Posted: Feb 17, 2016 4:46 pm
by John Platko
don't get me started wrote:There are many and varied threads that involve posters discussing the meanings and usages of words. I thought I’d start a thread dedicated to discussions of words and their meanings.

I’ll get the ball rolling with something that came up here:

The word meaning that came under scrutiny here was the word ‘hope’, and to a lesser extent the word ‘wish’.

As is so often the case native/proficient speakers have an intuitive sense of the meaning(s), but it might be more difficult to tease out the actual meanings of any given word when pressed. My Japanese students often quiz me on the meanings of these two words and it is often difficult for them to make a clear distinction between the two. (The way Japanese expresses these kinds of ideas is a bit different, often using the word 夢 Yume = dream, and having a fuzzier relationship between factuals and counterfactuals in some situations where English is precise.)

So, let’s start with ‘hope’. The example in the thread in question was ‘I hope he has a full recovery.’ I usually explain to my students that ‘hope’ is rooted in future possibilities. That is, there is more than one possible future outcome. In this case it would be Richard Dawkins making a full recovery or not making a full recovery. The speaker recognizes both outcomes as being possible, and states that the situation referred to with the ‘hope’ clause is preferable to any other situation. Tacit within this utterance is the admission that the speaker is essentially powerless to bring about the desired situation.

Yet when I have a similar hope while blowing out the candles no one ever asks, "What did you hope for?" :nono:
Are you sure you're not looking for more precision from language than it can deliver?

If we contrast this to ‘wish’ in its verb form we can notice several differences. If we take an example sentence such as ‘The Republicans wish that the abortion issue would go away’ (Selected at random from a corpus search) we can see that the situation is different. Whilst still expressing preference for some future state of affairs, in this case there is no suggestion that this outcome is at all feasible or likely or even possible. (E,g. I wish I was a bird.)
The counterfactual nature of ‘wish’ is also illustrated in the way it can be used to refer to past events as well. E.g. (Again, selected at random from corpus): ‘I wish that Andrew and Grace and I had never moved to Denver.’ It is to enter the realm of the counterfactual to state that an extant past (moved to Denver) is the dispreferred situation, and that the now unrealizable situation (we didn’t move to Denver’) is the preferred one. The word ‘Hope’, because it deals with plausible and possible situations cannot be applied to the past. (I hope that we had never moved to Denver. ???)

An interesting thing to note here is that the word ‘wish’ generally collocates with past tense (or so called past tense forms of the verb. E.g ‘I wish I was a fly on the wall, not ‘I wish I am a fly on the wall.) This is a point of English grammar that I find fascinating. Rather than being called the ‘past tense’, this form of the verb has sometimes been referred to as the ‘remote tense.’ We find it in counterfactuals such as ‘wish’ statements and also in the contrast between 1st and 2nd conditionals. Compare: ‘If it rains tomorrow, we will cancel the picnic’ and ‘If it snowed in July, I would be surprised. The use of the past tense form of the verb (snowed) indicates the speaker’s view of its counterfactuality. That is, the situation is removed, distant, remote from reality.

We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

And in time relationships, it is not when the action happened (past, present or future) that is the only consideration, it is also its connectedness to the here and now. Compare A: ‘I drank a load of beer last Saturday’ and B:‘I have drunk a load of beer.’ Although the drinking of the beer in both cases was in the past, the connectedness to the present is manifest in the tense choice. One would feel safer getting in a car with A than B. A’s drinking is removed/ distant / far from the present.

Back to the word ‘hope’. Apart from its semantics, there is also its social function to be considered. When we talk about hoping that someone makes a full recovery, we are going on record as saying that the outcome of full recovery is the desirable one. We are engaging in a finely tuned piece of social action, demonstrating our affiliative, sociable and positive orientation towards others, asserting that other’s wellbeing is important to us.
Although our big brains and opposable thumbs are very important to us, it is our extreme sociability, our ability and even need to constantly ratify our membership of co-constructed social groupings that most define us, I believe.
I hope that any readership has found this a worthwhile read….