“Know” or “You Might Think You Know, But You Have No Idea”

There were times when this word used to drive me crazy.

            I’d be reading a book, and come across a line like, “In that instant, Janet knew that she was going to die.” But then Janet didn’t die! And I would feel frustrated enough to growl at the page, because how could the writer claim that Janet knew something if she was wrong? As a too-philosophical-by-half character of mine named Logan once questioned, “Can one know a lie?” I certainly didn’t see how one could!

An old sketch of Logan with a quote that tells you much.

            And keep in mind, you’re talking to (or, uh, reading… from?…) a self-motivated perfectionist. I want everything I do to be right – no, beyond right. Obviously, I’ve figured out by now that perfection is unattainable; one can (and, I maintain, should) strive for it, but there’s something to be said for learning to be content with “good enough”. I’m still learning that. I’ll probably always hate to be wrong, I’ll garner no pleasure from anyone else’s being wrong, and knowing that this author of Janet’s was perpetuating wrongness rubbed me completely the wrong way and without fail incurred my silent wrath. (Thought I wouldn’t work in another of the seven deadly sins? Think again! Last one for a while, though, probably.)

“…But that’s the funny thing about

knowing.

We all of us know both more and less than we think we do.

Sometimes you can know

and not know it.

Other times, you can know that you know,

and still be wrong.”

            Quoting Logan again. And the guy, as he usually is, was right. I’d been thinking of the word “know” purely in the “to possess knowledge, understanding, or information” sense. As far as I was concerned, if it wasn’t true, you couldn’t know it. But according to my dictionary, Janet’s “knowing” that she was going to die and my “knowing” that she was wrong was the same kind of perfectly valid “know” – “to regard as true beyond doubt”.

            The fact is, “know” has quite a few definitions. It can mean “to have a practical understanding of, as through experience; be skilled in” (e.g., I know how to write). It can mean “to perceive as familiar; recognize” (Hey, I know that song!…). It can mean “to be able to distinguish; recognize as distinct” (Arrgh, these landlubbers don’t know the crow’s nest from Davy Jones’ locker!). And there’s more where that came from.

            So, the bad news: Perfectionist Me was wrong. The good news: Well, now we all know a little more, don’t we, Janet?

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10 thoughts on ““Know” or “You Might Think You Know, But You Have No Idea”

  1. I love learning new things, like math concepts, and discovering that I actually already *knew,* but had just never thought about the formula. Science works that way too sometimes.
    I also know that I don’t know everything. I’ve got to be wrong about some things; I just don’t know what those things are!

    • It’s fun, having new stuff to know — although knowing that you’ve been knowing *wrong* can be a little less fun than otherwise! Oh well, it keeps me humble. (:

  2. I still think the phrase “Janet knew she was about to die” is better and more accurate if reworded along the lines of “There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to die” or “Janet absolutely believed she was about to die.” So give Perfectionist You some props.

    • Thank you; I agree. The one way yet be techinically correct (and perhaps more dramatic, which is likely what this hypothetical writer was going for), but the others are truer. And I’m all for truth in fiction!

  3. It seems melodramatic for a narrator to say a character “knows” she is going to die. I feel there are better ways to build suspense with scene to make the reader feel Janet’s impending doom without saying something like this. The narrator could also put us in the character’s head and let the character speak (or think) for herself, as in: “I’m going to die,” thought Janet. Then we “know” Janet can be wrong, whereas if the narrator says Janet “knows” something, we feel we feel misled if she doesn’t.

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