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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Introducing the Count …

The extract below is taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in 1897. It is the entry in Jonathan Harker’s diary written after his first meeting with Count Dracula.

588px-Dracula-jpgHis face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion.

The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they seemed rather white and fine;but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice they were rather coarse – broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder.  

(Chapter II)

Bram Stoke creates a strong visual image of Dracula here.  The description is designed to alert the reader to key characteristics – but while appearing to tell us a great deal, Stoker reveals very little. He manages to keep his readers guessing.

The adjectives describing Dracula are important:

  1. many are visual, representing physical features (aquilinehigharchedloftybushy, heavyfirm, fine) – they suggest Dracula is a rather distinguished man
  2. some begin to hint at his larger than life presence (massive, pointed)
  3. others characterise his physical strength (strong, broad, squat)

The most important adjectives, however, have negative connotations:

  1. fixed and cruel-looking begin to hint at Dracula’s underlying nature – so far, he has shown himself to be a gracious host, and Harker has no more than a vague sense of unease
  2. long and sharp (Dracula’s nails) and sharp (his teeth) have dramatic significance – though Harker and the reader do not yet recognise this 
  3. repeated references to white and pale, and extraordinary modifying the noun pallor set him apart from humanity
  4. the repetition of the adverb intensifier peculiarly and the adjective remarkable reinforce his difference
  5. opposites (fine/coarsestrong/thin) suggest the Count is a man of contradictions – someone Harker should not trust

Many of the adjectives come before the noun they describe (lofty domed forehead) – we call these attributive adjectives. Others, however, are in a more prominent position after was/were (stative verbs).  We call these predicative adjectives. They are interesting because they have a greater semantic significance when they stand alone. Stoker is implicitly drawing our attention to: 

  1. Dracula’s physical presence (massive, broadstrong)
  2. his pallor (pale, white)
  3. his underlying potential for evil (fixedcruel-lookinglongfine)

The tension between appearance and reality is central. In the beginning, we have to believe Harker’s account; we have to believe that the Count is no more than a foreigner, with unfamiliar customs and habits. In his description of Dracula’s hands, however, Stoker begins to prepare us for an alternative point of view. The stative verb seemed suggests that we cannot trust appearances. It hints at the Count’s potential for deception – his hands betray his true nature.  The image of the hairs in the centre of the palm and Harker’s comment clause Strange to say reinforce the sense that his difference is threatening. And his touch makes Harker shudder.

It is important to remember that while Dracula is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century, contemporary readers will have come to the text with no expectations. Their view of the Count will have been shaped by the limitations of Jonathan Harker’s first person narrative: his blindness will have made them blind. The clues that Stoker builds into this description begin a process of revelation, a process which moves inexorably towards recognition of the Gothic horror of Dracula’s blood-thirst.

(Adapted from Mastering Practical Grammar)

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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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It’s all in the names


Do we have lots of DNA junk or not? Many scientists believe that up to 90% of the DNA in our genome has no biological function and is therefore not vital to life. Recent research by the Encode project has challenged this. And now a dispute has broken out.


Were the people who carried out the research ‘scientists‘? Or were they ‘badly trained technicians‘, as claimed by a critical paper published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal.

Naming is a powerful thing … and there’s a linguistic attack on three levels here …

1. the denotation (dictionary meaning)

SCIENTIST: a person who studies or practises any science

TECHNICIAN: a person skilled in a practical or mechanical art; a person who does the practical work in a laboratory

2. the connotations (associations)

SCIENTIST: associated with intelligence, logic, and the capacity for original thought

TECHNICIAN: practical and skilled, but not necessarily associated with academic learning or breaking new ground with life-changing discoveries

3. the confrontational pre-modification (badly trained)

the past participle trained functions as an adjective pre-modified by the negative adverb of manner badly

We are meant to respond to scientists as a positive label, and to badly trained technicians as a negative label.  The names are designed to undermine the new findings and to reinforce the prestige of previous research.  

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Interim – the power of a word

Rafael Benitez is unhappy with his title. In a speech after Chelsea had beaten13455754401401239785Manager Between Chair and Middlesbrough 2-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Benitez objected to being called “interim manager”. So why is “interim manager” linguistically and semantically so different from “manager”?

In structure, both are noun phrases, but the pre-modifying adjective “interim” alters our response to the head noun.  This is the power of pre-modification – it affects the way we interpret the noun that follows.

The meaning of the adjective appears to undermine the authoritative connotations of “manager” in this context.  For Benitez, it makes his role seem less important because it suggests that he is only transitional, temporary – a stand-in until someone else (someone better or more suitable?) can be appointed.


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The key to open and closed class words

key 2

This is where we start … you  first need to be able to RECOGNISE and then DESCRIBE words according to their class.

The first two sections are short and straightforward. They introduce you to open class words and closed class words. These are two very broad categories and all words fit into one group or the other.

Follow the links to read about word classes. Then use the exercises to test your knowledge. Can you spot which words belong to the open class and which to the closed?

Open class words

Closed class words

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To pre- or post-modify, that is the question …


On Radio 4’s The Archers, one of the characters was expecting a baby … Someone described her baby as ‘a Down’s Syndrome baby’ and she insisted she was having ‘a baby with Down’s Syndrome’. Can you see the semantic difference?

At a level of language, we can describe the two structures very differently. The first is a pre-modified noun phrase: the head word ‘baby’ is at the end of the phrase and we therefore first register the condition. The second is a post-modified noun phrase: the noun ‘baby’ comes first with the condition as a qualifier (in the form of a prepositional phrase).

The order of information in a phrase is important because it affects the way we respond. In this case, the character was drawing attention to the fact that her baby would not be defined by her condition – that she was a baby first and that her condition was just one element of who she would be.

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