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May I Quote You on That?

By Stephen Spector

A guide to English grammar and usage for the twenty-first century, pairing grammar rules with interesting and humorous quotations from American popular culture.

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Academic Paper

Title: 'You could say that': the generic second-person pronoun in modern English
Author: Roger Berry
Email: click here TO access email
Linguistic Field: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics
Subject Language: Chinese, Yue
Abstract: 'An examination of a function of the second person pronoun frequently forgotten in pedagogical grammars of English.
A lawyer friend told me the following story about a court case in Hong Kong that he had taken part in. His client was in the witness box and was answering questions in Cantonese while an interpreter relayed his words in English to a judge who was not Chinese. At one point the opposing counsel put a point that was detrimental to the client's case and asked if he agreed with it. The translation of the reply was 'you could say that', which was understood by the court as indicating agreement. Of course, what he actually meant was 'you (the counsel) could say that' (i.e. 'not me'), but it was understood as 'you (people in general) "could" say that' (i.e. 'it is acceptable to say that'). In standard spoken English stress (as shown by the bold type above) and weak forms would normally disambiguate, but it seems the interpreter (a native speaker of Cantonese) gave each word equal stress, thus allowing for the unintended interpretation. I am pleased to report that this misunderstanding had no bearing on the outcome of the case, which was won by my friend's client.


This article appears IN English Today Vol. 25, Issue 3, which you can READ on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .

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