. "No you won't. I told you, I haven't planned when I'll be back."

Then it dawned on me that he didn't mean those words, one day, the way I'd chosen to take them. He meant them in a vague, cheeky, "When you see me," sort of way.

How easily people can misunderstand each other, even when plain English is spoken clearly and not misheard. I've often thought such communication gaps are a bit of a joke, but my little incident this week showed me how easily they can happen. I started thinking how much I've enjoyed similar misunderstandings when they happen in stories.

I remember reading 'Ramona the Pest' to my children, about a little girl who was proudly starting school. Her teacher, Miss Binney, was assigning seats and said, 'Ramona, you can sit here for the present.' The young heroine was certain the teacher was promising her a gift-wrapped type of present if she remained seated, and it led to lots of mix-ups at recess time when her friends wanted her to come and play. 'No, if I stay here, Miss Binney's going to give me a present, and I can't wait to see what it is. She's taking a long time though.'

Another favourite character of mine was good old Amelia Bedelia, the weird maid who always took things literally. Her employer once asked her to draw the curtains at noon, for example, and came home to find hot afternoon sunlight pouring in on her expensive fabric upholstery. It turned out Amelia had executed a perfect sketch of the open curtains and coloured it in. Several times, Amelia Bedelia only managed to keep her job because she was such a good cook.

Some historical misunderstandings have had far more serious repercussions. Jesus' disciples assumed that He was planning to inaugurate a different type of kingdom to the one He really meant. As we know, Judas decided to take matters in his own hands, when he got tired of waiting for the type of political coup he was expecting.

And many of us have surely read passages from books and said, 'Oh, so that's what it means! I thought it was something entirely different.' For example, when we read, 'Delight in the Lord and He'll give you the desires of your heart,' some of us might choose to believe that means Ferraris, mansions and publishing contracts. I remember the sense it made when I realised the alternative meaning. When we genuinely delight in the Lord, our hearts and longings will be changed in accordance with what He desires for us. He gives us not the mere objects of the desires, but shapes the desires themselves. 

I wonder if misunderstandings happen more often than we may realise. As English is a crazy old language in many ways, I'm sure they do. Not only do some words have more than one meaning, but they are often fluid and not fixed, as we might expect. I'm often interested watching my kids and nephews communicate with my parents. One of the boys may make a statement such as, 'That's really sick!' and their grandparents believe that they are expressing criticism instead of admiration.

Have my examples of this phenomenon sparked off any memories of your own? I'd be interested to hear them. That in itself may be another example. One man may ask, 'Have you heard the news?' and his friend will reply, 'Yes,' meaning that he's read it on Facebook or Reddit, and then the first man will wonder who told him. Where does it end?




Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, please visit her blog, It Just Occurred to Me. You may also like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review where she also interviews other authors.
 



16 comments:

  1. Yes, so true, and then there are words that are pronounced the same way, spelled differently, and mean completely different things, like Heroine and Heroin for example, and I've just noted I used the wrong one in my blog yesterday. LOL

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    1. Hi Meredith,
      Yes, I agree that adds more confusion into the mix. When we pronounce these words, they sound exactly the same, and we rely on the sense of others to always pick up our correct meanings. It's all a lot of fun.

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  2. very true Paula... Working with children on the Autism spectrum you have to be extremely careful with the literal interpretations of your words.. Recently i wrote a song "Lift Your Eyes" and the kids all got a giggle when i explained that it was not about taking the eyeballs out their sockets and lifting them into the air but about looking upwards... LOL...

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    1. Hi Brian, yes, flying body parts. I love that picture. It's funny to come across such things in stories too. His heart sank, she threw up her hands. We can't always assume that others will all know what we mean.

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  3. Love it, Paula! Has happened to me many times, but wouldn't you know it, not one will come to mind!

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    1. Hi Rhonda, the same thing happened to me, when I was trying to think of even more for this blog. I think I might jot them down as they occur to me.

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  4. I live most of the time in Japan (I'm Australian) and work and mix with many nationalities. Mixups are common. I edit a magazine and my boss is American and at one point the designer was too, we had some very interesting discussions explaining ourselves! Plus some misunderstandings that weren't so lighthearted.

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    1. Hi Wendy,
      I can imagine there would have been. No misunderstandings quite like multi-cultural ones, I'm sure :)

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  5. Thanks for the post Paula. Such misunderstandings can be both amusing and frustrating - maybe both at once. Different cultures can really add another layer. Many, many years ago an US ministry team came to our church. The people billeting them asked if they wanted tea (they had cooked a proper dinner for them) but the new arrivals waved their hands and said 'no thanks' not being tea drinkers. The hosts thought okay, they must have already eaten and were very surprized when their guest got up and went to the local takeaway about an hour or two after arrival. Of course 'tea' in Australian parlance means the main evening meal but the Americans thought they were being offered a hot drink and when the meal they weren't expecting wasn't forthcoming - they decided they better buy their own. A classic case of communication misunderstanding.

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    1. Hi Jenny,
      That's a classic. I wonderful how many of our international friends I may have confused by writing something such as, 'We're going out for tea' on social media. I remember as a kid, I would ask people, 'Do you mean a meal or a cuppa tea?' Can be so confusing when the words are the same.

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  6. Paula, great post! English isn't an easy language to negotiate. I find I keep making the same mistakes in my writing, especially with homonyms. Rein and reign is one that comes to mind, and these words are now on my editing checklist :)

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    1. Hi Narelle,
      Those homonyms can be tricky, as they don't come up on spell checks. We all need editing checklists like yours.

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  7. I read Ramona the Pest too, Paula and have always loved that part of the story! Great post :)

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    1. Hi Andrea,
      Yes, I can imagine you would have liked those Ramona books, working in the education department yourself. I think all Primary teachers should read that book, because it's so revealing (and reminding) about the way children think.

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    1. Sorry about the delete, I made so many typing mistakes but couldn't find the "edit.". Mis-communication is flowing through words and through typings ROFLOL. Love old words and their meanings.

      Wyndy
      http://wynswonderland.blogspot.ca

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