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Do You Say What You Mean?

It's generally accepted that the majority of people learn to speak from a very early age, and on average a basic vocabulary is formed between the ages of four and six years old. As we get older our method of using language changes and we end up speaking in such a way that if everything we said was to be taken literally the effects could be amusing or tragic. With language, we know what we want to say; we often think we have said it; unfortunately, more often than not - we haven't.

Some years ago, I worked in a taxi office taking bookings over the phone. You would assume that it would be simple enough to say, “Could I book a taxi please?"
Rule one - never assume!
Requests for taxis came as, "What's your soonest taxi?" "When is your fastest taxi?" "How long is your next taxi?" "What's your next taxi?"
Now obviously I knew they all meant they wanted to order a taxi - but that is not what they said. After a little while, I got to thinking what would happen if I answered their questions literally - so I did. The first of many similar conversations was as follows.

Customer. "How long is your next taxi?"
Me. “About 4 yards.”
Customer. "What?"
Me. "About 4 yards."
Customer. “What the **** are you talking about?"
Me. "You asked me how long my next taxi would be and I told you about 4 yards"
Customer. "You knew what I meant"
Me. " I just answered your actual question."
Customer. " **********!! " Puts the phone down.
(I didn't have a taxi available anyway!)

The above conversation could and probably does have equivalent versions relevant to numerous other occupations and trades. The fact is that where language is spoken it is probably wiser not to take it literally; people tend to get irate if you do. However, it is certainly a bizarre situation that when speaking a language correctly it can cause so much confusion and annoyance to those who don't.

I find it fascinating that in all walks of life people 'half-use' language. They rarely say exactly what they mean clearly and concisely. Having said that, I'm occasionally as guilty as the next person for not saying what I mean, but in general we all let it happen, firstly because we tend to know and understand what people are saying when they speak to us; secondly, we have become too lazy to correct anybody.

Language is continually changing and developing because that's what language does; the rules and usage evolve, not always for the better, but perhaps that is what makes it interesting; so, who knows what sort of fun you will be able to have with it in say five or ten years? In the meantime, try and bear one thing in mind - the next time you order a taxi, ask about the availability of one - and not its external measurements.

About the Author: John Sheridan is a professional proofreader of hard copy items and website copy. He also writes web copy and occasionally accepts small copy-editing assignments. He can be contacted at: website:
This article is the property of the author and may only be reproduced in its original form.

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