Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A few words about a couple of words I dislike

The words "couple" and "few" should be banished from the English language.

One of the problems which an autistic like myself encounters with NTs (that is, neurotypicals="normal" people), is the everpresent imprecision of language during social conversation. This result in simply annoyance or dangerous incomprehensibility, but even the simple annoyances can get in the way. For instance:

Co-worker: I'm so tired I can't move a muscle.
Me, mentally: No, you're not, because you just walked over here to tell me that, and both walking and talking require movement of muscles, so you're not as tired as you say you are, so I'm not going to give you the sympathy you're obviously fishing for. But this is a remark-that-expects-sympathetic-response. I must therefore respond with a remark-that-expresses-sympathetic-understanding. And examining co-worker yields the fact that co-worker does look tired.
Me, aloud: You do look like you need a rest, and now's a good time to take a break.

Co-worker was not lying, or intentionally seeking to mislead me. In fact, had co-worker not elided the three words "I feel like" (as in "I'm so tired I feel like I can't move a muscle") there would have been nothing wrong with it. But co-worker, being an NT, suffers from one of the most common NT traits--the assumption that what a person actually says will be recognized as meaning something else. I suppose it might be called the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome: A word means what I say it means. No doubt I sometimes exhibit the same symptoms: after forty seven years of being surrounded by neurotypicals, and decades of learning how to imitate their ways, it may be presumed that at least some of their flaws and foibles have rubbed off on me. But I don't think I fall into this particular error very often, and when I do, it's usually part of an obvious joke.

But there are some words which are particularly prone to being abused in the service of the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome, words which seem to have a built in vagueness about them that renders them useless as a means of communication: "couple" and "few"

"Couple" does have a precise meaning--pair or twosome, as in "married couple", when it is a noun, and "to join together", as "coupling railroad cars", when it is a verb. But in ordinary discourse, it seems to signify any number between two and twenty. "We're collecting a couple of dollars as a going away present for Leila," a co-worker said to me yesterday. When actual details were revealed, the sum involved was five dollars. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes," another co-worker says, going off on a break, and returns fifteen minutes later. "I'll have it ready for you in a couple of hours," the man at the watch repair kiosk says at ten in the morning, and instructs me to come back at about four o'clock in the afternoon. "I'll be there in a couple of hours," the tech sent by the appliance repair company says, and appears the next morning. Well, at least he called at the end of the first day to apologize. But the others gave no indication they knew that the word they used and the meaning they wanted to convey were very different things. Is there a special NT code that lets NTs know whether "couple" means two, or three, or ten? Or do NTs simply not care, and are willing to put up with a type of imprecision that throws poor li'l aspie me into total confusion?

Even worse is "few". Even the dictionary is not quite sure what quantity it represents: "a small number". But small is always relative. In comparison to twenty, two or three, or even six or seven is a few; in comparison to a hundred, twenty is few; in comparison to a thousand, a hundred is few; in comparison to the stars in the sky, a thousand is very few. But in normal conversation, that small assistance in discerning meaning is usually absent. "I'll see you in a few days", may mean "I'll see you at the end of the week" or "I'll see you next month" or "I have no idea of when we'll meet again". All it seems to mean is "a indefinite number", and is totally useless in conveying information. And that is what conversation is supposed to be: the conveying of information from one person to another in verbal form. Of course, I tend to use the word myself a few times a day (that is, four or five), and mean by it "an indefinite number". I have adopted the social meaning as opposed to the lexicographical meaning--another point at which I have come to emulate NTs.

There is a musar point behind all this: how easy it is to abuse language, to contort words into something they don't really mean, to say one thing and intend another, to say one thing and convey another. We talk when we should not, and say things we should not. "Say little and do much"; "silence is a protective fence for wisdom". But we are not silent; we say much and mean little and do even less. Better that our words be few, and mean what they mean when we do utter them.


Marisa said...

My 6th grade teacher taught that "a couple" always referred to two and "a few" always referred to three, which I still think is a good system, and worth repeating!

Liorah-Lleucu said...

ohmygawd! kishnevi, WHAT are you doing posting here? Have you lost your autistic mind?

Sholom said...

Descriptive rather than prescriptive linguistics.

kishnevi said...

Marisa--your teacher's system is a good one, but no one IRL seems to use it!

Sholom--not sure where you comment is pointing to. I suppose I could say that usage of these words varies so much that descriptive techniques don't work for them.

Liorah--Reb Chaim did me the honor of inviting me (and several others, not all of whom have yet taken advantage of it) to blog here while he is at yeshivah, relatively computer-less and with very limited Internet access. So you may not be hearing from him very much in the near future, and hearing (possibly too?) much from me!

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