Imprecise language

I’ve read a lot of people saying that one thing or another “can’t” be done and I’ve come to recognize that they mean a number of different things, possibly even contradictory things.

The only things that truly can’t be done are impossible because they violate some fundamental law of nature or because doing so would be a tautological impossibility—impossible by definition.  We can’t destroy energy.  We can change its form or its state but we can’t destroy it.  Or if an inert material is one that doesn’t interact chemically with other materials with which it comes into contact, then, if a material interacts chemically with other materials then it is not inert.
Sometimes when we say that something can’t be done we mean that we don’t know how to do it.  In 1960 if we said “we can’t  go to the moon” it would have been true.  By July of 1969 it wouldn’t have been true any more.

Sometimes when we say that something can’t be done we mean that the economic, political, social, or other costs of a course of action are more than we believe are acceptable.  I’ve written such things myself here at The Glittering Eye.  For example, I really believe that if something is politically impossible it’s impossible period.  But I really mean two distinct things by that sentence. First, I mean that the political costs are higher than I believe are acceptable and, second, I mean that I can’t imagine any set of circumstances under which that calculus would change.

Sometimes when we say that something can’t be done it’s an act of will:  we’re really saying that we don’t want it to happen.

The insidious thing about the latter uses is that circumstances may change and when that happens things that were formerly impossible suddenly become quite possibly, even certain.

Just yesterday I made a comment on someone else’s blog and received quite an angry response.  I quickly realized that we were talking at crosspurposes:  the author meant something very different by “can’t” than I did.  What he really meant was the third meaning—the costs were higher than he thought were acceptable.

So, when you encounter someone saying or writing that such and such can’t be done or is impossible, ask “what does he or she mean by ‘can’t’?”

Perhaps there are other things that people mean by “can’t” but I can’t think of any right now.

6 comments… add one
  • Pardon the off topic question, but I’m trying to find out how I’m getting hits from your site? I just checked my webtraffic and have hits from your site, but I can’t seem to find any links.

    Do you know what may be driving this?

    My wife’s site may also be the target:

    Just curiousity. Sorry to interrupt… 🙂

  • Sorry, Ben. I have no idea why that might be. I just checked each of your sites: I’ve never linked to either one or visited them other than the once just now.

    It’s possible that some webbot is spoofing this site’s address as a means of avoiding screening or detection. I’ll pursue it with my web hosts but I doubt there’s much we can do about it.

  • ed in texas Link

    (snark warning)
    So, you can’t figure why this goes on?
    (snark off)
    VanderLeun over at American Digest has a Carl Propper quote on his comments page that neatly encapsulates this, about ‘not being to communicate in a way that can’t [that word] be misunderstood’.

  • Dave,
    Thanks–but don’t worry. I wasn’t so much concerned as curious. Usually when we get a link it means someone has commented on our site(s) with link(s).

    No worries with me, mate! 🙂

  • reader_iam Link

    Another shade or two or so of “can’t”:

    “I can’t (let myself) believe it.”

    “That can’t be true.” (In what comes down to, whether conscious or not, the sense of not wanting to have to revisit supposedly settled notions.)”

    “They can’t let that happen.”

    Don’t know that these further your excellent point, though.

  • Maybe not, but appreciated nonetheless.

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