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megaphone-outline-mdDavid Marsh of the Guardian’s ‘Mind your Language’ blog was interviewed on the radio yesterday (13 March, Today, Radio 4) about the distinctive language used on trains and at stations. As a variety of English, Railspeak has its own vocabulary and syntax. Some of the key features Marsh identifies are:

  • the use of unexpected prepositions: we will be arriving into Didcot rather than ‘in’ or ‘at’
  • the addition of unnecessary modifiers: our next station stop is Cardiff  (the noun modifier does not provide us with useful information);  personal belongings (the denotation of ‘belongings’ is ‘personal effects’ so the adjective is superfluous)
  • the inclusion of auxiliary verbs where there is no clear semantic reason for them: we do apologise … we do wish to inform you … (for emphasis?)
  • the replacement of simple, high frequency verbs with more formal verbs: depart (‘leave’); terminate (‘end’)

For David Marsh’s article on the  ‘Mind your Language’ blog, follow the link below:

irritated man on trainAnd for anyone travelling by train, please collect other examples and use the comment link at the end of this post to report your findings. It will be interesting to see what other distinctive linguistic features we can find!

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The art of analogy

To illustrate one thing by its resemblance to another has been always the most popular and efficacious art of instruction. There is indeed no other method of teaching that of which any one is ignorant but by means of something already known.

From The Idler, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Analogy is a useful tool in the writer’s kit: it allows us to create a comparison between two apparently unconnected things in order to make a point clearer, to develop an argument or to communicate an attitude. There may be linguistic indicators such as the subordinating conjunctions as or as if … or the preposition like … to draw attention to the analogy.

The following examples show how analogy can be used to affect the audience in different ways.

An appeal to our emotions

1325627622728677631Sick… can I draw an analogy … if babies were dying in hospital for lack of drink and their skin breaking down, society would be up in arms and if nurses said, ‘Well, I’ve put the bottle in the crib and I’ve put the nappy in the crib – I can’t understand why the baby’s died.’ And yet at the end of our lives we may have that level of dependency and we may need that level of care …

Anne Challoner Wood, Director of ‘See Change in Dementia Care’, Today, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

 A Care Quality Commission report (published on 12 March 2013) has shown that older people suffering from dementia who are admitted to hospital with a minor, avoidable condition stay much longer and will often never return home.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker explicitly draws attention to the fact that she wishes to make a comparison using the polite question can I draw …
  2. the analogy is introduced with the conditional conjunction if which marks the example as hypothetical
  3. specific references to minor, avoidable conditions  experienced by people with dementia are linked directly to a baby  (lack of drink = dehydration; skin breaking down= pressure sores)
  4. the use of hypothetical direct speech highlights the absurdity of the situation
  5. the fronted conjunctions And yet make the link between the imagined baby and the reality for people suffering from dementia clear

The emotive effect is hard-hitting.  The figurative up in arms sets the tone of indignation that we should feel for this neglect. The analogy works because it takes an image which will make us all feel outraged and shows how the same argument applies in the debate about care for people with dementia.   

A visual explanation

… an American commentator recently described the kind of decline of public service in the United States as akin to seeing, from a 11954280451742271342shipswheel_john_olsen_01.svg.meddistance, a ship that appears to be veering from one direction to another. The captain and the crew must appear to be maniacs, but in fact on closer inspection there’s no captain or crew at all – just a set of ideologues committed either to Jesus Christ or to Adam Smith temporarily grabbing the wheel before being thrown overboard …

Paul du Gay, Copenhagen Business School, In Defence of Bureaucracy, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

The programme explores the relationship between the civil service and government ministers. We choose our government every four years, but the civil servants remain constant, providing continuity and stability to our services.  In America, the situation is quite different – the civil servants change each time the administration changes.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker focuses attention on his topic (the kind of decline of public services)
  2. the analogy is introduced with the subordinating conjunction as and the comparative marker akin to …
  3. the visual image of the ship is established – something familiar, making the abstract topic concrete through a lexical set of nouns (ship, captain, crew, wheel)
  4. proper nouns establish the two extremes of American politics: ideologues committed to either Jesus Christ (i.e. the Republicans) or Adam Smith (i.e. Democrats)
  5. the image of conflict and the adverb of time (temporarily) suggest that the process is illogical

The effect is to clarify an otherwise abstract concept: the visual element helps listeners to appreciate the difficulties that arise from having a transient rather than a permanent civil service. The analogy works because it creates a comic scene which is easily understandable and memorable.

An expression of attitude


Order. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) is noisier in heckling the Secretary of State than he was in heckling me at Essex university 30 years ago. He needs to calm down.


1197093693305734410johnny_automatic_monkey_silhouette.svg.medWith respect, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence. That is what I would say. Let me bring something forward – [Interruption.] No, monkeys can jump around, but the noise they make is not necessarily relevant.  

  Commons Debates, ‘Under-occupancy’,
Hansard (11 March 2013)

The debate focuses on proposed legislation which has been called the ‘Bedroom tax’ – people in social housing with a spare room will have their housing benefit reduced. The Speaker interrupted debate to stop persistent heckling by the Labour MP Ian Austin.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the Conservative minister, Iain Duncan Smith, makes a direct criticism of a Labour MP (the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence)
  2. politeness markers like the prepositional phrase (With respect) and the formal title the hon. Gentleman aim to soften the criticism, making it appropriate for the formal, adversarial context
  3. the implicit analogy links the Labour MP and a monkey through the repetition of the noun noise
  4. Austin’s arguments against the legislation are implicitly reduced to the chatterings of a monkey i.e. noise without meaning or relevance

The effect is expressive here. Ian Duncan Smith communicates his opinion clearly in the comparison. It allows him to be rude without breaking the unwritten rules of parliamentary exchange – the language was not seen to be inappropriate because The Speaker did not interveneThe analogy works because it creates a comic image which allows the minister to undermine his opponent.

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Words that cause offence

“I can see myself leaving here quite soon. I love this country but I’ve had enough of it. I don’t see what we’re being given back. I just see the country being raped …” 

Ray Winstone, talkSPORT Radio (8 March 2013)

Free_speech_doesn't_mean_careless_talk^_-_NARA_-_535383Does free speech give us the right to say anything without censorship or should we avoid offending others?

In a chatty radio interview, Winstone used an emotive verb to express his feelings about the British tax system.  It reflected a personal point of view: the government shows a lack of responsibility in the way it uses the tax revenue it raises and Winstone believes it is ruining the country.

While celebrities often complain about high tax rates, Winstone’s choice of verb has caused a media storm. Opinion is divided. Is he a straight-talking bloke using colourful language that is typical of his hard-men film characters? Or is he an insensitive rich man  failing to distinguish between a serious crime and a personal gripe?

Had this conversation taken place in a private context, it would have been an inappropriate verb, but ephemeral – once spoken, it would have been gone. In the public context of a radio interview, however, lexical choice becomes a more delicate matter.  However informal and personal the occasion may appear, however well the participants may know each other, broadcasters should always be aware of their wider audience. Their language must be acceptable.

Perhaps the form of the word here plays as much a part in causing offence as its denotation and connotations. The passive continuous verb form (being raped) creates a sense of immediacy that makes the act itself more prominent. While recognising that the use is figurative, the effect is unpleasant.  Equating rape and paying taxes is a rather thoughtless comparison.

An interesting contrast can be drawn with the title of a novel published in 1959: The Rape of the Fair Country. This novel by Foxes_Bridge_CollieryAlexander Cordell tells the story of the Welsh iron and coal communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo during the  Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.  The figurative ‘rape’ here describes the destruction of the Welsh landscape by industry and the exploitation of the workers in their bitter struggle with the English ironmasters.

It is difficult to imagine this title causing offence, perhaps because ‘rape’ is the head of a noun phrase rather than the head of a verb phrase. Its effect is therefore less forceful. Moreover, there is a clear social and political argument underlying the lexical choice: its emotive connotations are designed to make us think about the situation in the Welsh valleys as the workers face physical hardship and the ravishing of their land.

Unfortunate – yes; malicious – no. Whether you think Winstone has been politically incorrect or not will probably depend on whether you think the wider point he makes is personal or political.

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The key to nouns

The section on nouns under the WORD tab is now complete. If you are studying language or want to know more about how language works – this is for you …

key 2   Unlock nouns:

          • 5 key facts you need to know about nouns
          • key terms that will help you to recognise and describe nouns
          • lots of exercises for practice with answers just one click away
          • and finally a look at nouns in context – flatpack DIY instructions, a political speech and a product review

This may be serious stuff, but it’s useful too!

Follow the link to get started.


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That’s not what I meant at all …

… it was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context …

Hilary Mantel, interview on “Night Waves”, Radio 3 (Thursday 7 March)

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, found herself at the centre of a media frenzy when ‘sound-bites’ were taken from her 5,500 word lecture and published in the daily newspapers.610px-Holt_Renfrew_Mannequins

a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung

a shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own, defined entirely
by what she wore

a mother-to-be

her only point and purpose being to give birth

These noun phrases were splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Her comments were described as “an extraordinary and venomous attack” by the Daily Mail; as “misguided … wrong”  by David Cameron ; as “pretty offensive” by Ed Miliband. What no-one bothered to do, however, was to look at the phrases in context.

Mantel’s lecture, ‘Undressing Anne Boleyn’, was the first of the Winter Lecture series organised by the London Review of Books. We 505px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Anne_Boleyncan see immediately that the context was formal and academic (the lecture took place in the British Museum). Her content focuses on royal bodies: the appearance, the role and perceptions of royal women. And this too is formal and academic, setting the modern against the historical, the personal against the public. Her lexical choices and her tone are appropriate – there is no evidence that she intended to challenge the linguistic expectations of her audience, purpose and context by making a malicious attack on a public figure. 

Out of context, the complex noun phrases may seem judgemental.  In context, it is clear that this was an appeal for clemency rather than a direct criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was an analysis of the ways in which the press and public opinion shape the way we think about the Royal Family rather than a deliberate act of discourtesy.

For anyone who reads carefully, these widely publicised noun phrases reflect Mantel’s central argument.  They represent the perceptions created by the media – they are the masks imposed upon a royal wife. The head words doll and mannequin emphasise the passive role Kate Middleton is expected to play, smiling sweetly, or picking up a hockey stick and obligingly running a few paces.  The imagery is pitch-perfect: the media analyse her clothes, her body shape (is she thinner? is her ‘bump’ making her ‘radiant’?), but we never hear what she thinks. She is presented to us by the press as a puppet … her personality irrelevant. 

Mantel is a skilled craftsman. Her words are chosen precisely and her effect is considered. We can see this in the complexity of the noun phrase structure. Each example here contains a modifying clause (relative: on which certain rags are hung; non-finite: defined by what she woreto-bebeing to give birth) which provides additional information. This information is crucial to the image represented by the head word. References to clothing and to the absence of personality reinforce the general point Mantel is making  in her lecture about media representation:718px-PAUL_DELAROCHE_-_Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)

We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them.   

Her text is a skilful and intelligent piece about the power of the media to shape public attitudes.  If the phrases quoted above are to be understood as their author intended them – go to the original and see them in context!

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That’s a horrible phrase!

– if you look at the fact that we now have more people, 1234670702813675970industrial commercial credit.svg.medthat’s men and     women, in work than ever before – that’s a signal that the companies themselves are really more optimistic – they would effectively be de-stocking … their human capital … it’s what they’re not doing – they’re actually hiring people …

– that’s a horrible phrase – you mean sacking people don’t you.

World at One, Radio 4 (Thursday 7 March 2013)

Euphemism can be society’s way of dealing with emotionally difficult or taboo subjects. We do not die, we ‘pass away’; drug addicts have a ‘chemical dependency’; pornography is re-branded as ‘adult entertainment’; contraception is discussed at ‘family planning’ clinics. Equally, euphemism can soften critical judgements: people have ‘ample proportions’ (fat) or are ‘vertically challenged’ (short). This kind of linguistic substitution is based on concealment,  but its aim is not purposefully deceptive – it just makes unpalatable or potentially embarrassing concepts more acceptable.

The problem comes when politics and big business manipulate language for their own gains. When sacking becomes ‘down-sizing’  – or as in this example, de-stocking … human capital – then the linguistic substitutions should set the alarm bells ringing. The replacement of a commonly understood word with something so detached and apparently neutral is intentionally deceptive. It aims to dehumanise the process by reducing people to the level of ‘product’: they have no value as individuals, only as potential capital. Making people redundant therefore becomes less personal – and easier to carry out.

In a military/political context, this deception seems more unscrupulous since it allows those in power to manipulate our response. Important documents have sections ‘redacted’ rather than censored; civilian deaths in military conflict are ‘collateral damage’; a ‘surgical strike’ is a precision bombing; enemies are ‘neutralised’ rather than killed. The language is technical; the connotations are neutral. The effect is to distance us from the true horror of war. This kind of euphemism is often called ‘Doublespeak’ – language that deliberately distorts meaning in order to mislead.

The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost.

David Bromwich

For an interesting glossary of recent euphemistic military terms, follow the link below;

The comments linked to the post on 28 February 2013, ‘Interim – the power of a word‘ are also thought-provoking.

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Language and context – an inappropriate choice

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJames Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): 

The Secretary of State repeatedly talks of the infraction process, which is surely just a fine. No one has ever paid any of these fines. Please, please, please: just say no, tell the Commission to sod off and do not pay the fine.

 The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Duncan Smith): 

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will skip the language and keep to the sentiment.

 Mr Speaker: 

Order. I can say only that I experienced a moment of deafness—partly because somebody else was wittering on at me—but I have the impression that perhaps something rather tasteless was said. I trust that the person concerned will wash his or her mouth out without delay.

Hansard, Commons Debate (Tuesday 5th March 2013)

Is all language acceptable all of the time? Or does context make a difference?

Each time we speak or write, we make decisions about the kind of language we use. We think about the audience, the purpose and the context. This process may be conscious or sub-conscious, but the results are the same:

  1. we decide to use language that is acceptable because we wish to create a positive relationship with other participants
  2. we chose to use language that is unacceptable to create a negative relationship, or to pose a challenge

 An unparliamentary choice?

Because the context of the House of Commons is formal, we would expect speakers to make formal choices. In the example quoted above, formal terms of address are used: The Secretary of State (position title), my hon. Friend (a traditional parliamentary title). There is also evidence of polysyllabic, technical language (the abstract noun phrase the infraction process) which adds to the formality of the tenor. Occasionally, however, an MP will purposefully choose to subvert linguistic expectations.

In the debate on 5th March, the Labour MP Frank Field asked Iain Duncan Smith what actions the Government might take to restrict welfare to newcomers from Bulgaria and Romania from 1 January 2014. The discussion was formal with specialist subject specific language, often from a legal register. Long noun phrases (the habitual residence test, a legal right to reside, an assessment of factual evidence of habitual residence), polysyllabic Latinate words (abstract nouns: entitlement, exportability, affiliation; adverbs: legitimately, fundamentally, habitually), and low frequency verbs (engendered, infracted, rescind) clearly mark the formality of the tone.

The contribution by the Conservative MP James Duddridge, however, changes the tenor. His use of adverbs (repeatedly, surely just) implicitly challenges Iain Duncan Smith’s repeated reference to the fine which may be imposed by the European Commission for changes to the residency test. The tripling of the interjection Please and the dismissive imperative just say no make this change in tone more explicit – resulting in the colloquial verb sod off and the seemingly flippant abbreviation of the full title of the European Commission.

The attitude conveyed by the idiomatic phrasal verb is noticeably at odds with the context: it seems inappropriate.  Iain Duncan Smith indirectly alludes to this in his rejection of Duddridge’s language choice (communicated by the verb skip), but his acceptance of the point made (the abstract noun the sentiment).

The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, responds more directly since it is his role to manage the debate and to ensure that all protocols are observed. His call for order reflects the general disturbance caused by Duddridge’s choice of language: the House of Commons is a place of tradition and such colloquialisms invariably cause a stir. It would appear that Bercow did not hear the actual words himself. The descriptive noun phrase a moment of deafness and the colloquial verb wittering on suggest his frustration.

The transgression, however, has not been significant. The adjective phrase rather tasteless reflects the mild nature of the actual offence incurred by Duddridge’s informality. The Speaker can insist that MPs leave the Commons, but here he handles the incident light-heartedly – with a figurative reference to the traditional punishment for inappropriate language-use. He has decided that while a reprimand is necessary, no further action will be taken.


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Word order and meaning – shaping reader response

In the caves, between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting, were being born the nightmares of generations yet to be.

 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (1953)


Why is this such a dramatic sentence? Because it makes us wait … it holds back the most important part of the sentence (the subject) until the very end.

We are given all the elements of narrative in a mere twenty-one words. First we have a place: the prepositional phrase In the caves. Then we have an implicit sense of character: the verbal nouns (dozing and waiting) provide the ‘action’, while the adjectives (fitful and fearful) tell us something about the inner life of the protagonists.

And finally, we have the drama. The post-modified noun phrase the nightmares of generations yet to be (the subject of the sentence) builds on the image of disturbed sleep. The language is emotive and the position emphatic.

For dramatic effect, the writer has used two linguistic devices:

fronting puts linguistic units other than the subject in the initial position: the prepositional phrase of place (in the caves) and the prepositional phrase of time  (between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting)

inversion of subject and predicator changes the order of information; here it further delays the subject until the end of the sentence, where end focus gives it added semantic weight

The shape of the sentence draws us on, then leaves us haunted by the negative connotations of nightmares and the timelessness of their capacity to affect future generations.

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Language change – free interactive activities

Have you heard of Saisiyat? Ancay ouyay eadray isthay? Why is Miss Muffet eating curry and chips? Do you know what a dwile is? Has granny been cotchin’ on da couch again? 

To find out, follow the link:

Last year, I created a series of activities based on language change commissioned by the National Grid for Learning, Wales (NGfL Cymru) and the Welsh Joint Examination Board (WJEC). These are now available to anyone at Hwb, the Welsh Government virtual learning platform.  They can be used direct from the Hwb site or downloaded.

After a broad introduction, there are four key sections:

  1. How can we recognise language change?
  2. How can we define language variation?
  3. What is Standard English?
  4. How can we describe language variation?

There are lots of examples and the interactive features so cleverly programmed by the teams at NGfl and the WJEC make this an entertaining way to start thinking about the topic. You can work on the screen or download printed copies of the material and commentaries.

The aim is to get you thinking about language change, and asking questions about the way different times, places and contexts affect language use.  With luck along the way, you’ll also have some fun …

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Evolutionary biology, mathematical models and language study – an unexpected mix

Language is an inherited system of information – we inherit the language of our parents in much the same way that we inherit their genes …

And why is that useful? Because we can use language to study questions about human history. That’s what the Radio 4 programme Material World discussed on 28 February 2013.

Evolutionary biologists at Reading University have been looking at the language of Homer’s Iliad so they could work out exactly when it was written.


So what did they do?

  • they looked at the many different copies of The Iliad to put together an ‘original’ version of Homer’s oral poem
  • they compared the vocabulary and turns of phrase with Modern Greek
  • they studied the rate of replacement of two hundred common words (e.g. body parts, colours, family relationships, pronouns, numbers)

Using their mathematical model, they found that closed class words evolved slowly and open class words more quickly. 

To find out more – including a ‘precise’ date for Homer’s poem – use the link below :

Scroll through to 22:11 to find the start of the discussion.

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