Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Illogical Language

I was listening to the radio the other day when a commercial came on for Charter Communications, imploring listeners to sign up for their complete bundle of services, including cable TV, telephone, and high-speed Internet. The commercial concluded with the disclaimer “All services not available in all areas.”.

Think about that for awhile. “All services” -- that would be the 3 aforementioned components. What about them? They’re “not available”. Really? Just missing in a few blind spots, I suppose? No, “in all areas”. All of their services are not available in all possible areas. Then what was the point of the commercial? Why are they trying to sell us these non-available services, which will continue to be non-available no matter where we move? Why pay good money to advertise something the audience can’t possibly buy, no matter how much they may want to?

The answer, of course, was that the idiots who came up with the language of the commercial -- or possibly their lawyers -- do not understand the relationship between logic and language. The word “not” is used to negate whatever immediately follows it. That’s a rule of logic, and it’s also a rule of language.

Or at least it should be a rule of language if we want to use language as a tool to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that we do not. Consider the much older example of “All that glitters is not gold.”. Again I ask, “Really?”. All that glitters cannot possibly, ever, under any circumstances, be gold? This is the logical equivalent of saying “Gold never glitters.”. Do we really believe that? Was that really what the writer intended to say?

It’s not as if the ideas that were (almost surely) intended could not have been expressed well. Take a look:
 • “Some services not available in some areas.”
 • “Not all that glitters is gold.”

I contend that sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking (or maybe it’s the other way around -- in any case the 2 are related). George Orwell’s essay on NewSpeak at the end of 1984 was in many ways the most chilling part of that dystopian novel. In a world where you really cannot express the difference between war and peace, because the words for them mean exactly the same thing, language has ceased being a tool for human betterment and has become an instrument of human oppression.

H. G. Wells remarked that civilization was a race between education and catastrophe. In examples ranging from “collateral damage” to “destroying the village in order to save it” to “jumbo shrimp” to “Fox News” to “All services not available in all areas”, I detect education falling a little further behind.


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