The dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that.” Was she telling George Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin, or was she simply letting him know that the police didn’t care either way?

For readers not familiar with the case, the quote comes from a conversation between Zimmerman and a police dispatcher in Florida in February 2012. He had called in to say he saw someone suspicious in his neighborhood, and said he would follow the person. He did follow Trayvon Martin, and ended up shooting him to death.

In comments on blogs discussing the case, defenders of Zimmerman’s actions claim that the police did not tell him not to follow Martin, and point to the transcript of the 911 call. It’s true that the literal meaning of the dispatcher’s words doesn’t seem to be an order—she did not say “Don’t do that.” But we often say things that are not what we mean. Linguists make a distinction between the semantic meaning of an utterance—what the words mean—and the pragmatic meaning—what the speaker means.

Maybe your mother taught you to say “Will you please pass the salt?” at the dinner table. Or even the more indirect construction, “Can you…”. This sentence is phrased as a request, or a question about physical ability. But it’s really an order, and the person to whom it’s addressed will nearly always comply. If he or she refuses the request, or takes the “can you” literally, an awkward moment at least will follow. (If you’ve ever had a nine-year-old brother, perhaps you’ve experienced this firsthand.)

We use these roundabout constructions in order to smooth social interactions. If I said to you over lunch, “Give me the ketchup,” and you did so, we would not seem to be peers. That little interaction would indicate that I had the authority to tell you what to do, and you would do it. So we avoid that construction. We avoid it even when it’s not necessary. Your boss has every right to order you to “Bring that report into my office.” But like as not, such an order will be phrased more as a question or request: “Can you bring that report into my office?”

Back to the police dispatcher in Florida. “We don’t need you to do that” seems to be one of these polite circumlocutions. Why did she phrase it that way? I don’t know the legal situation: it may be that the dispatcher does not have the authority of a police officer, and cannot legally give an order. Or she may have used the polite construction because, like most of us, she uses it out of habit.

Either way, the pragmatic meaning was clear: “Do not follow him.” George Zimmerman acknowledged as much: in a written statement to the Sanford police later that night, he wrote, “The dispatcher told me not to follow the suspect.”

(The written statement was dated February 26, 2012, and released to the public on June 21.)