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Newsletter July 03 - 2008FREE email English course
Dear Friend,
By some people, plain speaking is considered to be the only way to communicate. They don't shilly-shally, as it were, nor do they dither. They just come straight to the point. They don't beat about the bush (take a long time in explaining what they want to say). They don't add any fancy decorations to their phrases. They don't waste any time elaborating. This way of conversing or come to that of writing is known as calling a spade a spade. Incidentally on my recent trip to France I watched a TV quiz programme where the contestants have to choose the correct answer from four options. The question was about just that — How do you describe plain speaking?

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The right answer turned out to be 'calling a cat a cat'. Now why on earth in French it's 'cats' and in English it's 'spades', heaven only knows. How do you say it in your language, I wonder? The Old Norse language has given us the word 'blunt' meaning dull and boring. And we give the title Jack Blunt to anyone who believes in straightforward, no nonsense communication. There's a lot to be said for it of course particularly when it comes to official documents. You know the sort of thing I mean where there are so many words, obscure words too, in a sentence. They trip over each other in trying to grab your attention and in the end the meaning gets lost in the process.

There's a lovely word that describes this — 'gobbledegook'. In 1979 an organization calling itself Plain English Campaign was set up to combat this kind of verbiage. Each year they award what they call 'Crystal Marks' to successful communicators and Golden Bull prizes to those who have failed miserably. Here's an example of the latter: The substantial drops in asking prices are further confirmation of the underlying trend of more sellers re-adjusting their prices downwards. Does this mean, do you think, that things are getting cheaper?

Mind you if we all went around speaking like Jack Blunt saying exactly what we thought, exactly what was on our mind without worrying about what effect it would have on others, this could lead to some unpleasant situations and above all it would just become extremely boring. So thank goodness for figurative language where we can let our hair down, let rip and have a good time. This is where we use what we call figures of speech. I'll give some examples but should warn you that the names we give them are mainly derived from the Greek but then as I am sure you know, English is the biggest rag bag of all languages, picking words from wherever it fancies.

Poor Jack Blunt must be having nightmares. Let's start with two that to me always seem as if they are related — members of the same family. They are metaphor and simile. I regard simile as the younger of the two. It's another word for comparison and we've got thousands of them: as cool as a cucumber (very relaxed), as quiet as a mouse (very, very quiet), as good as gold (well behaved), as daft as a brush (crazy), as easy as pie (very easy to understand), as deaf as a post (very deaf) and one more: as quick as a flash (very quick). Now to the older member of the family — metaphor. In this figure of speech we've dropped the comparison, taken it for granted and turned it into a fact. Back to Mr Blunt. If I pick up a spade and say:

This is a spade you know, men in white coats might be telephoned for to take me away because this is screamingly obvious. But if I say: I call a spade a spade, I am making a metaphorical statement and no white coated men are needed because everyone understands the point (the reduced simile) I am making. Metaphor is everywhere. Look at these sentences: She breezed into the room. Now she isn't a wind but she entered the room like a gentle breeze. The storm raged for three hours during the night. Now bulls rage when they are angry but storms are so violent it sounds as if they are angry. And finally: My lips are sealed. Now if they were really sealed, you wouldn't be able to say that! It means: I won't reveal the secret because it's as if my lips were stuck together.

Hyperbole is a posh word for exaggeration. Here you want to make your point dramatically and so you emphasise it to draw attention. You get a bit wet from the rain but you say: Oh dear, I'm soaked to the skin. You wait twenty minutes at the bus stop and say: I've been waiting all morning for a bus to come. Someone gets quite angry with you and you say: She almost bit my head off. Shakespeare loved using it. Lady Macbeth feels she has blood on her hands (now that's a metaphor by the way) because her husband is busy murdering those in the way to get to the top and she claims: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. We all exaggerate, don't we? I know I do — I do it millions of times!

Litotes is another word for understatement. This is very much a characteristic of English and indeed of the British character. A climber who has just climbed the tallest mountain in the world without the benefit of an oxygen mask is asked whether it was a difficult task and the answer comes back: I had one or two small problems on the way up. A negative element also comes into this figure of speech. An oil painting is often used as a symbol for something beautiful and so if you say someone is' no oil painting', you are suggesting in an understated way that they are plain. People ask about the state of your health and you say: I'm no too bad even if you're feeling awful. The weather is a favourite topic. You send a postcard home when you're on holiday and it's rained non stop.

You write:
Dear All,
Lovely hotel but the weather could be better.
Oxymoron, another word of Greek origin. Let's go for a dictionary definition this time: A condensed form of paradox in which two contradictory words are used together. A bitter sweet experience is where there are two elements — happiness and unhappiness. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says goodnight to Juliet with these words 'parting is such sweet sorrow' as he kisses her anticipating seeing her again the next day. On a lighter note an 'open secret' is something everybody knows about but shouldn't. A comedy at the theatre that is hilarious could be called 'seriously funny'. When you get no answer to a question, you could call it a 'deafening silence'.

Zeugma. This word comes suitably from the Greek for 'yoke' and is used as a figure of speech whereby two or more parts of a sentence are joined by a single verb or word. This is more often use as a literary device. An example from the Victorian writer, Charles Dickens: Mr Pickwick took his hat and his leave. Again: He lost his coat and his temper or You held your breath and the door for me.

It strikes me this is all getting a little too serious and so let's end on an amusing figure of speech. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a country clergyman who had the habit of muddling his words. He used to transpose the beginnings of two words in a sentence and invariably this transposition would create another sentence with an entirely different meaning. Instead of saying: Let me show you to a seat, he would say; Let me sew you to a sheet. Similarly Lighting a fire becomes Fighting a liar. Instead of You missed my history lecture, you say: You hissed my mystery lecture. It's not clear whether the reverend gentleman did this first by accident and then thought he would do it again and again for fun or whether he just couldn't help it. Either way we now remember his name as the figure of speech we call Spoonerism.

Now I wonder whether Jack Blunt would have understood if William Spooner had said to him: I do hope all these explanations of figures of speech are as dear as clay to you. I do hope you understand the simile he really wanted to say.

Best regards,
Alan Townend

Friend, what kind of communication style do you prefer? I'd really like to hear your comments and ideas on this question. Please post them here on the forum.

Dear Friend,
Are you a teacher of English or learner of English? Or maybe both? At any rate, you might want to explore the English language materials we have created for you. For example, you can get a copy of thousands of English tests suitable for all levels. You can use these tests as a learner or as a teacher, use them for handouts in your classroom. What reading materials are they? You'll see short stories, essays and thrillers. You will find them all in our online store. I'm sure there must be something interesting for you and your colleagues and friends.

Good luck!
Alan Townend

Hush hushEnglish goes to America
How good are you at managing your time?All about poets
Figuratively speakingTake your time
Looking aheadMore haste, less speed
I didn't mean to do that, honestlyA bit of a laugh
Come fly with me 
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