There Are Limits, After All

Okay, that does it. I’m going to have to put my foot down. (Ooh, scary.) I’m going to have to get all authoritarian and domineering – all prescriptive instead of descriptive. There’s no help for it.

There was a discussion on Crooked Timber the other day about the odd usage whereby ‘argue that’ means the opposite of what it means. The example that caught Harry’s attention was this one: ‘Though few would argue that children should be protected from exposure to Internet pornography, COPA, the law designed to protect them has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.’ You see the problem? It’s confusing, and stupidly confusing – you realize (from the context) when you get to the end of the sentence that it means the opposite of what you took it to mean when you were in the middle of it. The fool who wrote it meant ‘few would dispute or disagree that’, not ‘few would argue that’. It is stupid and bad, especially with a sentence as long as that because you have plenty of time to think it means one thing so then when you realize it means (because of a silly mistake by the writer of it) the opposite you have to go back and re-understand the sentence. What a waste of time and effort.

Right. Few sensible people would argue I mean disagree that that’s a mistake worth not making, because it causes confusion. Or you would think few sensible people would disagree, but actually some would. Some would say that we can figure out the meaning from the context. Well – yes, sometimes, but at the price of extra effort, which is not normally the goal of using words, so why do it? Isn’t it better to use words to mean what they mean rather than what they don’t mean? Is there some benefit in forcing people to puzzle over the meaning of a word when it ought to be quite straightforward and clear? Rather than guessing at the meaning from context, isn’t it better to know the meaning because the right word was chosen? It seems better to me. Why write or say ‘I’m going to the North Pole tomorrow, I hope it won’t be too hot,’ and expect your readers or hearers to figure out from the context that by ‘North Pole’ you happen to mean Atlanta?

And besides, it’s not even true that it’s always possible to figure out the meaning from the context, and in the case of this particular idiotic usage, it can be impossible, and the meaning of everything one is saying can be entirely misunderstood. This isn’t a mere nuance or shade of meaning. It’s more like standing up in court and saying ‘Guilty’ when you mean ‘Not guilty’ or saying ‘That’s true’ when you mean ‘That’s false.’ Basic. And I’ll give you an example – the example that made me say ‘That does it’ and decide to do this N&C. The example was mentioned at the bottom of that thread at CT. It’s from Matthew Yglesias.

It’s one of the fixed-points of the American national security discourse that it would be A Very Bad Thing if Iran had nuclear weapons. And I won’t argue that it would be preferable for them not to go nuclear.

Since I’ve prepared you with all this ranting, perhaps it won’t seem as bad as it is. But it is just hopeless. The reader has to think too much to figure out what the hell he means. Except I suppose not the reader who has become wholly used to this mistake, but then won’t that reader be confused when ‘argue’ is used to mean ‘argue’ instead of ‘dispute’? No, probably not, because the people who use argue to mean both argue and dispute have only a very hazy grasp of what anything means. Maybe to them ‘argue’ means argue, dispute, laugh, ice cream, hair pin, Ferrari, smoke, armadillo, popcorn, shoe. Whatever. But people like that don’t read B&W. So here’s my foot down. Nobody gets to use ‘argue that’ to mean dispute. Period.

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