Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why Do We Know Not "Seems"?

Granted, I am unusually attached to words and perhaps over-sensitive to their fine shades when they're piled against one another in various shapes, but, it seems to me that we could change the nature of argument if everyone would open their statements of opinion with the phrase: "It seems to me..." (See what I did there?)

Hamlet, doing her Yorick
monlologue. Not what it seems, eh?
But, think about it: everything is about how is "seems" to us. Hamlet may "know not 'seems'," but the rest of us do. And if something "seems" a certain way to us, the implication is that it is an at-the-moment kind of thing. There is an unspoken admission that the speaker could actually be wrong.

Normally, I instruct my writing students to argue with a tone of absolute confidence; to leave out "I feel" and "I think." And I still believe that is important. These days, however, we might just need to allow some doubt in to our arguments for the sake of avoiding the literal and metaphoric fisticuffs that dominate the modern agumentative stage.

If the point of argument is not simply to win the argument, but to arrive at the truth, there is good reason to allow for shifts based on the perspective of how things "seem" to others...


  1. I've been learning German now for about a decade, and I've learned that when you speak the language politely and correctly, it has several built-in grammatical features that do something similar to what you'd like to see in English. For one thing, there are several "flavoring particles," short words that can't be translated into English but which soften a statement to make it sound less blunt. There's also a continuum of adverbs you drop into statements of opinion to suggest how solidly you hold to the opinion you're expressing. And it's considered unusually rude to attack the person holding a contrary opinion; you reply to the opinion itself.

    In reality, I don't find that Germans cling to their personal opinions any less tightly than the rest of us do, but I've come to appreciate the politeness that surrounds discussions in their language, because formally embedded in the grammar itself is a tiny concession: hey, I could be wrong.

    1. Language is such a snapshot of the collective personality of a culture. I can't think of a better example than German...