Monday, February 9, 2009

From “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton

“Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose on lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes, the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest.

All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly.”

1 comment:

Prof Emeritus said...

The older I get, the less I take for granted and thus the more mysteries I sense. Language is one of them.

In teaching statistics, students often ask questions in a way that reveals a likely misunderstanding. If I answered the question as asked, I would mislead. Sometimes, students insist that I answer just what they asked---so I do, then try to explain why the question implied a misunderstanding.