I am lunching yesterday with a famous ex-blogger when the conversation turns to the world of electronic media and the expression, “Join our mailing list,” a staple on promotional emails and websites, comes up. I wrinkle my nose.
You can’t a join a mailing list.
“Of course you can. You sign up electronically by clicking a box, writing in the email address you want messages delivered to, and you join.”
No, you don’t. You do what you just described, you signed up. You placed an order or request. You consented to something. But you didn’t join a goddam thing.
“Yes you did. You joined the list. You added your name or address to the group of names and addresses on the list. You joined it. What’s your problem?”
Lists don’t have members. You’re not adding yourself to the list. You’re adding your name to the list so that yourself may be added to the set of selves who are already in that set, and whose name have been added to the list.
“Is this why you’re unemployed and friendless?”
Look, it’s called a category error. You join a club. A political party. A group for lunch. Your name and address don’t. If there’s an invitation to dinner in your pocket, was your pocket invited to dinner?
“You’re splitting hairs, and you haven’t got enough to waste. Sure a list of people and the group that list refers to are two different things (and yes, they have a relationship that armchair philosophers and cunning linguists consider extremely complicated and fraught). But you join them both at the exact same instant — you’re a member of the group IF AND WHEN your name is on their list. That’s the point of this, and ‘Join our mailing list’ states it concisely.”
Yes, concisely and wrong. You can join the political party. You can’t join the political party’s mailing list, but you can add your email address to it. Which actually makes a difference — you can now say, I’m not a Democrat, but I’m on their mailing list. You can’t “join a list” any more than you can fuck one. As opposed to the people listed. And the rest of the country, for that matter.
“You can’t ‘join a list’ under SOME senses/definitions of the word ‘join,’ I suppose. But under others, you sure can. “’Would you like to join the list of people I’ve fucked?’ means one thing, ‘Would you like to join the people I’ve fucked?’ means something else, but they’re both perfectly sensible. Well, they’re not sensible, but you can make sense of them.”
Great god. I oughta join a club and beat you with it.
“Now THAT would be a category error.”
Glad we agree. Just in time for dessert.