Wednesday, July 8, 2009

This and that

More linguistic nonsense. If you're a words dork, like certain author-blogger-editors I could name, you notice the way people say and write things. In Abu Dhabi, I am surrounded by a simmering jambalaya of different accents and usages: British, Australian, Arabic, Taxiese... the list is long and distinguished. (insert Top Gun reference here)

But lately I have noticed a new one. When the guy sitting next to me, code named "Karl," calls someone, he'll say, "is that so and so?" when the call is connected. Me, I say, "is this so and so." And 10 minutes ago, I got a call from a bank in which the caller asked, "is that Mr. Matthew?"

So, as editors tend to do, I'm sitting here trying to figure out who is right. On the one hand, there is a certain logical harmony to saying "is that x?" because, well, "this" would refer to the speaker (this is Mr. Matthew speaking) whereas "that" would refer to some external person (that is the person to whom I am speaking.)

On the other hand, if you hear an unidentified voice on the other end of the phone, wouldn't you ask, "who is this?"

On the third hand--yes, just pretend you're an alien for a second--grammatically speaking, the answer is a little vague. "This" is to be used for something close to the speaker; "That" is to be used for something far from the speaker. It's just a matter of mental gymnastics. The telephone speaker is a half-inch from my brain, yet the person on the other end of the phone is, say, in Chicago.

So, whatever. We're all correct. Except for all the people who try to put a "u" in "favorite."


Erin said...

I kept getting asked, "Are you alright there?" while shopping in the UK. I thought I must have been going around looking confused. I guess it's just their version of "Do you need help?"

Karl Smith said...

Exactly so. By and large, Brits hate being pestered by shop assistants. The slightly passive-aggressive "are you alright there?" formula is about the only way they get away with it.

And "this" and "that", I think, are more or less analagous to "me" and "you". I am this. You are the other. Especially in Doyle's case.