It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s the subway?

I recently came across a written account of something overheard on the New York subway.

A little girl and her mother are sitting on the subway when the daughter says, “Look mummy, a train” as a subway train passes in the opposite direction. The mother then promptly says, “No honey that’s not a train, that’s a subway”. The daughter, according to the witness around six years old, laughs and says, “No mummy, the subway is everything around us, the walls, the tracks and everything, including the train”. The mother then ends the discussion with a firm, “No this is a subway. Trains are what you take when you go far away, like Canada.” The little girl then sat quietly with a very confused look on her face.

This illustrates the problem with what is correct and what is understood. It doesn’t really matter what you say as long as people understand you. This is fine. However, there is also, to ours all contempt and occasional amusement (children in school excluded), a right and a wrong to most things in language. This does not mean that there is consensus though, and it absolutely does not mean that only because you are in the right that the person you are communicating with need understand you. Take the above example in a different situation. You ask a fellow passenger when the next train will be arriving. You may just get the reply that there are no trains here, only the subway. One of you is wrong, but do you really want to start a discussion on semantics with a complete stranger in the New York subway?

I thought not.

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