It is with great shame that I must report that I have to write about one of my own language failings. When it was bitterly cold the other morning, I reported that I’ve never been that cold before.
While I thought it was an honest statement, with the slightest bit of research (I am a meteorologist, by the way), I quickly was able to prove that this was not the case. The temperature was 7 degrees with a wind chill of -14. It was, indeed, horrendously cold. I have, however, been exposed to much colder conditions at various times in my life, most notably when I was paperboy some 30 years ago and when we had a -17-degree day about 13 years ago.
Those details don’t matter, of course; the point is that saying I’ve never been that cold before tells the listener nothing of importance–unless the listener knows me well enough to make a judgment based on my past experiences. If he knew that I was from Miami, then he would understand the statement; if he knew that I was an Arctic explorer, then he’d be impressed with the statement. Otherwise, the person to whom I’m speaking would have no way to put my experiences into his perspective in order to understand how cold it was.
It would be much more effective to communicate in a way that the other person understands, which means taking the personalization out of it. For example, I could talk about how the biting wind made it feel as if there were ice cubes where my eyes used to be or that it was so cold that I wanted to eat ice cream so that I could feel the warmth going down my throat—all much better and much more descriptive than I’ve never been that cold before.
Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever