Sunday, January 6, 2013

Rhetorical Idioms Should be Said in the Right Order

It is common when using rhetorical idiomatic phrases to switch the order of clauses from what actually conveys the idea.  People usually understand anyway, because they recognize an idiom.  However, they may only get it by context, because they see what you are arguing for overall.  In particular, I'm talking about:

Even...let alone/never mind

No matter what anybody says, you have to apply the word "even" to the correct word or phrase to get the right meaning.  This word sometimes goes along with "let alone", which can also be used without "even" (in which case, "even" is implied).  Thus,
They can't meet even less stringent requirement, let alone meet more stringent requirement.
They can't meet less stringent requirement, let alone meet more stringent requirement.
The word "even" in this usage refers to the item which is in some sense less.  The phrase "let alone" applies to the greater.  "Never mind" can fulfill the function of "let alone" in this type of sentence.  (In a lot of cases "even" is applied to the greater, but here there is a negation involved.)

Here is an example to contrast the right way and wrong way to use the phrase "let alone".  A similar line of example (and argument) would apply for "even" or "let alone".
Right:  Darren can't play the kazoo, let alone the tuba!
Wrong:  Darren can't play the tuba, let alone the kazoo!
Consider the logic of the right way of saying the above phrase:  If Darren lacks the ability to play the kazoo (which for some reason we are sure about--or feign ourselves so to be), we most certainly should not entertain the thought that he can play the tuba.  The tuba is way harder!  We should leave off from having such an idea.  We should discontinue thinking that way.  We should "let it alone" and "never mind" such a thought.  On the other hand, suppose we are only confident that Darren cannot play the tuba.  Should we "let alone" or "never mind" the possibility that he can play the kazoo?  We should not let alone such an idea, for many have this lesser ability who do not have the ability to play the tuba.  (Somewhere out there, a professional kazoo player is burning up.)

You might think I am being unduly prescriptive.  After all, you might reason, since people will know that kazoos are easier to play than tubas, they will understand the intended logic whether I use the Right way or the Wrong way.  I have two reasons for insisting (other than being annoyed at the Wrong way,..., okay, so I have three reasons):

Firstly, misunderstandings can happen when one or both of the two things thus compared are unfamiliar to the audience.  What is alarming to me is that some people seem to systematically use the Wrong way.  If I find myself reading from someone who always says it the Wrong way (unbeknownst to me) and I don't know very much about the two things (in our example, the kazoo and tuba), I will come away with the erroneous idea that playing the kazoo is much harder than playing the tuba!  As I consider the context I will probably find myself confused because I will intuit an inconsistency between what they are currently saying and what they previously said.  Then I will have to figure out which of the things which they have said they actually mean or which of the things I have misapprehended.  In this case, because we do know about kazoos and tubas, it is actually quite hard to think of the Wrong way as meaning what it literally says.  I tried, it was hard.  (But the Wrong way still bothered me!)  That is probably what leads to this phrase being so hard for people to keep straight.

Secondly, but more importantly for you:  The reason you decided to use this rhetorical idiom, was to pack a little punch in your argument or reply.  By reversing the order, you are set to make the impact of a wet noodle, which is probably not what you're looking for.

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