The front pages thunder:
This [insert rant-worthy issue of choice] is an utter disgrace. It cannot continue.
How many times have you read an opinion like that, whether on front pages or editorial columns?
And what is wrong with it?
Well, the obvious answer to the second sentence—It cannot continue—is a pantomime-style one.
Oh yes it can!
What’s more, it usually does. Even in the worst cases, like war crimes and invasions.
The meaning of “can”
The most common meaning of the modal verb “can” is “to be able to”. Hence it is obvious that “cannot” means “be unable to”.
And saying a disgrace “cannot continue” implies that it is impossible for it to continue, that it will be somehow stopped.
(Possibly by magic?)
But that is not what the media thundering is trying to say, is it?
The thundering is saying that the disgrace must (has to) be stopped, or should (ought to) be stopped, by persons unspecified in both cases.
Someone (who?) must take action and ensure that the disgrace ends.
Why do so many media outlets and people in power use such sloppy language?
Why is “it cannot continue” used?
I have my own theory here. I believe the use of formulations like “It cannot continue” allow the media outlets and speakers concerned to duck the key questions of what is to be done and who is to do it. If they wrote—of a war, for example—”It must not continue”, it would be much more likely to provoke the obvious questions: “So who is to stop it? And how?”
One might suggest that formulations like “It cannot continue” are nothing but hot air, mere blustering from an outlet that wants to encourage its readers to join a rant. (Newspaper owners have known for decades that making readers angry sells copies. Fortunes have been made on the daily hate.)
It also works if the outlet wishes to avoid the risk of alienating powerful sections of society/government/media. In other words, the very WHO that might be required To Do Something.
The formulation is not only sloppy.
What can be done about misuse of “it cannot continue”?
It should be ditched. But can it be ditched? That depends on ditching the sloppy mindset that created it. There, I fear, I cannot be very hopeful.
Over the last few days I have seen any number of usages of “It cannot continue” in various contexts. You can imagine for yourselves what most of them related to, in the UK and elsewhere.
No, it should not continue, but I very much fear that it will. Because the people who should ensure it does not continue are too cowardly, or too self-serving, to do what should and must be done to stop it. By them.
So they will continue to pontificate to us with sweeping statements of “It cannot continue“, trying to look statesmanlike while, effectively, ducking the issue altogether.
And they do not even have the guts to say what they really mean.
Angry? Ranting? You bet I am.
And not only about the insults to the English language.
PS Huge apologies. So busy ranting that I scheduled this post for 2023 instead of 2022.
Everyone can lapse, can they not? Even a Pedantique-Ryter…
I am very pleased to read your latest comments, Dame Isadora. Few people understand the grammatical intricacies of the English language as well as you do. Could we have a further post on the abomination which is “of”?
Thank you, Lesley dear. I’d be happy to do a post on any such abomination. I have already done one on the abomination “could of” instead of “could have”. It was here Did you have another flavour of abominable “of” in mind?
So true, madam Dame. I fear I may have been guilty of same in the odd rant against whatever happens to catch my fury. I shall desist forthwith and instead talk of “should” and “must not”.
“For one sinner that repenteth…” Glad to have been of use, Elizabeth, m’dear.
Great post, ma’am! These days I read that “it cannot continue” as “I’m not going to do anything about it.” I fear there will be plenty more for you to rant about in the coming months 🙂
And I fear you are very right, Sarah dear. Sighs all round.