Slips of the Tongue

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I depart from Reflections about politics and economics to mention a couple of curiosi- ties of English style that intrigue me.

The first curiosity is weakening intensifiers. While skimming an article in Architectural Digest (August 2010) about a luxurious home on Lamu Island, Kenya, I read: “Most of the island’s streets aren’t wide enough to accommodate cars, and as a result there aren’t really any to be found.” Without “really,” the sentence would mean that there are no cars on the island, period; with it, the sentence concedes that, well, there are a few.

I have made up a couple more examples. In reply to “Where is Gingrich speaking tonight?”, the answer, “Surely at the Elks’ Lodge,” or “At the Elks’ Lodge, I’m sure,” implies some doubt that is absent from the straightforward “At the Elks’ Lodge.”

“Surely you’re not going to have another beer,” especially if pronounced with a questioning tone, implies a suggestion or admonition, not a prediction or a resolve. Without the “surely,” the sentence implies a statement of fact, something like “We [your companions] are cutting you off,” or “We’re driving you home right now.”

More puzzling than weakening intensifiers is a style in use by docents at historical places. In a TV program about W.R. Hearst and his castle, a docent says: “Here is where Hearst would have stood to greet his dinner guests.” Why not just “stood” or “used to stand”? The “would have” suggests to me something like: “Here is where Hearst would have stood to greet his guests if he hadn’t died before his castle was completed.”

In a tour of a pre-Revolutionary plantation, the docent says of the separate kitchen building, “Here the servants would have prepared the meals before carrying them into the big house.” The “would have” suggests that the kitchen did not in fact serve as intended; perhaps the owner’s bankruptcy left the plantation and its house and outbuildings unoccupied for many years.

In a tour of an early American village, the visitor hears: “This is the church where the townspeople would have held their annual town meetings.” Well, did the townspeople in fact hold their meetings there, or somewhere else? Apparently it’s a mystery, though not as mysterious as why our fellow Americans go so far out of their way to say things they don’t literally mean.

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