ozarque (ozarque) wrote,
ozarque
ozarque

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Linguistics; verbal self-defense; English VAPs -- degrees of "badness"

Archangelbeth commented:
"But the 'if you really loved me' construction is a pretty common 'danger signal.' (And probably shows up as 'If you REALLY LOVED me' in the stresses. )

I almost agree. Almost.

"If you really loved me," all by itself and without the extra emphatic stresses cannot, in my opinion, be characterized as a danger signal. It occurs in entirely loving utterances like this one:

"If you really wanted to be on the baseball team, honey, you'd go to every single practice. I know you would. You're not the kind of kid who does things halfway. I have a feeling that you're only saying you want to be on the team because you think your father and I will be disappointed if you don't. And I want you to know that that's not true -- we only want you to play baseball if it's something you really want to do."

Medical literature, including nursing literature, is filled with articles and clever sidebars with titles like "How to Spot the Manipulative Patient" and "Is Your Patient Violent? Listen for These Ten Signals!" and "The Ten Most Typical Utterances of the Hypochondriacal Patient" and so on. At clinics and hospitals I see these lists of utterances tacked up on bulletin boards for everyone to read, and with the best of intentions. The problem is that the examples provided don't have any information about the tune the utterances would be set to -- no indication of tone of voice or intonation or other body language. For example, over and over I've seen the following sentence listed as diagnostic of the manipulative patient:

"The doctor said I can have something for pain whenever I want it."

I'd readily agree that "The DOCTOR said I can have something for PAIN whenever I WANT it!" (or any other version of those words with several extra emphatic stresses added), when it comes from a native speaker of American English, is probably an attempt at manipulation. But with no information about the tune the words are set to, we can't know that. Suppose the doctor says to the patient, "When the nurse comes in, tell him/her that I said you can have something for pain whenever you want it." How is the patient supposed to follow the doctor's orders without using those words?

The problem in the medical literature is primarily an editing problem. Editors and writers dislike the way written English looks when it's all over capital letters and italics and boldface and exclamation marks and similar truck; they don't want to be associated with that sort of thing. And they will tell me that none of those graphic doodads are necessary, because "When people read the sentence, they will hear it in their mind as it would be spoken." That's true -- but one person will hear the sentence as a vicious parent would have spoken it, another will hear it as a loving friend would have spoken it, and others will hear it in still other ways. Unless the writer indicates the tune that's intended, the reader will hear a tune based on his or her own perceptions and experience, and it may be quite a different tune.

Archangelbeth also commented that there are various degrees of "badness" and provided a number of useful examples. On this point I agree with her without reservation. Both dysfunctional families and fully functional families will have a hammer around the house somewhere, but only in a family where things have gone very wrong will the hammer be used to hit somebody or destroy the furniture. A hammer, all by itself, isn't a danger signal.

Suzette
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