Monday, May 21, 2007

Coming and Going

The saying, “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” implies that there is a sense of confusion in the life of the speaker. It’s like not knowing if you’re arriving or departing. Come and Go. We all know the difference -- don’t we?

I thought I knew the difference until I tried explaining it to several transplanted students from South America of mine who seem regularly confused by the way we use the two verbs in English. When I’ve tried to explain the difference, I’ve end up so muddled, I haven’t known whether I’m coming or going myself.

I thought this blog would be a good place to work out the confusion. And for those of you who have never wondered at the difference, well, it’s perhaps time for you to do so.

Here are some familiar situations in English that take some form of “to come:”

* Your kids are calling you from the car, impatient to leave; you shout back, “I’m coming!”

* You call up a friend and ask, “Can I come over this afternoon?”

*You RSVP over the phone to an invitation to a party: “I’d love to come.”

In Spanish, each of those situations would be handled with the verb, “to go.”
“I’m GOING!” you’d shout to your kids in the car as you rush out the door. “Can I GO to your house?” you’d ask your friend. “I’d love to GO to your party,” you’d say.

That’s because the Spanish verb, “ir” or “to go” means (according to to move from HERE to THERE – the same as “to come” in English.

According to, “to come” means, “to approach or move toward a particular person or place.” In other words: to move from HERE to THERE. So a mom shouting, “I’m coming!” as she heads from kitchen to car is exactly right by English standards, but the opposite in Spanish.

According to, the Spanish verb, “venir” (“to come”) means, “to
move from THERE to HERE.” So the kids waiting in the car would call, “Mama, VEN! (informal command) or VENGA! (formal command),” because she would be going from the house (there) to the car (here). Likewise, someone from Buenos Aires throwing a party would ask guests to COME (there to here): “Pueden VENIR a mi fiesta?”

Where it gets confusing is that in English, we say, “I’m COMING!” in response to someone’s call (HERE to THERE) and “I hope you can you COME to my party” (from THERE to HERE).

This means that English speakers use “to COME” for both COMING and GOING.

On top of that, says that in English, “to go,” means “to move or proceed, esp. to or from something.” In other words: “to go” can mean from HERE to THERE as well as from THERE to HERE. By definition, COMING and GOING apparently mean the same thing – but we know they don’t. In fact, there is almost never any misuse or confusion. So why is this subject so confusing?

Let’s look at this in real life:

Let’s say John has a business trip coming up. He says to his colleague, “I’m GOING to Peoria.” Fortunately for John, he has a friend in Peoria he wants to visit while there; so he whips off an email saying, “Guess what -- I’m COMING to Peoria!” In both cases, John is departing from, say, New York, and landing in Peoria; but in the first instance, he’s “going” and the second, he’s “coming.”

The difference is this:

In the first instance John is heading to Peoria but he’s not talking to a person in Peoria -- both colleagues are in New York – so, he says he’s GOING. In his email, John is talking to his friend in Peoria; John is here, but his friend is there
-- so he says he’s COMING.

The difference in the two uses is whether there is a person (or people) at the other end of your destination – be it a friend in Peoria; your mom who’s called you inside to take a phone call; or if you’re explaining to your teacher why you came late to class.

Some more examples:

Two people invited to a party will talk with each other about looking forward to GOING to the party. But if you talk about the party with the person giving it, you tell her you’re looking forward to COMING to it. A store clerk who normally GOES to work might tell his boss he’ll be COMING in late the next day. The difference is the person at the other end.

The words, COME and GO, are of Germanic origin, whereas IR and VENIR are thoroughbred Latin words. (The French word for “future” is “avenir” – to come; and the word “avenue” is another derivative.) And In Spanish, the definitions correspond exactly with the usage.

Clearly, the Germans were a bit less specific about the definitions, and over time, usage has carved out its own distinctions. Since these distinctions are not noted in the dictionary, allow me to do so here: Use “come” when there is a person on the other end; use “go” when there is no person on the other end.

Is that clear?

Which is not to say life itself is clear. But at least for now I hope we know if we’re coming or going – and why.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great explanation! Thanks =)