by

Coming and Going

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The Beatles during the filming of Help!
(image via flickr)

I heard a Brazilian iron-ore magnate speaking on a BBC news program about how he had become so rich, and he said that at one point “the price of iron ore came from $10 a ton to $180 a ton.” I realized that there was a subtle mistake in English usage here: Even if the price is still $180 now, we do not say that the price came from $10 to $180; we say the price went from $10 to $180. But why?

Come is standardly used for motion (including metaphorical motion) toward the notional location providing the utterer’s reference point: We talk about going away but coming back. It would be quite reasonable to imagine talking about a price starting at some remote point in past time and climbing up the metaphorical price curve, while proceeding along the time axis, toward its present point on the graph. Visualizing ourselves as located at the current price point, we could see the price as climbing up toward where we are now.

But we don’t. In fact we never seem to do anything like that. It is the future that comes; the past goes away.

  • “Some day, and that day may never come. … ” says the eponymous godfather in Mario Puzo’s novel; and he means a day in the future when the undertaker will, if it ever proves necessary, need to return a favor.
  • “Now these days are gone, and I’m not so self-assured,” sing the Beatles in Help!, and they mean days when they didn’t need help that have now gone away into the past.

A very simple account of come vs. go (and it’s too simple) would be that come is used for motion toward the notional location that provides the point of view of the utterance (There was a truck coming toward us), and go is used for motion away from there (The boat soon went out of sight), or (since it is go rather than come that is the default) for motion that is not oriented toward or away from any particular definite utterance location (The shuttle goes between the airport and the downtown bus station; The dog went zooming around all over the park). But that isn’t quite good enough to cover the use with times or prices.

We can’t really say that nothing in the past, be it past iron-ore prices or anything else, ever comes toward us. Memories of the past can come back to us, and a past event can come up in conversation. And we do talk about the temperature of a heating system coming up to the right temperature after running for a few minutes, or about waiting for the price of a stock to come back up to the original purchase price.

Yet we don’t say that the iron-ore price came from $10 to $180.

The important lesson, to me, is that it isn’t logic or common sense that prevents us from saying that. It just isn’t how we use the language, that’s all.

Don’t ask me why. I genuinely don’t know. What I do know is that English lexical semantics (and, I assume, the lexical semantics of any other language) is extraordinarily complex. It continues to astonish me that I learned the meanings of the words I know. Even simple words like come and go.

Lots of people make the mistake of thinking that you can reason from first principles concerning how words ought to be used, and take that as your standard. They take some aspect of contemporary English usage, like they with singular antecedents, or plural number agreement with none as subject, or the distribution of less and fewer, or the use of and as a substitute for infinitival to (as in try and get it right), and they insist on some particular view about its being incorrect on the grounds that otherwise it wouldn’t be “logical.”

But there is no guarantee that English will or ever could be logical. English is the way it is: Its rules, some of them quite strict, evolved the way they did over the past millennium without being under any constraint of a directly logical nature.

The user of the language is constrained only by the hundreds of millions of their fellow speakers, who unwittingly negotiate every day about how to set the conventions of usage that define them too as English speakers. Railing against the decision of a few tens of millions of our fellow speakers who have adopted or abandoned some expression is, to put it in terms of the old joke, like trying to teach a pig to sing: It not only wastes your time, it also annoys the pig.

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