May 23rd, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; presupposition problems; part two...


One of the English words most likely to trigger negative presuppositions and negative reactions is the adverb "even"; I would suggest that anyone who is plagued by communication difficulties use extreme care with that word. For many native speakers of English, all of the following sentences [where the items in all capital letters should be understood as carrying extra emphatic stress] will be perceived as hostile language.

1. "You didn't even send a card."

2. "Even YOU should be able to understand the basic principles of algebra."

3. "Even someone YOUR age should be able to balance a checkbook."

4. "You can't even balance your CHECKbook."

5. "When you don't even TRY to finish your work, you can't expect people to be pleased."

Although the adverb "even" is a perennial topic for linguists, it's also a perennial mystery; no one has ever been able to explain clearly why it works this way. It's clear that "even" interacts with emphatic stresses, and that those stresses make the hostile emotional message more intense, but example #1 above demonstrates that an "even" sentence without them can still be hostile. Notice the difference in meaning between these two dialogues:

Q: "Why is she angry with me?"
A: "You didn't send a card."

Q: "Why is she angry with me?"
A: "You didn't even send a card."

Examples #2 and #3 are illustrations of one of the English Verbal Attack Patterns. As is true for all the VAPs, it's possible to construct contexts in which, when exactly the same words are set to a different tune, their emotional message is not hostile. For instance, a doctor who has been consulted by an elderly patient worried that he or she may be suffering from Alzheimer's could say "Even someone your age should be able to balance a checkbook" and "Even you must be aware that getting lost in your own neighborhood is a grave sign" as a way of breaking the bad news that the patient is right. Still, when I do medical seminars I always suggest that the doctors try to avoid using those patterns, because -- no matter how careful they are about their intonation and tone of voice -- people tend to hear them as hostile. That is especially true for any sentence beginning with "Even you..."

There are many different and intricate ways to get into trouble with "even." As with "manage to [X]," you can't know in advance whether the dialect of the person you're communicating with includes those different and intricate negative "even" constructions; it's safer to avoid the adverb "even" altogether, if you can.

Finally, it's never safe to assume that someone who's not a native speaker of English will be aware of these facts. A native speaker of Albanian or Mandarin or Choctaw might use any of those five example sentences in a language interaction with you without having any idea that they could be understood as insulting; similarly, that person might hear or read them without realizing that they were intended to carry a negative message.