Dancing on the Head of a Pin

I once heard a colleague refer to ‘death by vocabulary’, and she was right.You need to handle vocabulary with care. It is too easy to gloss every interesting word, discuss its various applications and anomalies. Vocabulary is a quagmire which drags you in.

So I should apologise to my student of yesterday for dilating on the (to me) interesting distinction between a pair of compasses and a pair of compasses. Are we talking about a pair of compasses (as we might talk of a pair of dividers), or are we talking about, well, a pair of compasses?

I managed to extricate us both from the impasse, after mulling it for quite some time, by noting that context will usually eliminate any ambiguity, and this is true. Never in the history of all humans has one fatally misunderstood whether another was referencing a pair of compasses or a pair of compasses. It is a false problem.

Philosophers are fond of constructing similar exemplae, in order to demonstrate some point about truth-functions or logical discrimination or whatever it might be, so I suppose they have their place. Language does not have to be sourced from the mostly dreary exchanges of ‘real life’ to be useful or pleasing. Their place is not, however, in the working classroom where time can be wasted on invented minutiae. Perish the thought.

But it is secretly –  and I think I am not alone in this – my favourite bit of teaching. There is nothing I like more than to be presented with a series of imperceptible differences and head-scratching distinctions, whether lexical or grammatical or pragmatical. For the most part, I manage to stop myself running on at impossible length. But just occasionally the need to mull a point in public gets the better of me, and my students get the benefit of my theological reasoning.

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