Monthly Archives: January 2012

Uniqueness isn’t interesting

Every snowflake is unique. Every fingerprint is unique. These facts may be interesting, but they don’t mean that every snowflake or every fingerprint is interesting.

Yesterday I was editing some copy and came across a description of the brain as “this unique organ”. This was meant to be a compliment to the brain, but instead it’s a hopelessly empty description: all it says is that we only have one of them.

Another unique organ is the gallbladder. So is the spleen. And the appendix. But so what? A lot of things are unique in some little way, and if you look in close enough detail, technically everything is. The brain, though, is unique among organs like a phoenix among sparrows, not like a snowflake among other snowflakes.

If you want to make something sound interesting, then think about the qualities that make it unique (or at least distinctive).

What sets the brain apart from the other organs? It’s complex, it’s mysterious, it underlies our mind rather than merely physical functions (although its involvement in processes all over the body is also remarkable). It has these qualities uniquely.

So focus on the qualities rather than the bare fact of uniqueness in some undisclosed respect. The brain is uniquely complex, it’s uniquely mysterious, it uniquely underlies the mind. These statements all carry weight.

Or, if you prefer not to go into specifics like that, you could use a word such as ‘unparalleled’, ‘matchless’, ‘exceptional’ or ‘outstanding’. Only the first two truly imply uniqueness, but all of them – unlike ‘unique’ itself – put the thing so described on a pedestal and tell us that it’s well worth a look.

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Yes we may

It was the end of a PE lesson, and I was putting my shoes back on. “Mrs Cook, can you tie my laces?” I asked. “Yes,” Mrs Cook said, “I can.” She gave me that teachery look of hers and waited for me to figure it out.

That was when I was seven.

Since then, I’ve become pickier about my modal auxiliaries (can, could, may, might, will, would, shall and should). But pedantic correctness isn’t everything, and sometimes it gets in the way of good communication.

A few weeks ago, I approved some copy for a sign for exhibition visitors. It included a line that went like this:

You may use the cloakroom downstairs.

On reflection, I wish I’d changed it to say:

You can use the cloakroom downstairs.

My thinking at the time was that if you’re talking about permission you should use ‘may’ rather than ‘can’, which is about ability. (This is a rule that a lot of people don’t seem to know or care about, so depending on your linguistic ideology you might not think it’s a rule at all.)

My change of mind is based on pragmatics and tone: explicitly telling people that you’re giving them permission to do something (‘you may’) shows them that you’re the one with the power to decide what they’re allowed to do. It risks coming across as haughty or condescending.

But telling people they have the ability to do something (‘you can’) shifts the right of decision-making onto them. And in a context such as my cloakroom sign, it implicitly gives permission – more gently but no less clearly. (We’d have to be mad to tell people about a cloakroom they’re able but not allowed to use, and in most communication there’s a standard presumption of sanity.)

In fact, just telling people they have a certain ability can in such a case give them that ability. The main requirement for using the downstairs cloakroom is the knowledge that it’s there. The ‘can’ version of the sign gives readers the knowledge and thus the power. It’s not quite a performative utterance, but it’s in that sort of territory.

We can often use ‘can’ to imply permission perfectly clearly and more pleasantly than by stating it directly with ‘may’. Yes we can.