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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 17-Nov-13


Sunday 17-November-13

How about that, then

I was out with my wife recently, sitting in a restaurant window, when we noticed a man passing by outside. It was a bit cold and my wife remarked that he was wearing a scarf, which is probably the first she had seen for some time. I replied "He'll be ok, then."

And then I wondered why I had said it. In particular why I said "He'll be ok, then" rather than "Then he'll be ok".

English is a strange and subtle language and it is not surprising that non-native speakers find it almost impossible to speak like a native. Even my wife, who is an English teacher, found it difficult to identify when you might use one form or the other and we had a spirited discussion about the subject.

The simplest form is "Then he'll be ok", with the 'then' at the beginning. This directly suggests cause and effect, with the wearing of the scarf leading to he man being ok. With the 'then' at the beginning you are sending a clear signal that what follows is a statement of effect of the previous causal statement. It predicts the future and so creates the comfort of certainty.

The second form is a bit trickier. While it can still be a causal statement, it moves the 'then' to the end of the sentence, removing its primacy (though increasing its recency). This form can also add more attitude, throwing in the 'then' almost cynically, in case the listener has not got the point.

Putting words and phrases at the end a statements acts as a modifier, changing the meaning of the statement, often in subtle ways that someone not versed in the local culture might not get, while a native will hear the meaning clearly. It can also cause surprise and confusion as the person has already heard and interpreted the initial statement and now must cater for the late modifier Intonation can add to this, sending covert signals. In combination, linguistic modifiers and verbal inflection can be devastating.

In my case, back in the restaurant, I don't think I mean anything by the phrasing. So maybe it was simple affirmational agreement. But then the unconscious mind sends signals through speech that the conscious person may not intend. So I'm still wondering what it's all about.

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