...but words can make my head explode.
More and more often I encounter sentences that hurt me. It isn't a problem of poor grammar--though that can play a role. It isn't that the intention of the sentence is dumb, though the dumbness coefficient can be a factor. The kind of sentence that hurts me is one that is slightly off-kilter and makes me stop and think about what exactly what is wrong with it and ponder on what sort of person could say it without making their own head throb.
A simple example. There is a church not too far away that puts up "clever" things on a sign out in front. The most recent one proclaimed, "God opens doors no one can shut."
If the goal was to make me think, it succeeded. My first thought was, "Huh?" and that ought to have been enough. But the statement is the kind that nags at me because it lacks both symmetry and focus. If it were, "God opens doors no one else can open," I'd be fine with it. It's banal, but it has a clear message.
I guess I'd even be happy with, "Once God opens a door, no one can close it again," which is what I think the framer of the sentence meant, though it leaves me wondering if God can close a door God has opened. It would be pretty inconvenient in the Celestial Mansion otherwise. I mean, how would He let the dog out without the door remaining stuck open forever? Perhaps God has servants, and they can both open and close doors, so long as God stays away from the the doorknob. Presumably God has to be careful not to absentmindedly pop open the door for the mail guy, or the whole thing is ruined--nobody can shut it again, and there's nothing for it but to board up the gap with plywood and use the sliding glass doors out on the patio to enter and leave.
But the statement calls for a deeper metaphysical examination. If no one can shut it, how did the door get closed in the first place? I've hung a few doors, and I can assure you that they don't start off shut. You have to get things all lined up, and the pins hammered down, before you can do anything with them at all.
I can't believe that these are the thoughts the pastor wanted to evoke when the decision was taken to tell everyone driving down Baker Street in Costa Mesa that "God opens doors no one can shut."
Here's another, more screwed-up example--and I wanr you in advance that this one can cause lasting neuralgia. Until very recently, there were large signs in baggage claim at Honolulu International Airport which informed us that "Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be." Let's say that again:
"Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be."
Not only is that grammatically inscrutable, it appears to be asserting something utterly bizzare: Because that looks like my bag, it might not be my bag. The reason it might be somebody else's bag is because it looks like mine. So does it follow that bags that don't look like mine probably are mine? Is there an equally problematic corollary that states "Just because a bag doesn't look like yours, it might be" or, with somewhat better agreement between the parts of the sentence, "Don't assume a bag isn't yours just because it doesn't look like your bag"?
Why not just post a sign that says "Many bags mutate during transit. Assume nothing, trust no one."?
I don't see why they couldn't say something more straightforward, like "Many bags look alike. Please check luggage tags carefully." They might have considered a few alternatives before they had dozens of large expensive signs manufactured.
This problem of agreement between parts of a sentence not only stops me dead, it can hit me with real, physical force. The kind of yoga I practice (Bikram Yoga) was taught to all of the instructors by the originator of the system, who speaks English as a second language, and many of them tend to parrot his precise locutions. I can forgive being told to do something "with your exactly forehead," or even with "your both arms"; indeed, it's sort of charming.
But in one of the most strenuous of the balancing postures, Standing Bow (dandayamana dhanurasana), they occasionally encourage us by asserting, "The harder you kick, you can stay in this posture forever!"
The clause that prefaces this sentence demands agreement or contrast. I guess the original sentence was probably something like "The harder you kick, the easier it is to stay in this posture. Kick hard enough, and you can stay there forever!" But the way they actually say it, leaving the "harder" seeking a comparison word in the next part of the sentence, is enough that it sometimes knocks me right out of the pose. One of these days I'm going to fall down and injure myself, all because of that lonely "harder."
I'm not one of those Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. I can survive and thrive in a world filled with unneeded apostrophes ("Apply now for Summer Job's!") or quotation marks for emphasis where they really imply sarcasm ('Try our "delicious" food!'). But ill-conceived sentences scar the actual tissue of my brain.
To show how permanent the damage is, I'll leave you with one more, which I first saw in a menu at a Zippy's restaurant in Hawaii...back in 1979. Beneath a picture of an unusually extragant ice-cream sundae was a description that began "An illusion of grandeur!"
That's a true gem. In fact, that's screwed up in too many ways to discuss. And in only four words.
Come to think of it, even though I promised that would be the last one, now that I'm off on Hawaii, I can't resist mentioning the sign at the University of Hawaii Computing Center that warned "No smoking, beverages, food, and pets." If there is anywhere on earth that ought to know the difference between AND and OR, it is a university computer center. "IF (Huge) AND (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" is standard computer logic, "IF (Huge) OR (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" will tell you that you have an elephant when you are looking at a mouse.
I was often tempted to stroll in the door with a lit cigarette, a Coke, and a dog. According to the sign, I wouldn't be breaking the rule.
But I knew how this would be received. Some surly computer center employee would have tossed me out, and when I explained the literal meaning of their sign, they would have snarled that I could understand what they had meant.
Well, you know what? The fact that people can probably puzzle out what was meant ain't enough.
God can answer questions no one can ask.