Various Irksome Instances of Ambiguity in the English Language and in Dialogue

Rather Ridiculous Rants #3

“We are going to talk about something interesting today.” When I say “we,” I mean me. When we say “we,” it is hard for us to know what we mean. The first “we” in that sentence refers to both me, the writer, and you, the reader. “You” will be addressed later; don’t you worry. If you think about it, “we” can mean you and me, but it can also mean some other people and me. This is a problem that other people have noticed. This we is known as the “we of ambiguous clusivity,” because it is not clear whether or not my use of the word “we” includes you or excludes you. I actually have no idea if anybody calls it that, but linguists use the word clusivity in this context to refer to inclusion/exclusion, so . . . yeah.

As mentioned, the word “you” is also ambiguous. When one says “you,” one might be referring to a singular listener or multiple listeners. This can be somewhat mitigated with additions to “you” such as “y’all” [Ed. Note — the correct solution] and “you guys,” as well as gestures implicating multiple people as targets. The fact that words exist to lessen this ambiguity is a good sign that the language is evolving, but it is a problem that we (inclusive) need to invent phraseology to counteract the shortcomings of our (inc.) own language. It has also been brought to my attention that “y’all” can also be used to refer to a singular listener. This means that, unfortunately, “y’all” isn’t the linguistic masterpiece that it appears to be. It is not a standard pluralized “you.” That is lamentable.

This next one is extremely general, which also means that it’s extremely important. When somebody’s speaking, it’s near impossible for them to convey punctuation marks. Here’s an example from my life, because you’re supposed to give those. (Slight detour: what did I really mean when I said “you’re” just then? Did I mean “we’re?” Was that the self-including plural “you’re?” What is going on?)

Anyway, here’s the example. I was speaking with my parents regarding some forgotten matter. Regardless, I said the following sentence: “I don’t know I asked.” My parents, quite understandably, concluded that I meant to say this: “I don’t know (if) I asked.” Now, this would have been extremely cool, if that was what I had meant to say. To be able to say sentences without saying all the words would be a great superpower. (But I’d rather have the superpower that lets you [self-inclusive, pl.] write essays faster.) Unfortunately, that was not what I intended to tell my parents. What I meant to say was: “I don’t know; I asked.” This nearly-exactly-opposite meaning was derived from my sentence because I did not successfully voice my semicolon. This is, of course, not the only instance of this happening. It is rather bothersome that we (inc.) cannot specifically convey punctuation marks in speech. Maybe taking a long pause in the middle of your (singular) sentence is good enough for you (s.). Maybe you’re (s.) okay with that.

I have just one more point before this gets too long-winded. I will use another example from my life. As you (s.) know, I go to a school. At the school, I often eat during a “lunch” period. I like to eat while sitting at a table with my friends. When I find a space that appears to be unoccupied, I will ask somebody whether or not said space has been reserved. One time, I said: “No one’s sitting here, right?” The response was “No.” Of course, the person who responded to me was not negating my statement, but affirming it. The fact that a statement may be affirmed by a negative word is disturbing. I’m sure some of you (pl.) have encountered a situation like this and immediately decided to document it. How bothersome!

Because these are very pressing issues, I decree:

  • That we (inclusive) be replaced with another word as to differentiate it from we (exclusive). My personal recommendation would be nos, but perhaps that sounds like ‘nose,’ so we’ll (inc.) pronounce it “nawse.”
  • That “y’all” be standardized to mean a plural ‘you’ and that it be used universally across English.
  • That various grunt-like noises or claps be used to voice each punctuation mark in speech.
  • That the negative affirmation be followed by a restatement of that which it affirms, e.g., “No one’s sitting here, right?” “No. No one’s sitting here.”

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