Taking Things Literally

While writing yesterday, I was thinking about my tendency to think about language in general as I’m going about my daily life. Obviously this is something I do more often since beginning to work in the English-language teaching industry, but I realised that I’ve actually been doing it for a long time: just not in the same way.

The first sign was probably when I was four or five and in my first years of primary school. When giving us homework, the teacher would usually say, Tonight, I want you to… Nothing strange about that. Or so she thought…

The first time I was given homework, everything was going fine until, probably at about 6pm on a September evening, my mother told me that I could do my homework at that point. To which I replied:


I generally wasn’t a troublesome child, so this refusal came as something of a surprise to everyone.

Why not? I’m sure my mother asked at that point.

Because, I replied, it’s not night yet.

What? I imagine was her confused reply.

I said, It’s not night! Teacher told us to our homework tonight, so I have to wait until it’s dark!

Everyone then tried to convince me that it was OK to do my homework before it got dark, but I was having none of it. I’m sure I eventually did my homework before nightfall (which, in September, would have been after my bedtime), but I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted me to do my homework so early. The teacher had said to do it at night, so why would I do it in the afternoon or evening? What if she found out and I got in trouble? I was so adamant that my parents had to ask her to explain to me that I could do it any time after school.

A few years later I had a similar situation. We were taking a ferry to one of the many islands off the coast of Galway, perhaps Inis Mór, on a new boat which on many signs proudly advertised the fact that the voyage only took 35 minutes. I didn’t think much about this (I’d never been there before so I had no idea how impressive the speed should have been), but someone in my family got my attention when they were talking about the speed and said out loud thirty-five minutes.

No, I thought. That’s wrong.

You see, not long before that, we’d been learning about time in school, and one of the things that the teacher taught us was that we call a period of 30 minutes half an hour. Logically then, we should say that the journey takes half an hour and five minutes (whatever about my linguistic abilities, you can’t fault little me’s maths skills).

Here we go again, everyone thought, and tried to explain to me that people actually say 35 minutes. But I was having none of it. No-one says 30 minutes, I was sure of that (I hadn’t been sufficiently exposed to American English at the time to know better). You can say 10 or 20 minutes or whatever, but then after 29 it changes to half an hour. So 35 minutes was half an hour and five minutes, and presumably every length of time from 31 to 59 minutes should be similarly structured, though I don’t think I’d thought it out that much.

Considering that I often defend non-standard usage of English here, you might be surprised that I was so rigid and literal in my childhood. In my defence, I think I just hadn’t been exposed to adults using language enough to notice that these apparent inconsistencies were actually quite normal.

Over time though, I developed the linguistic and social intelligence to notice what people did and didn’t say. Occasionally I might still feel that I was right on some things and everyone else was wrong (and that may often have been the case), but generally I unconsciously accepted that language is dictated by consensus, and not by what a five-year-old thinks should be right, regardless of how unjust such a world clearly is.

I could sometimes be pedantic about cases where the majority of people were strictly making mistakes, like with apostrophes, I/me, or who/whom. Most of that stubbornness disappeared though when I began teaching English, and realised that effective communication is more important than perfect accuracy.

It’s interesting that the internet has led to more people taking a prescriptive approach to language like little me. Safe in their anonymity, it’s easy to insist on being strict about language usage when you don’t have to confront people face to face.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to the internet when I was five. I probably would’ve have found some other people who agreed with my ideas and reinforced them. There are some positive aspects to growing up and saying goodbye to your youth!

7 thoughts on “Taking Things Literally

  1. I was like this too. Correcting adults when I was in first grade, I remember that, and what trouble I got into, so I learned to keep it to myself. That precision in language use came in handy later on when I had a job that required using and writing legal documents! Perfect for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you learned to hang on to precision in language. It’s a great thing to have, especially in the legal profession. But learning people don’t like to be lectured is a vital life lesson 😊.


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