Friday, April 4, 2014

Words That Don't Exist, Or, You can't preg anything

A friend recently wondered what the opposite of "recessed" was--"uncessed," perhaps? The actual opposite is "raised," of course, as my friend knew. But sometimes our mind gets trapped by patterns in words (and sentences) and wanders off on blind trails. The issue with "recessed" is that it looks like "re-cessed" suggesting that "cess" is a word that can carry prefixes and suffixes. However, "recess" (in this sense) is, as far as I know, just a word that happens to begin with the letters "re."

English isn't a logical language and, because words come from so many places, there probably aren't any patterns that you can rely on. For instance, "impregnable" is a word that suggests the existence of the word "preg" (as in "Who will preg the impregnable?"). And, how, we wonder is this related to "pregnant"?

While "preg" may once have been a word (I don't know) it isn't any more. Though, interestingly enough you are allowed to say "That position is very pregnable" (though the spelling checker that comes with Blogspot disagrees, I notice).

As an another example, I once had a classmate refer to a team "mantling and dismantling" a scaffold. It makes you wonder why we don't have "mantle" as a word.

This desire to spot patterns and create words is so powerful it's actually added new words to the language (a process called "back formation": people move from what they consider to be a variation on a word to what they assume must be the base form of the word--in fact, that 'base form' did not, previously, exist). The noun "editor" existed long before the verb "edit" did but people, assuming that "editing" was what an editor did, added "edit" to the language (in fact, "editor" was a Latin noun that meant "producer of games"). Perhaps, it's only a matter of time before we start saying that what ushers do is "ush."

Moving beyond words that don't exist (at least, not any more) there are all those words that do exist but can only be used in particular situations. Some words, for example, are only used in the negative: You could, presumably, "mince words" but no one ever does; People only say "I'm not going to mince words." And you certainly can't "unmince" your words though, presumably, that's what you do when you put 'officialese' into plain language.

Language is fun.

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Fitting into the Local Language, or New words! New words!

I'm just back from three weeks in the frozen north (Iqaluit on Baffin Island and Rankin Inlet on the northwest corner of Hudson's Bay). Being up there reminded how important it is to develop a feeling for the "local language," especially if you want to talk about your reader's immediate environment and have some measure of credibility. After all, if you can't speak the "local lingo" how much can you know about the local conditions?

As I spent time in these communities, I started picking up the terms and inserting them into my speech. As an example, I was staying at the Frobisher Inn...but no one calls it that: It's "the Frob;" the land mass I was on for the first two weeks is "Baffin," not "Baffin Island;"  the place where I spent my third week is "Rankin" not "Rankin Inlet." If, for instance, you have a gathering where people just come to talk to each other then you're coming "to have a chat around."

Of course, if you're only in a location for a short period of time, you won't become fully fluent in "the vocab" (as English as Second Language teachers describe it). As a result, you'll drop clunkers: use words incorrectly and use non-local words when there's a local word that you don't know (yet). In order to get permission and forgiveness (i.e. to defuse reactions resulting from your misuse of the local lingo) you need to mention that you're only just starting to learn the local vocabulary. Again, this goes to credibility: It shows that you're interested in the local environment, that you're actively getting familiar with it, and that you recognize that it's a rich environment that a short term guest (like you) isn't going to pick up in a few weeks.

One last term that one of the people I was working with shared with me: In Prince Edward Island (where she was born and grew up) people may wave to you today...but yesterday they "wove to you." Cool.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Using jargon, or The etymology of bishing

My wife and I were checking out of a hotel where we'd been staying on a concierge floor (my wife got a deal on the rooms). To check out we had to go to the floor's lounge, entering through a set of double doors. A gentleman was ahead of us and had suddenly realized that he needed to get something from his pocket. He stopped in the doorway and, with his suitcase beside him, started searching his pockets. Since he was in the doorway, he completely blocked the entrance. I immediately thought to myself, "Bishing!"

Bishing is the act of standing still in the exact place that will block the maximum amount of busy traffic around you. You probably didn't know that.

Bishing is the word you would use in this situation only if you're a member of my family. The term derives from a children's book given to us by friend of ours (thanks, Karen Houle!) about 20 years ago. "Bish" refers to an animal that's a combination of a bird and a fish...and, actually, you don't care. Etymology is irrelevant to meaning and use.

But all groups (businesses, families, social groups) will have words that mean something within the group and something different to the outside world...or, as in the case of "Bishing," nothing at all.

Another example: Somewhere along the line, (and through, I think, my wife's family) our family has adopted the term "for the high jump" to refer to something that's worn out and is ready to be thrown out. The phrase is (supposed) to derive from hanging criminals and is used in the real world to refer to a person (not a thing) who is going to be severely criticized. How it ended up in our family with our current usage is anyone's guess.

Technically (and outside of family situations) these kinds of words are known as "jargon." If you're speaking to an audience and are confident that you know how to use the jargon correctly you should use it. The audience knows the term and uses it to communicate among themselves so you should use it to communicate with them.

However, If there's any doubt that you may not be using jargon correctly, however, you should avoid it like the plague. Using jargon incorrectly is a quick way to flag to the audience that you don't know what you're talking about--which is fatal in technical writing.

How can you tell whether you're right or wrong? Always, always, always have someone from the audience check your usage. Don't ever trust your own judgement. Because, after all, you don't know what you're saying.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Redefining "Marriage" or, I don't think he actually cares

I was watching Rick Warren (who seems to be a very nice man) talk about homosexuality. He didn't advance many of the usual arguments against gay marriage. Perhaps he feels, as I do, that there may be good arguments against the government discriminating between citizens based on their sexual identity but also feels, as I do, that he hasn't seen them yet.

But Mr. Warren did make the "redefinition" argument and added a twist. Specifically, he asserted that one group of people don't have the right to redefine a word used by another group (as an example, that, as a Christian, he wouldn't be allowed to redefine a Muslim term). Unfortunately, "this dog don't hunt," either.

The Marriage Word
Words, of course, get redefined all the time. "Silly" originally meant something like "innocent" and was closely allied to "saintly." Long before "worship" was a verb, it was a noun.

And, of course, Mr. Warren's issue could be seen as just another example of how people object to any change in the language: We all seem to feel that the English language achieves perfection about the time we were in grade 6 and that any change after that is a degradation in the language. Normally, I regard these complaints as harmless idiosyncrasies (and I share some of them: I am so grateful that "gifted" isn't more popular). But Mr. Warren wants to use this argument to have the government impose limitations on its tax-paying citizens, to pick and choose among citizens based on their sexual preferences. That seems to be taking an affection for the language to an extreme.

Mr. Warren makes the claim that throughout the world, the word "marriage" means a union between a man and a woman, with a commitment. Well, first off, that's wrong. In many parts of the world (and in the Bible that Mr. Warren draws on) marriage means a union between a man and multiple women. He does recognize, apparently, that love isn't often involved: In many parts of the world, a couple's marriage is still arranged between the two parents and whatever commitment occurs grows out of that.

More importantly, this isn't actually the definition of marriage throughout history and the world. The actual definition, based on how the word is actually used, is "the union between a man and a woman of the same ethnic background and religious affiliation". Mr. Warren knows very well that, until relatively recently, a Jew could not marry a Christian, a Muslim marry a Jew, or even (for much of our history) a Protestant marry a Catholic. This was often enforced by church policy, government laws, and social structures: an unbeatable trinity. And that's just the limitations related to religion: Marrying outside of your ethnic group (or even social class) was also forbidden by these same three controls (marriage between whites and blacks, for instance, was explicitly forbidden by law in many parts of the US as late as 1967--a law supported by over 80% of total US population at the time of its repeal). The reason we have the term "mixed race marriage" is because the term "marriage" didn't cover, and specifically excluded, marriages between people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Generally speaking, we've been redefining marriage consistently over the last century by removing these restrictions. Mr. Warren is apparently comfortable with these redefinitions because, I guess, they were made by heterosexuals (though, I bet, lots of closeted homosexuals supported those changes). It would be churlish of me to point out that Mr. Warren (and his congregation) have also benefited from these redefinitions...but I will. Extending marriage to include homosexuals would not, of course, benefit Mr. Warren...and Mr. Warren is opposed to that change.

But moving on from "marriage," we, including Mr. Warren, have redefined lots of important words. "Citizen," for instance started out as white, male, property owners, considerably older than 18 or 21--not the current definition by a long shot. As another example (apropos of Mr. Warren), Martin Luther led a pretty radical redefinition of Christianity. Mr. Warren seems to be pretty comfortable with that redefinition, too. Again, it would be churlish of me...

And all of these words were redefined by the people they applied to with the participation of the people the words didn't (at that time) apply to. Mr. Warren would like 'marriage' to be treated differently and only changed by a specific group...a group whose definition he doesn't want to be too specific about.

"Us" and "Them"
Which leads to the part that Mr. Warren has added: Mr. Warren distinguishes between 'us' (who own the term "marriage," apparently) and 'them' (who do not). He disingenuously introduces this as a limit on his powers (he shouldn't be allowed to change a Muslim term) but the problem is that we Christian/English/North American/European speakers been doing these kinds of redefinitions of "other people's" terms since time began and no one--including Mr. Warren--has complained.

Based on this new rule, for example, Mr. Warren should be very upset about the way the Hindu word "Brahmin" (meaning a priestly caste in Hindu) has been redefined by English speakers (to mean a member of upper society). Based on this rule, he should also be incensed at the way that Christians like himself have redefined the Muslim word "Mecca" to mean any notable destination that an identifiable group of people make a point of going to. I assume that he has advocated that several levels of government take action on this or that there should be a constitutional amendment about it.

No, wait, he hasn't. In fact, the only redefinition he objects to is "gay marriage" which is, of course, because this redefinition pertains to an actual practice--and it's the practice that he objects to. Mr. Warren wants to use this previously unknown law of linguistics to not to limit himself but to limit other people.

Which leads to the core problem with Mr. Warren's new law of linguistics: who are these are "other people"? Mr. Warren talks about the definition of "marriage" around the world--obviously Mr. Warren doesn't believe that "marriage" is a specifically Christian, American, or even North American/European term. It's hard, therefore, to determine whom the two groups he thinks are in conflict here are, "around the world," since the group that he feels owns the term "marriage" is so diverse. His Christian vs. Muslim distinction doesn't even begin to cover this spread.

But I'm being disingenuous: Obviously, Mr. Warren feels that it's people who support gay marriage that aren't like 'him.' They may be Americans, as Mr. Warren is, and they may call themselves Christians, as Mr. Warren does, but they aren't 'him' (normally, at this point, I would also say they are tax payers like Mr. Warren but, I assume, Mr. Warren as a religious leader doesn't pay opposed to the people who he wants to prevent from marrying). There is at least one other point of distinction: at least some of 'them' serve in the armed forces, as Mr. Warren does not and never has.

In fact, Mr. Warren is probably thinking of heterosexuals vs. homosexuals (except, of course, many heterosexuals believe that marriage should be independent of 'sexual identity'). Mr. Warren, I suspect, wants to say that "marriage" is a 'heterosexual word' that homosexuals shouldn't meddle with (and a word that heterosexuals can define any way they want: restricting by ethnic group/religion and including polygamy, as examples). He doesn't say this out loud because (I suspect) he realizes that it sounds stupid but that seems to be the idea he wants people to take away.

And, besides, how do you decide what words are "heterosexual words"? Is 'queer' a heterosexual word because it was originally used by heterosexuals to denigrate homosexuals? Should homosexuals, as a result, not have been allowed to 'redefine' it when they reclaimed it as a term of gay pride ("We're here and we're queer--get used to it.")? How about "gay"? Isn't that a "heterosexual" word? Under that rule aren't all words "heterosexual words"? If so, doesn't that mean there are no words that homosexuals can say are "theirs"? Isn't Mr. Warren's rule just a way to give him all the power and no one else to have any.

Of course, it's a 'heterosexual word' because Mr. Warren and other heterosexuals have asked for it to be enforced as such by the government of both heterosexuals and homosexuals. In other words: after insisting that the term shouldn't be used by 'homosexuals' and should only be used by 'heterosexuals' (like himself), he then insists that 'homosexuals' shouldn't mess with the term that he's excluded them from. This would be roughly similar to saying, at various points in American history, that "voter" shouldn't be redefined to include Blacks or Asians because the term had never been applied to them: it was a "white" term.

How Did He Get Here?
I appreciate Mr. Warren's attention to the language but I don't think he actually cares. I suspect that Mr. Warren knows very little about how the language works or changes over time and is, instead, desperately trying to find some secular reason on which to base his demands on legislators. But his argument fails on every level: "marriage" has always had its meaning redefined, the distinction he makes between people who are allowed to make changes to this word and those who are not allowed doesn't exist, and he's perfectly happy with many other redefinitions that benefit him.

Mr. Warren's obviously an intelligent man (read his book, "The Purpose-Driven Life"). What "purpose" could drive him to adopt an argument that even five seconds thought shows fails completely at every point? I suspect that Mr. Warren has religious commitments that oblige him to this position on gay marriage (in much the same way that members of the Southern Baptist Convention found that their beliefs obliged them to support segregation). I suspect that he feels that his religious beliefs do not form an adequate reason for asking for the government to pass laws that distinguish between tax-paying American citizens--to pick winners and losers in the marriage arena. He's grasped this "redefinition" argument as a possible reason and, as a desperate man, didn't want to spend much time examining it too closely. That's good because it doesn't bare any kind of examination.

As I said, there may be good arguments against gay marriage. I haven't seen any yet. And neither, apparently, has Mr. Warren.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Morality of Definitions or, Effective? I don't think so

There's a strategy in technical writing that concerns me from a moral point of view: using words of dubious meaning to establish credibility. For instance, I sometimes read documents that urge "efficiency": the ability to get the most bang for your buck.  These writers are often interested in cutting costs and unconcerned with the readers' goals.

The problem is that most readers aren't concerned with efficiency, at least not on its own. Readers are more often concerned about "effectiveness": the ability to get what they want. Saving time, money, or energy (the point of "efficiency") is only interesting if the result is something the reader actually wants. However, I often see writers using "efficiency" as a synonym for "effectiveness" because (a) they figure that readers won't notice the difference and (b) efficiency is assumed to be a good thing so anything that achieves that goal is, obviously, a good thing.

Another strategy is to use words with positive associations but with poorly delineated meanings. Up here in Canada (and many years ago) we had a "Family Values" party whose candidates campaigned in provincial elections. The issue is that I know that my family's values are almost certainly different (in detail or in grand design) from your family's values. Heck, I know that there are tremendous differences in values just within my family. For instance, I think that government-assisted daycare is an excellent way to help support families where both parents work; others feel that both parents shouldn't be working and, as a result, daycare is a bad idea. Without a definition of what "Family Values" actually means, the term is simply designed to attract readers without, necessarily, achieving the goals of anyone but the author.

"Effective" is another word that sounds so very good but without a precise definition means anything the reader cares to read into it. I'm reminded of this every time I teach my technical writing course, I tell participants that the course will help them create "effective" documents. I then ask participants what "effective" means and get a list of what are usually regarded as good things in technical writing: concise, clear, etc. For me, however, an "effective technical document" means just two things:

  • It actually gets read by the people it's intended for
  • It makes a difference in its reader's lives

Same word, two different meanings. Interestingly, I think the class' participants are actually more interested in learning how achieve my definition. However, if we taught the participants' definition, we could probably send the participants home happy--we'd have a credible course. But we could do that without ever achieving what should be the real definition of effective.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Using Commas, Or Come, on really?

One of the complaints I hear is "With you attitude toward grammar you can't have any mistakes." And, to a certain extent, that's true: if enough people are doing something often enough then it stops being a 'mistake' and becomes 'part of the language.' Deciding when it's "enough people" and "often enough" is a historical and statistical issue with fuzzy boundaries.

Up until those boundaries are reached, however, you can have errors. You can one-off errors where some just 'makes a mistake'--you point out to the person what they did, they say "Oh, right! I can't believe I did that" and you both carry on with your lives. People also make systemic mistakes: they believe something works one way and do that thing over and over again thinking it's the way the language works. Here, when you point out the error, you often have to provide an explanation or a reference to an authority--and you shouldn't be surprised if the person involved (perhaps, you) makes that mistake a few more times in the future (or never gives up that mistake): it's a habitual or systemic error.

Commas, for instance, are a never-ending fountain of systemic errors by writers. All of my sons--bright, intelligent human beings who can write well--regularly screw up using commas. Ignoring its use in creating lists, commas can be used to mark out a segment of a sentence that could be removed from the sentence without altering the sentence's meaning: the part of the sentence between the commas adds information/colour/whatever that isn't essential. On CNN, I found this example (all the examples in this column are from CNN):

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, might already be in this camp. 

If the R-Ohio is lifted out, the sentence still works. Here, the commas must come in pairs: an opening comma that marks the start of the phrase working in conjunction with a closing comma that marks the end of the phrase.

Commas are also used to mark opening and closing phrases in a sentence, as in this example:

But looking plainly at the political chess board and listening to sources on Capitol Hill, there is plenty of reason to think that a shutdown of the federal government won't happen, at least not next week.

Here, again, the information up until the first comma and following the last comma could be omitted and the sentence would still work.These commas work in conjunction with the start or end of the sentence.

So far, so good. But I've had many writers I've worked with tell me that they thought commas were to mark a pause, a breath in the sentence. This makes sense only if you believe we read all sentences aloud to ourselves...and that seems unlikely. In the following sentence, the part following the second comma could be used that way if you want to imagine (for instance) Wolf Blitzer taking an ominous pause just before the word "just":

Bluntly, many Republicans fear they will be blamed for a shutdown, just months before a big congressional election year.

Except that there must be about 40,000 ways to read that pause and the comma provides no guidance on which way to use (in the unlikely event that readers paused at all). 

If we assume that reading is different from talking and no one "reads" a pause: Why is the comma there? The word "just" introduces a subordinate clause and is all the introduction that the clause needs. If you want to assume that readers "read a pause" for the comma why wouldn't you believe that readers "read a pause" before a subordinate clause?

That comma before the word "just" is a reflection of something now done often enough by enough people that it's become a rule: the word "but" must be preceded by a comma:

Conservatives forced him to go to war with a different version fully defunding Obamacare, but Boehner's opening move was an important signal that he wants to sidestep a shutdown.

A "but" (like "that" or "then" or "which") is all the introduction that a subordinate clause needs--the comma adds no value. However, it's now common practice and (I'm sure) I could find some examples in schoolbooks advocating for it.

All of this assumes a relatively close punctuation style with lots of commas. If you go with a more open punctuation style you can omit many commas and many problems go away. This example, for instance, has commas around "among other things" which can be lifted out:

His defense is trying to prove, among other things, that the ship's watertight doors did not function properly, and that is the reason the ship sank, leading to all 32 deaths during evacuation. 

But why the commas around "and that is the reason the ship sank"? The "and" indicates that we have a two part list--why break it up? A more open punctuation style would abandon that comma and eliminate an opportunity for error.

One final example:

In Kentucky, problems plagued the exchange site until mid-afternoon, but more than 1,200 people had purchased policies or enrolled in Medicaid, according to Gwenda Bond, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The "In Kentucky" is an opening phrase so the comma that follows has a purpose. However, removing the opening phrase would make the sentence senseless (what would the following "this" be referring to?). In a more open punctuation style, that first comma could be eliminated. 

Then, however, we have the commas around "but more....Bond"--that's part of the point of the sentence and couldn't be eliminated. Reading to the end, however, we discover that the comma following "Bond" is actually marking off a closing phrase (beginning "spokeswoman..."). That means that the comma before "but" is a standalone comma marking....what, exactly? Surely not a pause. And how would a reader, seeing the comma before "but" know that it doesn't mark the start of a paired set--especially when the reader does, finally, find the second comma after "Bond"?

I've never met a punctuation mark I didn't like. And I do prefer a close punctuation style. But let's all use commas less:
  • In lists of more than two items
  • In strings of adjectives ("she was a tall, lithsome beauty"), if you want to
  • In pairs, to mark off removable parts of a sentence
  • To mark off leading/trailing phrases, if you want to
And let's stop dropping commas in automatically before some magic word that doesn't need the comma. If we don't start doing this now, it will become a rule. And we don't want that, do we?

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Language as a Social Activity, Or Literally, it's not about meaning

CNN has an article on how the definition of "literally" in many dictionaries has been extended to include the idea that the word is used for emphasis (as in "the phones are literally ringing off the walls"--probably not true but, yet, you get what the speaker means). This has led to an enormous number of comments (1300, as I write) between people horrified at the change and others pointing out that this kind of change is typical of what languages do (side note: there are so many words that mean both one thing and its opposite that someone took the time to coin a term for them: autoantonyms). I've been engaged in a series of comments on this with an especially stupid person (screen name "English Language" who claims to be an affiliated with the MLA, the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP style guide, and Strunk & White; I'm in the comment section as "PeterHunterVogel").

But that's not what I want to talk about.

One of things that keeps coming up in this discussion is that the purpose of English (and, I assume, any language) is to convey meaning and to do so as clearly as possible ("English Language" keeps using the word "precise"). Obviously, if that's true then English is doing a terrible job of achieving that goal which is why you keep having people like "English Language" whining about it.

As a technical writer, I really hate to disagree with the position that language exists to communicate meaning precisely. But I've come to believe that "conveying information precisely" is not the reason that language exists. I've come to think that language exists as a way of allowing people to work and live together--as way of building relationships. Part of that is certainly conveying meaning (or just information) between people. But I think that's just part of the job that language performs.

For instance, off the top of my head, other uses of the language include: to flirt, to endear, to make jokes, to perform rituals (e.g. marriage), to be social/diplomatic (please, thank you), to console, to challenge, to enrage, to encourage, to trick, to confuse, to obfuscate. We use language when, plainly, it's impossible to convey information (unless we're crazy): when talking to ourselves, babies, animals, plants, and so on. With babies, animals, and plants I suspect that we're counting on our tone of voice to do something (with babies: console, probably) but we don't just utter meaningless sounds--we use language. In, fact with babies, we often use a specific form of English (generally referred to as "baby talk") that, among other things, omits articles. Even if you want to suggest that we're using language here to communicate, by example, information to the baby about how language works I doubt anyone believes that's happening with children under, say, six months of age.

I'd be willing to bet that if we added up all of the words spoken and written, most those words aren't being used to "convey information" at all but are being used to do something else entirely. I wouldn't be willing to bet a lot of money but I'd be willing to be some (and, by the way, I'd also bet that many times when information is conveyed that isn't really our point, hence the phrase "just making conversation").

I suspect that many poets, essayists, and fiction writers wouldn't put "conveying information precisely" high on their list of "important things about the language." They might, instead, talk about the language's ability to "evoke" and be "expressive." Many poems rest, in fact, on a word's ambiguity. John Berryman's "The Dream Songs" are a fabulous work but I'd be hard pressed, for some of those poems, to re-state what they mean: those poems hardly be said to convey information at all let alone to do it "precisely." Yet those same poems resonate with me because their goal is to evoke a feeling or an emotion--what information is being conveyed is just a tool in achieving that goal. And,by the way, when we talk about these kinds of works, we're talking about things that are often considered to be the greatest achievements in the language. These works are conveying meaning only if you redefine "meaning" to include--at the very least--"emotion" (what is, for instance, the "meaning" of a series of anapests?). Even works focused on conveying information often are really trying to do something else: get us to change our allegiance and adopt a new position on a topic.

I think we get focused on the "information/meaning processing" side of language because the people writing about language tend to be academics, scientists, and the like. Much of their professional life is, of course, wrapped up in discovering new things and communicating that to others--often, their jobs depend on it. Not surprisingly, therefore, that affects how those people see language. If anthropologists/sociologists were more interested in the history/uses of language we might have a different view of language.

For instance, an enormous part of many languages is devoted to distinguishing between people of different social relationships (class, family, life and work partners) and specifying how you talk to those people. Specific parts of the language exist to support the distinction. We do this when we speak one way to our friends and a different way to our boss or parents. You could claim these changes convey information ("I'm a higher/lower rank than you", "You are/aren't part of my inner circle" or even "I'm acknowledging that you are of a higher/lower status than me") but I'd say you're stretching what's happening here in order to hang on to your point. Both parties are perfectly aware of their relationship and don't need to be told. We use the language that way because that's the way you're supposed to talk in this kind of relationship.

One of the big breakthroughs in the study of business management occurred when Henry Mintzberg stopped assuming that the purpose of a business manager was "to make decisions" and stopped focusing on how managers did (or should) make good decisions. Instead, Mintzberg had his graduate students follow successful managers around to see what those managers actually did. Mintzberg then assumed that those managers were successful because of all the things they did (not just the decision making part) and looked at all of those activities. Of course, managers do make decisions but, it turns out, that was only part of their job. The same should be done with language.

I can't be the first person to think of this approach so I suspect that lots of people, somewhere are doing that kind of analysis; I (and "English Language") are just ignorant of their work.

I mean: If it's true that English is supposed to exist to convey meaning precisely then why do we have people in every age complaining about how the latest change undermines that goal? If that was the goal of the language you'd think that, by now, we'd have achieved it. The usual objection is that stupid people keep introducing changes that screw the language up (that's the gist of many of the complaints to the changes to the definition of "literally"). But if language doesn't exist primarily to convey meaning precisely, it wouldn't be surprising if changes to the language don't always support "conveying information precisely" and, in practice, frequently undermine it. And, by golly, that's what happens.

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