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Language Use Pet Peeve 2015

I try not to throw stones. As one who uses up a lot of language in a day, I know I live in a filigree crystal house.

But honestly.

“Does that make sense?” seems like a harmless enough utterance. And it would be, if used literally and thus sparingly, only when checking for actual coherence.  Does my proposed action (or perhaps one I have done in the past and just told you about) cohere with other actions?  Does the story I’m telling hang together so that you know who the characters are and what the details mean? Does the argument I’m making have premises and evidence to support the conclusion I’m about to either state or repeat?

Ah, there’s the rub.  “Does that make sense?” is often a disguise for “you agree with me, right?” or more forcefully, “of course you  agree with me.” I wouldn’t say that the person who says this intends it that way, or even realizes they’re being linguistically sneaky, because I’m a communication scholar and have no truck with intention or cognition. I’m on the theoretical bus that says that what matters is the effect, not the intention. Too often, the effect is to push me, sometimes unwillingly, toward nodding in what looks like agreement, not because I DO agree but because it’s so much conversational trouble to say NO, THAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. What came before may make complete sense, I may just disagree with it.

That’s one reason I dislike it.  Another is that it’s become a verbal tic for an awful lot of people.  Instead of “y’know” or “I mean” or “at the end of the day” or “if you will” or any of those other phrases speakers don’t know they’re saying every other clause or two, I hear “does that make sense?” The problem is that it ends with an upward intonation and a pause, and the speaker pauses for a response before they keep going. Either there are a lot of people out there desperate for reassurance that they are, in fact, capable of stringing together a coherent thought, or there’s a contagion effect for verbal tics. 

Either way I would like  to gently tap the next person who says this more than three times in five minutes on the forehead with, say, a stapler.  Just to get their attention, and suggest that they stop saying it until they really mean it.

Can you tell I spent last week at a glorious pragmatics conference having these kinds of conversations all day every day, and that I’m not quite ready for re-entry?

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I try not to throw stones but REALLY ...

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Kristine Muñoz

Curriculum Vitae




Interpersonal Communication