Destroying Trust with Just a Verb

The Associated Press decided to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its reporting. Their point: the term ‘illegal’ should be applied to actions, but not to persons. It’s the immigration equivalent of, “hate the game, not the player.”

Of course, that’s red meat to a lion for some. Senator John McCain said, “You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal. There’s a big difference…I’ll continue to call it illegal.” And so the battle is joined. Where one side sees respect, another sees absurd political correctness.

This is a worthless, useless, and totally unnecessary argument. It is also typical of a great many pretend arguments – full of energy and fury, truly signifying nothing.

And who’s the culprit? A verb. To be precise, the verb “to be.” I’m not kidding.

The Tyranny of the Verb “To Be”

In Spanish (and other Romance languages, I think), the English “to be” actually has three forms: estar, tener, and ser. Estar refers to a temporary condition: he is tired, she is in Europe, I’m sick. Tener refers to “having” a passing state – I have hunger, you have thirst, he has luck. Ser, the third form of “to be,” has to do with permanence: he is a man, you are virtuous, she is from the US.

In English, all those forms translate into one word, to be: I am, you are, he is.

Why is that a problem? Consider these interactions:

“The new Bond movie is great.” “No it isn’t, it stinks.”

“He is always negative.” “No, he’s just realistic.”

“You’re not serious.” “I am totally serious!”

“He’s an illegal.” “How can you be so judgmental?”

Because we have only one verb in English to cover so many situations, we end up bludgeoning each other. Since we can’t distinguish our several meanings, we assume others mean the same thing we do.  And when it turns out they meant something else, we chalk it up to obtuseness and  bad will on their part.

Which explains why I always have good intentions – but you! You’re always working some angle.

The American Burden

We’re not about to add two new verbs to American English (I can’t speak for the British or the Strines). But it’s not like we’re handcuffed. All we need is a little clarity of thinking.

1. Distinguish between actions and actors. The AP had this one right. You can still morally condemn people if you want – just don’t be sloppy about your definitions of morality.

2. Distinguish between your preferences and the other’s characteristics. I am not annoying – you are annoyed.

3. Avoid using personal pronouns with “to be” except for “I” and “it.” We have a right to say “I am __.”  We don’t have the same right to say “you are __” or “he is __.”  Only a rocking chair is oblivious to the difference.

I am fairly confident it’ll work for you. Unless you’re seriously pigheaded, that is.

3 replies
  1. Gary S. Hart
    Gary S. Hart says:

    Many peoples, families, friends, and coworkers are divided by common language. Charlie, reading your post left me wondering to which definition of “common” Shaw referred.

    Reply
  2. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Gary, I think you’re referring to his comment about “Two nations, divided by a common language,” referring to the US and Great Britain. A very apt comparison, as in both cases, each party thinks they know what the other party means – but it turns out we don’t. Why they eat spotted dick over there, for example, escapes me entirely. 🙂

    Reply
  3. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. It’s an oxymoron. Either one is an illegal alien or one is an immigrant (which by definition makes the person legal.)

    Reply

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