I hear what you're saying, but I'll ignore it

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One of the most curious phrases that have emerged in common parlance in recent years is "I hear what you say".

What's curious about it is that it sounds open and frank and honest, but it isn't, because it doesn't mean what it says.

What it says is, "I am receiving what you say through my ears."

It is the obvious answer to the question put by, say, someone in a house who has been talking to his companion in the next room for five minutes and suddenly has a cold feeling that his companion can't even hear him. Or a question put by someone in the back seat of a car who has a sudden suspicion that the driver has heard nothing she has said since she got in the back.

So they ask, "Can you hear what I am saying?"

And the other person (if they can hear the question ) says: "Yes, I hear what you say".

But that is not how the phrase is used in Britain today. It is used by people who are close to each other physically and far apart in every other way. When one person says, "I hear what you say," he means, "I hear what you say but I disagree with it so totally that I am not even going to bother considering it. In fact, I have already forgotten it."

This, unfortunately, is the way much modern debate is conducted, by exchanging chunks of pre-scripted ideas. A debate should consist of speakers listening to each other and considering each other's arguments, and, quite possibly, changing their minds. But is it ever like that? When politicians call for a national debate, is that what they want? Is this how Dole and Clinton debate? Do you think one or other of them will ever nod thoughtfully and say, "Good point, Bill - I hadn't thought of that", or "Gee, you're right Bob; you've changed my mind on that one"?

Of course not. Everyone hears what the other man says. And then ignores it.

Luckily, there are certain give-away phrases which betray the presence of the process. In fact, English discussion is riddled with these phrases, phrases like "I hear what you say", all of which mean "I have courteously kept quiet while you were speaking, but I am about to ignore everything you have just said, because what I am about to say is the truth".

Here is a working list of these phrases. If you hear more than five of them in a conversation, I suggest you walk away from it. Especially if you yourself have uttered most of them.

"Yes but..."

"That's all very well but..."

"That may well be so but..."

"Yes, I catch your drift, but..."

"I can see where you're heading but..."

"I take on board what you say."

"Even assuming that to be the case..."

"You may well be right but..."

"With respect..."

"With the greatest respect..."

"I see what you mean..."

"I see what you're getting at..."

"I think I can see what you're driving at."

"Nevertheless..."

"Notwithstanding..."

"Still and all..."

"Mutatis mutandis..."

"Other things being equal..."

"So what you're saying is..."

"I take your point, but..."

"The point, surely, is that ..."

"We mustn't forget that..."

"What we have to remember is that..."

"What it all comes back to..."

"This doesn't alter the fact that..."

"We mustn't lose sight of the fact that..."

"When all is said and done..."

"At the end of the day..."

"When the chips are down..."

"What it's really all about..."

"In the real world..."

At which point, you are only a stage away from the position in which people shout at each other "Get real!" or "Get a life!", two other meaningless phrases with which the British now like to prolong the life of an already dangerously ill conversation.

Note: students of English as a foreign, or second, language may like to know that all the above empty phrases are more or less interchangeable and can be used vividly and idiomatically at almost any time.

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