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The White Lies of Language

by on September 24, 2019 5:00 AM

Truth in words. There’s a lot of focus on finding the truth in statements, comments and the like these days, especially in politics. Politicians make statements and millions of people immediately take to the internet to let us know whether what he or she said is true or not. Fact-checking websites provide supposedly non-partisan evaluations of these statements. A popular website provides a “Truth-O-Meter” ranging from “Pants On Fire” to “True” with gradations including “Mostly False,” “Half True” and “Mostly True.”

This fervent search for the truth in words makes me wonder if there are some words or terminology we use regularly that just don’t mean what they say anymore — words that deaden our senses to the onslaught of misleading information we’re met with every day. I took a quick poll around and here are two that often come up.

The first is “single-family home.” 

A single-family home is the most common type of residence listed for sale in this country. Here in Happy Valley a quick check of Realtor.com shows that there are currently 81 single-family homes for sale in the 16801 zip code, another 60 in the 16803 zip code, and a total of over 230 within 20 miles of State College. And what is a single-family home? It seems obvious that it would be a home intended for a single family. That’s one family, for those of you counting along as you read. One (1) family. 

I happen to live with my one family in a neighborhood of single-family homes in Ferguson Township. Single-family homes next door, single-family homes across the street, and single-family homes on the other side of the backyard. Single-family homes on all sides of us. 

But several of these homes aren’t occupied by single families. They’re rentals inhabited by multiple unrelated college students. So two and three “families,” as it were, under one roof. But these students live in single-family homes. Well, that doesn’t make any sense. How is it possible that more than one family lives in a single-family home? 

According to the Ferguson Township Zoning Map, we live in an area zoned R-1, which stands for single-family residential. Well, that makes sense. A neighborhood of single-family homes should be in an area zoned as single-family residential. 

That’s where our little divergence from the truth occurs. If you own a single-family home and decide to rent it, the local zoning ordinance allows you to have up to three unrelated individuals occupying your house. Three unrelated individuals doesn’t sound like a single family. That sounds like a triple family. How would it be if the zoning ordinance stated that in single-family homes all occupants must belong to a single family? Wouldn’t that make sense? Or alternatively we could stop calling them single-family homes. But until either happens we live with this little white lie where single-family homes aren’t really single-family homes.

Another common phrase that doesn’t seem to mean what it says anymore is the everyday term “passing lane.” Since the advent of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s, passing lane has been used to describe the left lane (or lanes) on a roadway where vehicle traffic is moving in the same direction. The idea – and it’s a good one – is that slower moving vehicles drive in the right lane and are able to be passed in the left lane by faster moving vehicles. This allows everyone to get to their destination at a speed that is comfortable for them. With over 46,000 miles of road in the Interstate System, that’s a lot of opportunity for passing.

In addition, there are now many local roads and non-interstate highways with multiple lanes that require drivers to stay in the right lane unless under specific conditions – one of which is passing. The United States Uniform Vehicle Code includes the following admonition about proper lane usage:

“Upon all roadways any vehicle proceeding at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic…”

Title 75, Chapter 33, Subchapter A of the Statutes of Pennsylvania includes that exact same language. I would suggest its presence in our driving laws should make for a happy driving experience as we move along in our daily lives.

Then why is it we encounter so many drivers who travel continuously in the passing lane – not passing, but requiring the rest of us to pass them on the right? Or even more frustratingly when drivers are in the passing lane right next to someone and traveling at the exact same speed – not passing – and create a two-vehicle roadblock? Which is one of the reasons we have roads with two lanes going in the same direction in the first place – to remove the potential blockage from a one-lane roadway. 

It would seem to be an easily understood and followed concept: use the passing lane for passing, then drive in the right lane. But this is another example of terminology that doesn’t mean what it seems to mean anymore.

These are just two examples but there are many other instances of this type of white lie language in use every day as we go through our lives. Perhaps if we started with these small untruthful words and terminology, eventually the big “Pants On Fire” examples will slowly disappear.



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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