LINGUIST List 7.1258

Tue Sep 10 1996

Sum: "Sitting on the fence"

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  1. Bert Peeters, Summary: "Sitting on the fence"

Message 1: Summary: "Sitting on the fence"

Date: Sun, 08 Sep 1996 11:18:40 +1000
From: Bert Peeters <Bert.Peetersmodlang.utas.edu.au>
Subject: Summary: "Sitting on the fence"
Just over a week ago, I posted the following query:

|| The French proverbial saying "menager la chevre et le chou" tends to
|| have a negative overtone; it's the sort of behavior that is
|| discouraged in French (cf. also "donner une reponse de Normand", "ne
|| pas vouloir se mouiller"; source: Christine Beal, in *Langue
|| francaise* 98, 1993). How about the English saying "to sit on the
|| fence" (which is translated by Collins/Robert as "menager la chevre et
|| le chou")? Is it good or bad, in English, to sit on the fence? Does
|| the saying have a positive or a negative connotation? I thank the
|| readership in advance for their enlightening comments and hope that
|| when summarizing I won't have to give a "reponse de Normand".

Many thanks to all those who replied:

Alice Faber (faberlenny.haskins.yale.edu)
Peter Daniels (pdanielspress-gopher.uchicago.edu)
Paul Listen (glingphlgarnet.berkeley.edu)
Alain Theriault (theriaalere.umontreal.ca)
Tracy Mansfield (MansfieldMailpostoffice.worldnet.att.net)
Dorine Houston (V2188GVM.TEMPLE.EDU)
Michael Robertson (ragnirenspidernet.it)
Pier Marco Bertinetto (bertinetsns.it)
Paul Purdom (pwpcs.indiana.edu)
Michael Quinion (michaelquinion.demon.co.uk)
Dennis Newson (dnewsondosuni1.rz.uni-osnabrueck.de)
Karen Davis (kmdaviserols.com)
Simon Kaufmann (s_sdkeduserv.its.unimelb.edu.au)
Sharon Goodman (S.Goodmanopen.ac.uk)
Diana Maynard (maynarddcs.man.ac.uk)
Norman Roberts (nrobertshawaii.edu)
Chris Palmer (palm0108maroon.tc.umn.edu)
Suzanne Fleischman (suzannegarnet.berkeley.edu)

A majority thought that "sitting on the fence" has indeed a negative
connotation.
However, there were some dissenters who opted for "une reponse de
 Normand". They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, I
suspect... The fact that, contrary to Beal's argument, there seem to
be at least as many sayings condemning fence-sitting in French as in
English, is interesting. It raises the question whether or not the
French sayings can be invoked (as they are by Beal) to back up the
French attitude of "engagement" as opposed to the English desire to
remain non-committal. For now, I do not have the answer to this
question, but I welcome any input from the readership.

I have not attempted to rewrite anyone's replies (I burnt my fingers
once, and as the French say, "chat echaude craint l'eau froide" which
means something like "once bitten, twice shy"). Here they are, in
full:

Alice Faber: Well, I would think that American cultural mythology
would hold that indecision is always bad. Thus "sitting on the fence"
would have at least slight negative connotations. "Fence sitting" is
merely a metaphorical characterization of indecision, and certainly
doesn't involve any negative connotation beyond that associated with
indecision. This strikes me as a question you'll get quite varied
responses to. If it helps sort things out, I was born and raised in
the US, New York Metropolitan Area.

Peter Daniels: Why would failure/refusal/inability to make a choice
ever be regarded favorably? I.e., do you have any proverbs or
catch-phrases that consider vacillation a virtue?

Paul Listen: my own initial reaction to 'sitting on the fence' is that
it's usually somewhat negative. at least that's the way i think i use
it.

Alain Theriault: My answer is: Ca depend! (qui est LE stereotype de la
reponse de Normand) "Menager la chevre et le chou" est pejoratif dans
notre monde moderne ou tout doit etre definit. Meme chose pour
"sitting on a fence" . Il y a aussi " s'assoir entre deux
chaises". Est-ce vraiment negatif? Je le crois car on utilise ces
expressions pour qualifier quelqu'un qui ne veut pas se mouiller,
justement, et qui ne prend pas de decision. Mon experience de
l'anglais me dit que c'est assez negatif. Ma conjointe, qui est
anglophone, me l'a servie a chaque fois que je ne veux pas prendre un
decision.

Tracy Mansfield:
I'd say that "to sit on the fence" most definitely has a negative
connotation, indicating cowardice rather than caution.

Dorine Houston: Fence-sitters are viewed very negatively in the US, so
sitting on the fence is a criticism. In this election season, you may
expect to hear how either Clinton or Dole is guilty of sitting on the
fence, or speaking out of both sides of his mouth, on particular
topics. Or trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Michael Robertson: I think that the English expression "to sit on the
fence" has a negative connotation. At the same time I don't think it
is potently negative. BTW, a similar expression in Italian is "stare
alla finestra" (to stay at the window). This expression has a negative
connotation. Perhapa this expression is slightly different as it
refers to 'not getting involved' rather than 'refraining from making a
decision either way' - a subtle difference but maybe significant.

Pier Marco Bertinetto: Perhaps you would be interested to know that
the corresponding Italian saying ("salvare capra e cavoli") is totally
neutral. It may have a positive sense (and I believe this is the most
frequent case), but it may acquire a derogatory meaning in particular
instances.

Paul Purdom: The phrase to sit on the fence is usually intended to be
somewhat negative by the person saying it about someone else. On the
other hand the listeners may have the same opinion if they have strong
feelings about the issue or they may take it has the heigth of wisdom
if they feel that the issue is complex and that taking sides would
lead to bad results. If a person says it about themselves, then it
would not be negative. So overall I guess it is mildly negative.

Michael Quinion: In British English today, "to sit on the fence"
certainly has pejorative connotations, indicating that the person
concerned either cannot, or more usually will not, make up his mind;
the implication is usually that the person is avoiding making a
judgement or forming an opinion in order to avoid conflict or in the
hope of gaining some advantage by waiting until the outcome of the
debate is clear. I believe the term originally came into the language
last century with specific reference to politics. See Bartlett's
"Dictionary of Americanisms" of 1859

 Fence-riding: The practice of "sitting on the fence", or
 remaining neutral in a political contest until it can be
 seen "which way the cat is going to jump".

However, OED2 quotes the following:

 1887 Cornhill Mag. June 626 Those who sit 'on the fence' --
 men with impartial minds, who wait to see ... 'how the cat
 will jump'.

which might suggest a non-pejorative meaning of something like
'sensible caution', if one could only be sure that the writer did not
have his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Dennis Newson: I would say that, depending on context, sitting on the
fence usually has a negative implication since it means someone is
refusing to take sides, refusing to commit themselves one way or
another.

Karen Davis: In my opinion, it's negative. It implies indecisiveness,
or perhaps waiting until the outcome is clear and then joining the
winning side.

Simon Kaufmann: The expression "sitting on the fence", or the act of
"fence-sitting" definately has negative connotations in Australian
English. To be labelled a "fence sitter" implies a prejorative
inability to choose sides or support one group over another - also
that one is ineffectual when it comes down to real business. I suspect
the perjorative connotations arose in a political context, because
that's where one is most likely to hear it.

Sharen Goodman: Yes, to sit on the fence is certainly bad form.
Political parties that are seen to be sitting on the fence are
considered indecisive, weak and incapable of effective government (the
phrase is/was often encountered with reference to the Liberal
Democrats in the UK). Managers who sit on the fence get little
respect from their colleagues, either. However, if you make it clear
that you are sitting on the fence temporarily, in order to make a
decision, this might be acceptable!

Diana Maynard: I would consider "to sit on the fence" to have a
negative connotation. It implies someone who cannot make up their
mind, or is reluctant to make their opinion known, and thus suggests
someone who does not have the courage of their convictions.

Norman Roberts: If someone else is doing it and you're lookin for
support, it's bad. If you're doing it, it's all right; if not
prudent, it's the better part of valor.

Chris Palmer: Yes I would say that "to sit on the fence" has a
somewhat negative connotation, because of the lack of loyalty to any
one side and thus the inability of others to trust the
fence-sitter/goat and cabbage manager. It's the same thing with the
political neutrality of Switzerland; in American English it can be
slightly pejorative to say "he/she's being Switzerland."

Suzanne Fleischman: For me, the English expression definitely has a
negative connation -- of avoiding making a choice or decision, and
even of being wishy-washy. I find "sitting on the fence" to be more
negatively charged than simply "to keep one's options open," a
component of its meaning.

Thanks again to all those who responded.

Bert Peeters

Dr Bert Peeters - Department of Modern Languages (French)
University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-91, Hobart TAS 7001, Australia
Tel.: +61 (0)3 6226 2344 / Fax.: +61 (0)3 6226 7813
E-mail: Bert.Peetersmodlang.utas.edu.au
http://info.utas.edu.au/docs/humsoc/modern_languages/peeters/peeters.htm
http://info.utas.edu.au/docs/humsoc/modern_languages/french/welcome.htm

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