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THE BEAUTY of English is its clarity. Some languages can be ambiguous, encouraging interpretation, nuances, not to say differences of understanding, between speaker and listener. But not English, when properly spoken.
I emphasize “when properly spoken,” because often it ain’t.
And I’m not quibbling here about “ain’t,” a negational contraction that has been around since the 18th century. No, I’m quibbling about linguistic logic.
A pet example is flabby use of the word “only.” Its location in a sentence can make all the difference in clarity. Yet there’s a daily assault of logic in this.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a garbage man because they only worked on Tuesdays.”
Did the wit mean “only worked”? Or “worked only”? I suspect the latter, in that our garbage pickup is only on Tuesdays too. “Only worked” precludes other activities on Tuesdays, but this isn’t what the speaker intends.
Other fun with “only” is placing it in the sentence “I poked him in his eye.” Think about the choices of clear meaning and then, if you like, check out my own modest contribution on this.
A second pet example (yes, we have more than one cat too) is the phrase “I thought to myself.” My point, ESP-excluded, is that there’s no one else to whom one thinks.
I suspect the phrase is an illogical analog of “talking to oneself,” which is a permissible activity. (In the old days, pre-Bluetooth headsets, moms used to warn kids never to make eye contact with people talking to themselves. This may still be good advice.)
However, the phrase “thought to myself” has given rise to a good joke. A motorist arguing with a traffic cop (never a good idea, kids) says, “I suppose that if I said you were an idiot, I’d be in big trouble, right?”
“You betcha!” said the cop.
“What about if I just thought you’re an idiot?”
“No problem,” said the cop, “Thoughts are free.”
“Okay,” said the guy, “I think you’re an idiot.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016