Is not good communication about saying the right things and asking the right questions?

In Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance (ISBN9780631198789) they quote the following in discussing the idea of mutual knowledge:

On Wednesday morning Ann and Bob read the early edition of the newspaper, and they discuss the fact that its says that A Day at the Races is showing that night at the Roxy. When the late edition arrives, Bob reads the movie section, notes that the film has been corrected to Monkey Business, and circles it with his red pen. Later, Ann picks up the late edition, notes the correction, and recognises Bob’s circle around it. She also realises that Bob has no way of knowing that she has seen the late edition. Later that day Ann sees Bob and asks, ‘Have you seen the movie showing at the Roxy tonight?’ (Clark and Marshall 1981: 13)

Here are the facts in the order of action:

  1. they both saw the morning edition of the newspaper
  2. they have discussed the movie showing that night
  3. Bob knows the movie has changed and circled it in the late edition newspaper
  4. Ann saw the circled changed movie name in Bob’s absence
  5. Ann knows Bob does not know she saw the late edition newspaper in which Bob circled the changed title being screened
  6. She asks, ‘Have you seen the movie showing at the Roxy tonight?’

To be honest, if Ann had been a good communicator would she not just have added an extra statement, ‘I saw the movie showing now is Monkey Business. Have you seen it?’

Was there any reason not to say she knows the newspaper listing has been corrected? Is there a reason why Ann decided not to acknowledge her own knowledge of the change with a simple statement?

The idea that sparsity of language equates to efficiency of language is wrong. Perhaps in poetry economy is valued. But in normal everyday communication such checks can be done without much disturbance to efficiency. In fact adding the extra statement may help in avoiding any misunderstanding.

And why would not Bob confirm with her that they are talking about the same movie? Why not just reply, ‘You mean Monkey Business? No, I haven’t’. That would save Ann, Bob, the authors – Sperber and Wilson – and us readers a lot of grief and pain.

Agent

Just remember this: the agent of a sentence is the one doing the action of the verb. Consider the following sentences:

(1) The car struck the fence.
(2) The fence was struck by the car.

In both (1) and (2) it is the car that is doing striking, even though in (2) it is NOT the subject. It is the subject that does the action of the active sentence, and the noun of the prepositional phrase in the passive (if the sentence has a prepositional phrase at all) that is the agent.

The linguistic sign

Saussure pointed to that language is mistakenly thought of as a matching of a thing to a name. To him the link is between a concept (signified) and a sound pattern (signifier). The signified is its meaning and the signifier is the “container”. The two together makes the linguistic sign.

The linguistic sign has two characteristics. One is that the link between signified and signifier is arbitrary. There is no natural link or reason that the concept should connected to its “container”. Secondly, the signifier is linear temporally and physically. It is a thing in its own right.

Furthermore, the value of a sign is summarised thus:

A language is a system in which all elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others.

And so, “in the language itself, there are only differences“.

Reference: Course in General Linguistics, Saussure.

The origin of English words

About 85% of words in the English language are from three languages – Germanic, French and Latin. 12% are from Greek and other minor languages like Chinese and Japanese. About 4% are proper names.

Different languages had influence on English at different periods in history. Latin was the language of the Church. French came with the Norman conquest, etc.

Finally, these numbers are counting types (dictionary-like count of entries of words) and not actual usage of words (frequencies of individual words).

Active vs. passive sentence structures

One of the reasons (there are many reason but this is just one) why we would like to change an active sentence into a passive one is because we would like to bring the object of the sentence into focus. Consider these sentences:

  1. My brother was hit by a car.
  2. A car hit my brother.

The focus on my brother is far more important than that of the car. So it would seem logical to put my brother in the subject position of the sentence, as in 1. The subject position should be seen as being reserved for more important information, or be the focus of the sentence. So if the sentence becomes a passive structure let it be so if it is appropriate. But when the choice of active or passive is an equally valid one, choose the active. The active is usually clearer and more efficient.