The voice of authority

Yesterday on FB a query from my friend P (exchanges edited to remove personal chitchat):

A company is creating an outgoing voice message and they have come to blows over sentence structure. My suggestion to them is to fight bigger battles — but, alas, here we are.

They are going to the mat on “how can I” vs “how I can.”

Given your expertise, which is better?

“Thanks for calling COMPANY. Please tell me, in detail, how CAN I help you?
“Thanks for calling COMPANY. Please tell me, in detail, how I CAN help you.”

Interlude. Telephone service from Ernestine, the Lily Tomlin character from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

Ernestine was a brash, tough and uncompromising telephone operator who generally treated customers with little sympathy. Ernestine often snorted when she let loose a barbed response or heard something salacious; she also wore her hair in a 1940s hairstyle with a hairnet, although the character was contemporary. Her opening lines were often the comical “one ringy dingy… two ringy dingy”, and, “is this the party to whom I am speaking?” In the sketches, Ernestine was usually at her switchboard taking calls. She occasionally called her boyfriend, Vito, a telephone repair man, or her pal Phoenicia, another operator. (from Wikipedia)

P’s suggestion as to a meaning difference. P continued:

My take from a professional communication POV was “How can I…” is a question looking for an answer with the understanding that the COMPANY is looking for both permission and direction.

Whereas “how I can” conveys a sense that the company knows it has permission to help and is seeking direction for exact action to be taken.

This is such a small piece, but the egos are big. What is your ruling?

My response.

The two constructions are, broadly, just alternatives, but they differ in the (in)directness of the quotational complements to a speech verb in them; the result is that they are subtly different in tone but also in conveyed meaning.

The first cut is between direct and indirect quotation: the first reproduces the wording of the original speech, and is customarily punctuated in English with quotation marks (They asked, “How do we get to San Jose?” — since the quotation is an actual question, it has the inverted word order of subject and auxiliary characteristic of such questions); the second reproduces the gist of the question but not its form (They asked how they get to San Jose).

But there’s an intermediate construction, often called free indirect style (a translation of the French technical term): They asked how do they get to San Jose. The effect is reporting the question as if it were the speaker’s internal thoughts. And that provides a subtle difference in effect — almost surely way too subtle to figure in choosing between phone messages. Both constructions are grammatical, and they are crude paraphrases, and for many purposes either would do just fine. There is truly no point in fretting over subtle differences in conveyed meaning. But you might have a hard time of convincing the people in the company of that.

The resolution. To my astonishment, P reported:

Your brilliance comforted the powers that be. Thank you for being the definitive voice on this.

I noted:

Ordinarily, questions like yours are tough for me, because to answer them I’d have to do some fresh research, but in this case you stumbled on something I’ve actually written about, though oh 45 years ago, but keep up an interest in, so I can do the technical stuff off the top of my head. And I can speak with authority. Probably as important, I have a practical no-nonsense attitude towards usage matters (in part, from almost 60 years of guiding and critiquing student writing and doing a lot of editing myself); I’m incredibly pleased that your colleagues appreciated that.

In fact, most of the time, I have trouble convincing people that I’m not just some mook off the street mouthing off about language. Or, if I cite my credentials and experience, that I’m not just a pointy-headed intellectual who thinks I’m better than they are. (Well, I do know a great deal more than they do about these particular things.)

My old stuff. Two things:

On reported speech. Studies in Linguistic Semantics, ed. by D. Terence Langendoen & C. J. Fillmore. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1971) 73-77.

[bibliography] Direct and indirect discourse. OSU WPL 17.198-205 (1974).

Alas, I didn’t make a pdf of either of these, so my own hard copies were destroyed in the great clearing-out of my books and papers.


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