Thinking Out Loud

Dangerous Interpretations

I listened to part of Weekend Edition this past Sunday on NPR and heard the letters-to-the-editor segment. Some of the letters referenced a story last weekend about PTSD in military personnel. The letters criticized someone interviewed who used the term, “former veterans.”

On one hand, the term “former veterans” can be somewhat amusing, a slip of the tongue, perhaps. On the other hand apparently it can be construed as a slam against veterans. This was the point of view expressed in the letters to the editor. The writers attributed negative motivation to the interviewee—that to refer to veterans with PTSD as “former” is to negate their status as veterans. I’m not kidding, and I was surprised that NPR chose to read those letters.

I heard the interview in question but do not remember hearing the words “former veterans,” although I do not question the other listeners’ memories. I do, however, question their attribution of motivation. I believe the interviewee made a harmless linguistic error. This person was being interviewed, on the spot if you will. We all make linguistic errors speaking extemporaneously. It is inevitable. To be judged because of these errors is unfair.

There are those with high linguistic sensitivity who go too far in criticizing other’s use of language, especially when the intention really is clear. From the interview, it was clear that the interviewee was not down on soldiers with PTSD. We easily got the gist of what was meant, so to be held hostage for a simple speaking error is unjust.

Use of language is important and we should be careful (without walking on eggshells) about what we say and how we say it. Those who are strong linguistically generally have a better command of language and take great care in the use of words. As I’ve noted in the chapter on the linguistic component in Do You Know What I Mean?(2009), however, one of the potential problems arising from this strength is being overly aggressive with others about their use of language. Doing this can be harmful to relationships and usually causes disruption to true understanding. Surely this is not the intended goal, but is often the net effect.

For those who are linguistically sensitive, it is best to focus on the gist of the communication first, then decide if giving feedback on the use of language will be welcomed and/or helpful. Sometimes inaccurate use of language obscures the true meaning. In that case, again, ask a thoughtful question to make sure you understand what the other person means. That, of course, is the point of communicating—achieving understanding.

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