I know, I know. It’s been over two weeks since I posted. I’m terribly sorry. What can I say? The days just got away from me. But here I am, and I’ll try to be more consistent!
It seems that I hear this sentence a lot: “You know what I mean.” Usually, someone makes a common mistake in the use of a phrase or word—something many people do, but, you know, we all know what they mean. Then some snarky know-it-all points out the blunder with a laugh. (This person is never me. Never.) The first person sighs in exasperation and says, “You know what I mean!”
Samuel Johnson, who published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, argued that while language changes and evolves, it is better to maintain as much consistency as possible for the sake of clarity and communication: “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.”
Yet others believe that language cannot and should not be controlled. It is simply an instrument of communication; what matters is what was meant by the author. This opinion is summed up by this anonymous comment on the Huffington Post’s article, “The Phrase You’re Probably Misusing”:
“Oh, here we go again with ‘correct’ usage, spelling, and grammar. You can’t police the English language because it, like most languages, are constantly evolving with the people and the times. Definitions are constantly being changed to match how people are using the words. When the people use a word a differently, the meaning of the word changes, also. To see what I’m talking about, all you have to do is look at different dialects. What’s correct in one is incorrect in another.”
The question comes to this: do the actual words we say (or write) matter, or is it just about the meaning?
For me, it’s a question of whether or not language has power on its own. I think most writers would agree that there are times when the phrases seem to form themselves. A sentences comes and you think, “I didn’t mean to write that, but it’s actually quite good!” But this process is elusive and difficult to explain. We start saying things like, “I was inspired,” and using colorful imagery like, “The words started flowing.” The words you choose matter, whether or not you meant to choose them.
Here’s another way to look at it:
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to pay the bills. She did it in a few weeks, to make a rush deadline to provide some desperately needed cash for her family. She didn’t necessarily set out to write a wonderful novel about a family’s love, but that’s what it turned into. She had no idea that it would turn into a much-beloved classic that still speaks to readers today.
Yes, language is a means of communication. But it is so much more. It is a means of creation. That’s what makes it so beautiful and frightening. I know that when a person says, “You know what I mean!” they’re not actually saying that language is unimportant. I know what they mean (haha). However, I do think that we need to take the actual words we say seriously. If you didn’t mean exactly what you said, don’t use those words. This doesn’t apply to metaphor, sarcasm, irony, etc.—all of which are devices that are meant to use the “wrong” words to convey a particular meaning.
So, without “policing the English language,” I still land more on the side of Samuel Johnson. I hold words in high regard, and I don’t want to take yours lightly.
What do you think?