Simon Cowell of American Idol fame has published a new book titled I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But. The surprising thing is not that he has written such a book -- Who else knows more about being rude than Mr. Cowell? -- but that Oprah, who is the quintessential nice person, has given her imprimatur to Cowell's book.
1. I don't mean to sound rude, but we sure get a lot of really inane posts here
2. I don't mean to interrupt but did you hear that Sam married Sally?
3. I'm not trying to tell you what to do, but you should consider acting a little nicer to your boss.
are very strange for in saying or writing them, we commit the very offenses against our norms of politeness -- Don't be rude; Don't interrupt; Don't tell people how they should act -- that we say we don't intend to commit. Compare an example like (1) with (4) to get a sense of why they are odd.
4. I don't mean to say that Mr. Cowell is rude but Mr. Cowell is rude.
Sentence (4) makes no sense whatever. Though it looks a bit like a contradiction it isn't one. However, like a contradiction, it doesn't communicate anything -- at least not anything specific. On the other hand, (1)-(3) are perfectly comprehensible.
To understand what is going on here we have to recognize that when we speak (or write) we are doing things (see Wikipedia on Speech Acts) besides simply talking. In the case of (1)-(3), we actually are doing two quite distinct things. With the second part of these sentences we are saying something that would normally be taken to be offensive. With the first part, we are trying to mitigate this offense by saying that we do not intend to be committing the very offense we are in fact committing. What is interesting is that we normally do not take offense when something like (1)-(3) is said to us. We seem to have a social convention that legitimizes them.
This will not always work. Suppose I am a stranger to you and that I say (5) to you.
(5) I don't mean to be rude but you are exceedingly fat.
I feel pretty confident that you would not give me a free pass in this case. It is more likely that you would coldcock me.
Examples like these are just one small case of the politeness phenomena that abound in the use of English or any other language. We will have occasion to touch on many others in later blogs.