The Word


Sometimes the real question isn't the one we're asked

By Jan Freeman
January 11, 2009
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WHEN HE NEEDED some blood drawn recently, Cliff Krieger found himself stuck on a language problem. "The lab technician asked me to 'confirm my birthday,' he recounts in an e-mail. "I paused, waiting for her to suggest a birthday, which I would then either confirm or deny. Of course, she wanted me to TELL her my birthday."

Reader Fred Harvey feels the same way about being asked to "confirm" or "verify" his address. "It's impossible to verify what we haven't yet heard," he writes. "Shouldn't the address in question be coming from them?"

This institutional use of confirm is a wee bit unorthodox, it's true. When we use the word to mean "corroborate information," it's usually information the questioner puts on the table: "Can you confirm that Exhibit A is your brother's shotgun?"

But the phlebotomist (or banker, or credit card rep) can't state the information you're asked to "confirm," since your ability to supply it functions as a sort of password: The question is not "do you agree that this is your birthday?" but "do you know the birthday we have on file?"

We all presumably approve of this double-checking, since we want access to our own blood tests and credit card balances, not someone else's. And all of us - especially the person who must put the question dozens of times a day, day after day - want the exchange to be as speedy and friction-free as possible. Is there a better way to phrase the challenge?

Harvey suggests it could be simply, "What's your birthday, please?" But even that apparently straightforward question might baffle or annoy some people. Can't you imagine someone responding, "Whaddya mean, what's my birthday? You have everything about me in that computer, from birthmarks to bunions to brand of vitamins. You know my birthday."

(In fact, I was baffled the first time a Red Cross aide - holding the form I had just filled out - asked for my birthday. But of course, there are other people with my name who have different birthdays - and blood types.)

Confirm says something that the straight question doesn't, since it implies that the questioner already has the answer. At one lab I know, there's a different technique for verifying names: They ask, "Could you spell your last name?" This bypasses the response "you already have that" because it suggests they're checking not the name itself, but the spelling. But I haven't thought of a similarly economical prompt that could do the work of "confirm your address."

There's a branch of linguistics, called pragmatics, that deals with the relationships between what is actually said and what is meant and understood in such exchanges. But in this case it's also an etiquette issue. If you know what the questioner is asking for, and you have an equal interest in completing the exchange, why pretend that you don't understand what "confirm" means? That's what kids do in those thrilling weeks when they've just learned to annoy you by answering requests like "Could you pass the salt?" by saying, "Well, yeah, I could . . ."

As grown-ups, we're supposed to have gotten past this stage. If someone you're meeting says "How do you do?" you probably don't reply, "How do I do what?" If your dinner host asks if you'd like dessert, and you answer yes, you don't expect him to say, "Me too - I sure wish I had some."

We handle even more indirect communication with the greatest of ease. "Are you going to the inauguration?" you ask. "Millie's having surgery," answers your friend. (I don't know whether Millie is wife, child, or pet, but for the purpose of this example, you do.) Or here's an exchange from real life: "Shall we order Chinese?" Reply: "It's Monday." (That is: Our favorite Chinese place is closed.)

If we make these linguistic leaps without breaking a sweat, it shouldn't be too hard to stretch our understanding of "confirm" by a centimeter or two. Given its widespread use, most people have probably accepted it without protest - if they even noticed the slight modification. (And many people, meeting the word in this limited, ritualized context, surely don't notice.)

It may well be that this minor tweak of the word "confirm" is the most efficient way for all of us to get the job done. If you still don't approve, though, you could think of the "Could you confirm" question as an elliptical version of "Could you confirm your identity by stating the birthday/address/account number we have on file?" When you've rolled that around your brain a few times, you may find you're just as happy with the shorthand form.

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