“Beryl … had an abiding respect for words. As far as she was concerned, the word for a thing somehow was that thing. Therefore she never spoke frivolously what she did not mean to say; and she surely did not put into words anything which she did not wish to happen.”
– Walter Wangerin Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow
Words are all around us. Speech, books, signs, songs, posters, video games – just about every aspect of human life is somehow governed by words. But we must be careful with the words we use; one of the common themes of “mischievous genie” stories is how the genie grants warps the intent of the wish while still adhering to the wording. W.W. Jacobs’s story The Monkey’s Paw is a classic example of this genre, with the wishes getting granted in macabre manners.
Syntax and semantics are, of course, the foundations of how we understand words. A sentence that is not syntactically correct is hard to understand: “Every night.” is a sentence fragment and is not syntactically correct. No meaning is conveyed just by those words alone. But a sentence can be syntactically incorrect and still convey meaning: “The hat that I know where it is hanging on the basement door,” is a sentence that I myself uttered a few weeks ago and then got into a long discussing with my wife over exactly how its syntax was wrong. Basically, the “it” in the middle of the sentence is not allowed. Of course, removing the word “it” renders the sentence even more syntactically unsound. “The hat that I know where is is hanging on the basement door” doesn’t work either. I would have to have completely restructured the sentence to something along the lines of, “The hat whose location I know is hanging on the basement door.” As my wife points out, however, the word “whose” seems to be disappearing from English, so that construction is not a natural utterance. Note, though, that language does evolve over time. An example of this is the fact that the passive voice is now allowed in complex-natured sentences; it was limited to very simply-natured sentences as recently as the eighteenth century. “I met a dead corpse of the plague, just carrying down a little pair of stairs,” is a sentence by Samuel Pepys that looks very odd to us today. What Pepys meant, in today’s usage, is that he met the corpse *being carried* down the stairs, but that construction was not used in Pepys’s time. Perhaps in time, then, the sentence that I said will come to be seen as syntactically correct, as will prepositional because, singular their, and numerous other examples decried as clumsy and incoherent by grammatical conservatives. Because linguistics.
Semantics addresses the meanings of words. A sentence can be syntactically correct but have no semantic meaning; Noam Chomsky’s, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” is the prototypical example of such a sentence. Sometimes the semantics of an utterance convey the intended meaning even through the syntax is broken; certainly, no one would fail to understand what I meant when I was talking about the location of one of my hats. But semantics can also depend on syntax; today’s readers of Pepys might think of his “dead corpse” as a zombie, actively carrying on its back a staircase, and transporting it from a higher location to a lower one.
However, many of the rules of syntax are ignored in conversational language. When more than one person is contributing to the narrative, redundancies are eliminated. A fragment that is syntactically incorrect, like “Every night,” is perfectly acceptable when preceded by another person asking a relevant question, such as “How often do you play Pandemic?” Conversational language is governed by Grice’s maxims of cooperative conversation: a speaker aims to tell the truth, be as informative as required, avoid ambiguity, and be relevant. I often have problem with being ambiguous; I remember saying something to the effect of, “The Boy Scout helped the old woman across the street,” and was immediately questioned by my wife as to what I meant: did I mean that he helped her to *get* across the street, or that she *was* across the street.
The problem with words is that we all use words differently. Language is a cultural construct; this is why there are dialects of languages, as different cultures have different influences and apply different rules to their language. I myself grew up in the Pittsburgh area and was thusly exposed to the infinitival copula deletion. For me, sentences like “The car needs washed,” or, “My room needs cleaned,” were perfectly grammatical constructions. This cultural difference in language is why “lawyerese” is the way it is: it is very precise, and precision means a lot of words. But it cuts across cultures and regionalisms — every dialect should be able to understand a business contract. Somehow, the lowest common denominator in language is the one that uses the most words.
There are problems, however, when you don’t have a common cultural reference and you don’t have a lawyer to help cross that gap. Two people can use the same language – the same words, even – in very different ways. I’ve observed before – in a comment on another thread on Facebook – that some people don’t realize that the language they use is a product of their culture. They use words in ways that other people find mysterious or even alarming. They say things they don’t mean at heart, not because they don’t understand what they are saying, but because they are using those words to indicate that they are part of that culture. “I didn’t mean that. Those were just words,” is a common theme; a Google search for that phrase turns up many examples of people using that excuse. And, to a certain point, it is true – they didn’t really mean that. It’s just they didn’t realize that for some people, it’s more than just words. People who have experiences a wider range of cultures are more likely to watch their words, knowing the value of precision and speaking what they actually do mean. This explains, in part, the difference in language usage between rural and urban Americans; rural Americans are less likely to be exposed to an array of cultures, while for urban Americans it is difficult to avoid having such exposure.
Sometimes being uncooperative in conversation is a minor annoyance, as my Boy Scout helping the old woman example shows. I wasn’t *trying* to be uncooperative; I just wasn’t thinking too closely about what I was saying. If I were under oath in a court of law, for example, I might have been more aware of the potential ambiguity and clarified my statement; certainly it is the job of the lawyers to extract that clarity from me. However, there are times when violations of Grice’s maxims of conversation are intentional. A person is trying to be uncooperative in order to hide something or gain something; perhaps both.
This brings us to Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Sessions, the current Attorney General, was not forthcoming about his interactions with Russian diplomats during his confirmation hearing before the Senate. When asked what he would do “if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign,” Mr. Sessions responded, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.” Separately, Mr. Sessions responded “No” to a questionnaire asking “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Subsequent investigations have shown that he did have contact with Russian officials; Mr. Sessions claims that those communications were in his capacity as a senator, not in his capacity as a “surrogate” in the Trump campaign, and were not about the 2016 election.
There are many people calling for Mr. Sessions to resign, or be removed from office, or be charged with perjury, or pay any number of other penalties. It seems to me that the most appropriate course of action is the one that is currently unfolding: Mr. Sessions must recuse himself from any investigations of these Russian allegations (this has happened), and these investigations must proceed (this has nt yet happened). Once these investigations are complete, then the proper decision can be made about the fate of Mr. Sessions or any other person involved in these allegations.
These investigations are warranted; Mr. Sessions clearly violated Grice’s maxims of conversations in his testimony before the Senate. He was not as informative as required; during his testimony he did not clarify that his answer was related to only his function as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. At best, it was ambiguous, but someone who is a lawyer and is under oath should recognize this in the moment and adjust his answers accordingly. The question is if Mr. Session was being uncooperative in his conversation in order to gain something (the post of Attorney General) or to hide something? If the conversations with Russian officials was not related to the election and were standard meetings, Mr. Sessions might have felt (and rightfully so, to a point) that disclosing them would have hurt his chances of being confirmed as Attorney General, and the former scenario would be the case, and little more penalties need be levied against Mr. Sessions. If, however, the latter scenario is true and there is something that Mr. Sessions was trying to hide, then more penalties are called for. In order to determine this, we can either take Mr. Sessions’s own word on the matter or launch an independent investigation. Under the circumstances, and given the national security implications if the latter scenario were true, the American people need a little more reassurance.