Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When a Word Becomes Useless

For me, language is a spiritual thing. There is something grand about how we bestow meaning to certain sounds and symbols, to the point that they seem to take on a life of their own. And when a word is misused or abused to the point of losing its meaning, that seems to me practically sacrilegious.

To that end, I've decided to abandon the use of a particular verb and its derivative forms. What makes it unusual is how common they are to English speakers. Yet I fear they've become too common, dare I say "dead common." The verb in question is can, or perhaps more specifically, its negating counterpart cannot and the contraction can't.

Some of you may have grown up experiencing an exchange such as this:
"Mom, can I go out and play?"
"Well, you may go out and play … "
Both my parents did something like that to convey that "can" and "could" referred to ability, while "may" and "might" referred to permission. Anyone is able to have a cookie, but we're not always allowed to.

Unfortunately, not only has this distinction been lost on many, it has grown worse. "Can" and "cannot" have also been conflated with "want to" and "don’t want to". I've heard people who were perfectly capable of sending an email, or saying a few words to the right person, and with no impediment in terms of supervisory permission, still insist that they "can't" do so. The only reasons I'm able to see for their "can't" are that they are not willing to do so, due to being either unmotivated, uncomfortable, or some combination thereof.

It is at once confusing, exasperating and infuriating, especially for someone like me who takes language – and clarity in language use – as seriously as I do. Imagine the sentence: "We can't issue such a clarifying memo." Now imagine it's possible meanings to include:
  • We're not able to do that.
  • We need explicit permission before we can do that.
  • We have been explicitly prohibited from doing that.
  • We're not in the mood to do that.
  • We have bad feelings about doing that.
That leaves those on the receiving end of that "can't” statement to deduce which meaning it is, based on contextual facts:
  • The person or group saying "can't" has computers and printers and email access, and people who know how to use them, and even a proposed draft for the memo, so they are certainly able to print and distribute it.
  • The person has sufficient authority in the organization, and the organization has made no explicit rule prohibiting such a statement, so it has nothing to do with permission.
  • Therefore, we can only conclude that the person is unwilling to do so, despite indicating a willingness to do so beforehand, which … well, you get the idea.
There seems also a power dynamic to the continual misuse of "can't" with regard to their respective work within an organization. Those at the bottom seem split between saying they're unable and forbidden, in keeping with the lack of authority given to them. Those in the middle appear to utilize it more to voice their own fears and frustrations, having been given limited authority and even less clarity regarding the scope of their roles. And for those at the top, "You/they can't" often means the subject of the sentence are prohibited, while "I can't" is more about the person in charge being unwilling.

What to do about such conundrums? Well, transforming organizations and social interactions is not within my purview, but one thing within my power is to at least attempt to abandon my own usage of "can" and "cannot/can't" (and their simple past-tense forms "could/couldn’t") in favor of more precise references to ability, permission and willingness. At least my own speech and correspondence will be less vague.

As for others, the best recourse that comes to mind is, whenever they use these words, to insist on clarification: "Are you saying you're unable, unwilling, or forbidden? If unable, how so? If forbidden, by whom? And if unwilling, to what degree and for what reason?"

As an officer of my congregation, and as the spokesperson for a constituent group within Unitarian Universalism, I am often in the position of having to advocate and negotiate on behalf of others. That, in my mind, requires clarity in my expression. I hope those with whom I attempt to communicate in these contexts realize, see and do likewise.