Did Your Ears Hear What Your Mouth Just Said?


Has your own language played tricks with you recently?  I’m talking about those cases when you say something and a second later you realize that people understand something completely different.  It happened to me twice last week, and I thought it’s an interesting topic to write about.

I bought an item for $5 in a store.  Gave the cashier a $20 bill.  She gave me $10 and $5 back.  I said, “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills?”  What do you think I meant and what do you think she heard?  I needed a few one-dollar bills to give someone two dollars.  She thought, I wanted the change in five-dollar bills and gave me three five-dollar bills instead of $10 and $5.  It took me about three attempts to formulate what I wanted unambiguously: “Can you, please, give me five one-dollar bills?”

Now, what do you think is shown in this picture?

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Two couches side-by-side.  Right?  “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Taking fragments out of context is another interesting topic.

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6 thoughts on “Did Your Ears Hear What Your Mouth Just Said?

  1. I can see where the confusion came in. She heard “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills,” when you said, “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills.” Good one.

    As to the picture…well, you know what I thought I saw when I first looked at it. 😉

    • English is confusing. In English, a word can be a noun or an adjective, depending on where it stands related to other words: “party costume” – “costume party”. In Russian, they use suffixes to make an adjective from a noun and endings to conjugate words by gender, case, etc. So, changing the order of the words is less dangerous and can be used to emphasize words by moving them to the end of the sentence.

  2. A lot can depend on word emphasis. For instance: “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills?” reads (and should sound) different than “Can you, please, give me five dollar bills?”

    But language is notoriously difficult. Each word typically corresponds to a sense impression, but the precise sense impression for any one word may vary between individuals. If I say “airplane”, which image pops into your head: a Cessna or a 747? Often we don’t realize that there are alternate sense impressions our words might be invoking in the person we’re communicating with.

    • There are many reasons why people misunderstand each other. Perhaps, it’s possible to catalog and categorize them. But I doubt that it’s possible to make a complete list. I’ve heard someone say that if there is a 50/50 chance to misinterpret your words, there is a 90% probability that your words will be misunderstood. I try to check what I write for alternative meanings, but it’s harder to do that when I speak.

  3. In view of your topic, a post that might interest you:

    Amphiboly and Amphibology
    by Kuba

    Amphiboly or Amphibology is a form of syntactic ambiguity. That is to say, it describes a linguistic situation in which a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to an ambiguous sentence structure.

    “John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope.”
    “Flying planes can be dangerous.”

    The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose. — Henry VI (1.4.30), by William Shakespeare

    Owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons, it is not uncommon to find amphiboly in poetic literature. This sentence could either be taken to mean that Henry will depose the duke, or that the duke will depose Henry.

    “Thief gets nine months in violin case.”
    “Prostitutes appeal to pope.”

    I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola. — Lola by Ray Davies

    This sentence could mean “Lola and I are both glad I’m a man”, or “I’m glad Lola and I are both men”, or even “I’m glad I’m a man, and Lola is also glad to be a man”. Ray Davies deliberately wrote this ambiguity into the song Lola, referring to a cross-dresser.

    “British left waffles on Falkland Islands.”
    “Juvenile court will try shooting accused.”

    Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis. — often attributed to the Oracle at Dodona

    This Latin phrase could mean “you will go, you will return, never in war will you perish”; however, the other possibility is the exact opposite in meaning “you will go, you will never return, in (the) war you will perish”.

    “Red tape holds up new bridge.”
    “Sex education delayed, teachers request training.”

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