Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's inadequate, and I like it!

If you've hung around me any significant length of time, I've probably either corrected you on an incorrect use of words, or I've asked you to clarify an ambiguous statement. For instance, the statement, "That was a cheap shirt!" can mean A) the shirt was inexpensive, B) the shirt was poorly made, or C) both. If I'm thinking about buying the shirt, I want to know if it's A, B, or C.

However, despite my best efforts to ensure people make clear, correct statements, the English language is fundamentally flawed. It is inadequate as a vehicle for perfectly explicit communication. The crazy thing is: I love it. Here's a stupid joke:

A carrot walks into a bar. The bartender says, "We don't serve food here."

This joke is only possible because English, like any language, has words that are allowed multiple meanings. Or how about this terrible joke:

A string walks into a bar. The bartender says "We don't serve strings here." So the string leaves the bar, and goes crazy: convulsing, twisting, and rubbing himself all over the ground. He then walks back into the bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says "Hey, aren't you that string I just told to get lost?" And the string says, "No, I'm a frayed knot."

This joke works because of those annoying little things we learned about in grade school called "homophones."

Our world would be a dull place without our language's pitfalls of ambiguity, even if it means I still don't know if I should buy that cheap shirt or not.