Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I mean, "I mean" is driving me crazy

Yeah, I mean.

The phrase "I mean" very often occurs in contemporary English as an assertion preface in replies to questions by interviewers. An example of this sort of use of "mean" is:
Q: How well do you think you played today?
A: (Well) I mean I think I played a little bit better than last week.
After the Ohio State vs Northwestern football game, the very, very (academically) young freshman QB for Ohio State prefaced virtually every response with "I mean." Some others used it frequently. Some not at all. The beginning sentence in this post is from my speech. I was in a friendly argument with an uncle during a telephone call and "Yeah, I mean" prefaced an interruption by me. I heard it later in the day from a political person on CNN or MSNBC with "well" where I said "yeah". So, this is infecting the nation I fear. Sadly there is no protective medical treatment.

The main problem with this use of "mean" is that it is not at all transparent in meaning, which is a bad thing for the word "mean" to do to us. It is not a constituent of the utterance it prefaces and so contributes nothing to the meaning of the utterance. So, it is very different from
1. a."Ich" means `I'. Conventional meaning equivalents.
b. "I" refers to the speaker/writer of an utterance/sentence. Conventional meaning, but in this case dealing with the referent of the expression -- reference is meaning in this case.
Nor it is exactly like
2. a. I did not mean to hurt you.
b. Life without faith has no meaning.
c. Dark clouds mean rain.
d. McCain's choice of Palin is unpatriotic -- I mean, how can putting so unprepared a person one heartbeat from the Presidency when you are quite old.
So, what does "mean" mean in the odd cases we have focused on? I believe the answer is that it is an extension of the use of mean in (2d) where one is explicating the foundation or underlying "gist" of what was said (see my blog The Meaning of Meaning). It is like "what I mean is that." However this analysis does not fully square with the examples that got me interested, namely those of the football players. I think it is possible that the speaker is attempting to communicate "gist"directly and thereby direct attention away from actual wordage and the conventional meaning of what he is saying to the gist of what he is saying. This is not terribly different from (2b) where the "gist" of what was communicated is being supplied.

I could easily be wrong about this. Please advise me as to your views.

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Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I think "I mean" is just a new incarnation of "in a manner of speaking" or "so to speak." The German version, "sozusagen," is a favorite among grad students here in Berlin, so it's not just the jocks who use such words. I once tried to count the number of times a student said "sozusagen" during his presentation...but alas!

I understand the meaning to be: "what I am about to say will not be said well, nor will it even make sense, but rest assured that if one of us figures out what I want to say, a brilliant idea will be revealed."

Thanks again for the great blog.

6:37 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you, Mr. Wind. I like your account. "In a manner of speaking" does direct one to the "gist" of what one is saying and confirms (naturally I would say this) that it is gists we attempt to communicate, selecting the linguistic form we think best communicates it. A person who lacks confidence in speaking would be drawn to this but as you say, lots of people, including people with confidence, use the expression.

What I don't know is how long this has been in current English. Did it take highly frequent use to bring it to my attention? Possible.

8:46 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I have to say, I've learned from you that "I mean" sounds trite or uncertain. Much better to say, "Let me clarify," or something more definitive then, "I mean,".

You say it is that "it is not at all transparent in meaning", meaning that it is opaque. That is the real gist of "I mean" in this context. No wonder it sticks in the craw.

8:59 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In the uses I am talking about, concerned, it doesn't mean "Let me clarify" since nothing has been said yet that needs to be clarified. That is what "I mean" means in quite standard uses, where one says something and then immediately or after being asked, provides clarification. This is what is going on in the McCain-Palin example: "McCain's choice of Palin is unpatriotic -- I mean, how can putting so unprepared a person one heartbeat from the Presidency when you are quite old."

8:11 AM

Blogger Micah Neely said...

I like Fripon's final explanation of what it means.
I would add that it does not necessarily have a denotative meaning. I think it is just a discourse marker signaling uncertainty about the following statement or deference to the interlocuter. In any case, I think it is annoying because it seems weak, or like any "nonfluency" (like, uh, um, so----, well) is a symptom of our discomfort towards silence.

12:21 AM

Blogger Tromper said...

As one who teaches English, I must admit that the overuse of such expressions grate on my hearing. In the case of "I mean," I wonder if it has arisen from the same pit that spawned the overuse of the exclamation point: hyperbole and deception in advertising and other public discourse. So, speakers - the young quarterback you note and others - feel they must preface what they say with the qualifier to let listeners know "I mean this. It isn't just hype."

Just a thought.

6:28 PM

Blogger Her Majesty said...

Greetings, Language Guy.

How about this. Your QB seems to assume meaning in the question, therefore his own utterance of the "I mean" could be:

1: Projection. QB believes interviewer means something more than what is given in the question and tries to say so much, without saying so much, and then supplies the answer to what he thinks lies behind the question, or

2: Assumption. Something of a preface to my own #1 there, and with the same idea. I mean (sans comma) I should've put these in the other order. Your QB is assuming the question suggests comparison, and I get that idea because the answer contains it.

Glad to've found your blog, by the way.

11:47 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I get it.
At least I'm not guilty of that particular form(?) of vagueness in my speech.

I know this is a bit off the subject, but I think there might be some relevancy here.
I have a problem with telephone interviews. I always feel uncomfortable doing them. For this reason when I'm called by a reporter & asked to answer a few questions on the phone I always beg off & at least set up a time, so I can prepare myself more or less.
I've tried to figure this out & solve the problem. For one thing, I've always hated long pauses during telephone conversations & will generally try to fill the gap, so to speak. Well, this doesn't work with phone interviews to reporters, because I've learned that when speaking to the press, less is more, meaning the less you say the less that can be pinned on you, taken out of context, or just generally used to make you look like an idiot.
Trying to fill in the gap, or addressing a "pregnant pause" often results in redundancy, blather, or over explanation.

Micah neely's thought that, "any "nonfluency" (like, uh, um, so----, well) is a symptom of our discomfort towards silence." resonates with me.

11:34 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Saying these particles may somtimes be signs of disfluency characterizes them from the perspective of the observer, not the person speaking. They give us a moment to gather our thoughts without losing the floor (right to speak). There is not real disfluency there so much as filled pauses. They are exacerbated by lacking confidence in one's relationship to the hearers or knowledge of the subject matter.

6:39 AM

Blogger linguistpro.net said...

Unfortunately, the "I mean" problem is not the biggest one in the modern English.

3:32 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Who said it was the biggest problem. It is an interesting phenomenon and so I blogged on it. Moreover, I am not sure English has problems. Some speakers might have a problem with it.

8:37 AM

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Music to my ears. I speak Russian and let me assure you, not only English speakers have a problem of that sort. It's natural to use speech fillers, and most of us do in everyday life. In Russian the equivalents of "I mean" would be "kak skazat'", "nu..." or worse "tipo". When there are plenty of thoughts in one's head, but the brain does not contain the vocabulary required to express them, the "trash words" pop up to fill the air while the loading bar in one's brain is running. It does not sound pretty, nor does it sound smart. While learning English, it took me quite a while to get over the "Well...I mean..." phase. But as one's vocabulary grows, the "trash words" disappear;-)

12:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I would be shocked were things different in other language cultures. Right now, I am being annoyed with "moving forward," which seems to be used by athletes, talking heads, business types, etc.

8:00 AM

Blogger Nadezhda said...

All those phenomena are natural for any language. I wouldn't take it to heart. Look at it as the evolutionary development, when speakers have the right and ability to shape the language. Although most of the time it looks like it's not evolution at all, more like degradation.

4:10 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

A positive view, Nadezhda, would be that clever people create clever sayings and the less clever adopt them thereby slightly elevating their linguistic repertoire.

8:42 PM

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Ouch,not at all. We both know that most of the clever sayings historically come from the bottom, the people, changing as time passes and turning into proverbs and set expressions. Most of those creators were simple peasants, not clever or educated at all. Please, note, that I am not talking about just the origin of English, but most of the Romance, Germanic and Slavonic languages. Of course the smart and educated people have their share in the fund, but it's not as extensive. Any language is the mirror reflection of the people who speak it.
Thanks for bringing up such interesting topics,Language Guy;-)

4:08 PM


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