The Language Log recently fielded a query about the difference between two English sentences:
(2) He was playing the violin when the visitor arrived.
But then Pullum makes a claim that strikes me as inexact at best, false at worst. While I can only play one particular violin or watch one particular film at any one time, I stand in what he calls a “player-of [or watcher-of] relation to the whole species” whenever I play or watch. Consequently, “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” he concludes, emphasizing every word.
But is that true?
Here are two similar sentences:
(2) We are studying the novel this week in Myers’s class.
Accepting Pullum’s language makes me even more skeptical. Is a middle-school student, enrolled in orchestra as an elective, who never practices and leaves his instrument at school—I have just described myself at a younger age—really “participating in a sort of worldwide fraternity of violinists” when he saws at the strings lackadaisically in class?
I don’t think so. On my view, an activity like playing the violin or studying the novel is a fusion of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle termed repertoires and abilities. Mastery depends upon both: the ability to play a violin or study a novel is nothing without a repertoire of pieces to play or novels to read. But what is more, the ability is latent within the repertoire, much as hidden features of a video game are unlocked by beating a level of difficulty.
However, neither playing a violin nor studying a novel depends upon the ambition of mastery. I can be content to play badly—I was content to play badly—or I can finish the work in a course on the novel without accepting the premise upon which the study of the novel is founded.
What must be added to his account in order to justify Pullum’s claim that “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” is deep caring. If and only if I value the activity can I possibly belong to its worldwide fraternity whenever I perform the activity. Wanting to acquire the ability is not enough. I must also want the repertoire. I must want to come into possession of it, to feel at home in it. Then and only then can it be true that I am doing (2) whenever I do (1).
The word for this fusion of ability and repertoire is tradition. Whether I belong to a worldwide fraternity is irrelevant, as long as I alone am capable of enjoying the tradition.