What did you mean?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same?
Richard Lederer
1938 –

English is a very rich language, but often, the way we say things can be misinterpreted, leading to confusion and unintended consequences.

There’s a well known case in the British judicial system that illustrates this point. In the early 1950s, Derek Bently, who was nineteen and had a mild intellectual disability, participated in a hold up with another man. That man had a gun, while Derek did not. And the police caught them in the act.

Now, there are a few variations of this story. But according to one version, the policeman told the other man to “give me the gun.” Derek is alleged to have said, “Let him have it.” The other man then shot and killed the policeman.

Many teachers have used this case to illustrate the vital need for clear communication. They posed this interesting question: when Derek said “Let him have it,” what did he mean? To shoot the policeman? Or to give him the gun?

Derek was tried and found guilty of murder. Forty-six years later, British courts granted him a full pardon. But for Derek, it was much too late; he had long since been executed.

It’s unlikely that your ambiguous words will lead to such dire consequences. Still, we need to be more conscious of what we say. While you may know quite well what you mean, it’s more important that the other person clearly understands your meaning. It’s not what you say that counts, but what other people believe you mean.

If you reflect for a few minutes, I’m sure you can think of many instances in your life where there were misunderstandings that resulted in hurt feelings or broken relationships, both personal and business — all because of poor communication.

I’ve forgotten many things about my high school algebra class. But one thing I still vividly remember to this day was my teacher’s favorite adage: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” That’s great advice you can use every day of your life.

Talking and eloquence are not the same: to speak, and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk but a wise man speaks.
Ben Jonson
c. 1573 – 1637

Copyright © 2018 John Chancellor


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