You Know What I Mean: When It Sounds Sort of Close but Isn’t Quite Right

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The first three years I was in high school, we spent six months of the year being taught French and then the other six months of the year being taught Indonesian. Then, in Year 10, we would decide whether to continue with one or the other or to give away foreign language studies altogether. I continued on with French and achieved the best French marks in the entire school the year I was in Year 12 (nothing really to brag about – my marks were just okay and the “honour” just made me wonder how badly everyone else had done). Twenty years later when I finally visited France though, I still knew enough to be able to listen to locals conversing in their native tongue about tourists when they didn’t think anyone on the tour group could understand them. (Australians aren’t big tippers apparently but they thought the Germans were. “Donnez, donnez, donnez,” they said, which means, “Give, give, give.”)

Conversely, I can’t remember a single word of Indonesian. I didn’t enjoy learning it the way I enjoyed learning French, which had a lot to do with how similar it was to English (which, of course, I loved then and still do now). But I remember the Indonesian teacher. I didn’t think so at the time but we were lucky to have an actual Indonesian person teaching us the language. Her English wasn’t great but then I don’t suppose it needed to be. It explains, however, when she was scolding us for not paying attention or for not trying hard enough, why she would say, “Pull your socks together.” (She was trying for either “Pull your socks up” or “Pull yourselves together” and instead ended up somewhere in between.)

Of course, as immature fourteen-year-olds, it only made us laugh. But the fact that English was her second language was a pretty good excuse for getting it not quite right. It’s harder to excuse it when it comes from native speakers but these days it seems to be an ever expanding epidemic.

The difference between high school and university, which I have been told dozens – if not hundreds – of times both while I was studying and since leaving my educational years behind me, was the ability to think critically, to question what we are told or what we think we are being told. To not worry about looking like an idiot but concern ourselves with actually understanding, not just learning (or almost learning) by rote.

There are the obvious “not quite right” moments like mixing up “accept” and “except”, “affect” and “effect”, “amusement” and “bemusement”. There are the errors that occur between what we hear and what eventually makes it onto the page like writing “would of” when it should be “would’ve”, short for “would have”. Then there are the “heard something like it once, can’t remember exactly what it was, but I’m going to go for it” examples. And, of course, there are the “I’ve heard people say this and I know it doesn’t make sense, but who am I to question it?” sayings.

These are a few examples I collected within the space of just two days:

*A cricket commentator who was talking about something that was “praying” [or perhaps it was “preying”?] on his mind
*A news.com.au article about “contract and taught law”
*A pregnant woman complaining about the treatment during her labour with the words “they kept reinstating it”
*A newly drafted football player who talked about how he had “big shoes to fulfil”

Of course, the cricket commentator actually had something “playing” on his mind, the news.com.au journalist should have referenced “contract and tort law”, the pregnant woman meant that they kept “restating it” (as in saying it over and over again) and the football player had “big shoes to fill”. They were close but not quite right.

Public speaking – particularly when speaking without preparation, such as the way commentators and people being interviewed often do – is a genuine talent in itself, as much or possibly even more than writing well because there are so few who do it competently and confidently. Who hasn’t wished they could go back and redo a moment when they said something not quite right or, even worse, something foolish? I know I have. A lot. So much sometimes that I wish I could stop talking altogether and let my writing say everything for me.

But when it occurs in writing, it’s a much bigger sin because we almost always have the ability to go back and correct our writing before anyone sees it. If we have this opportunity but don’t take advantage of it, that makes us not only not quite right (AKA wrong) but also unwise (AKA stupid).

The lesson: when you’re going to use a common saying such as “playing on your mind” or “big shoes to fill” or write about something that you’re not one hundred percent familiar with, make sure you double check that you’ve got it right. Otherwise, instead of focusing on the topic at hand, the people listening to you or reading what you’ve written will focus on your poor style over what may actually be great substance.

Nobody, let alone a writer, should pretend that they know more than they do. (See every politician ever for evidence of this.) It’s enough to know exactly as much as you currently know. That’s usually more than many other people if you stick to your specialist topic. And if you want to know more – and to put yourself out there as knowing more – then do the work to actually know it. Pretending won’t make you any smarter and will, in fact, make you look like an idiot.

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