Written In English

October 19, 2009

Happy Birthday Special English!

Filed under: Education,Language,Media — Judy @ 2:04 pm
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Voice of AmericaVoice of America is celebrating the 5oth Anniversary of their Special English programming today.  It was started way back in 1959 and was aimed at those were learning English as a second language and those who didn’t speak it fluently.  For that reason they used a limited vocabulary (1500 words) and short, simple sentences.  It was and still is hugely popular and currently broadcasts several times a day, 7 days a week.  Each half hour program includes world news, a different short feature every day about a topic like development, healthcare, economics and a feature about some aspect of life in America.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this kind of programming in the developed/English speaking world.  Radio may even be viewed as a bit of a backwater these days.  But for someone living in an underdeveloped country, with limited or no access to the internet, no money to buy English books or newspapers, even if they were available, radio programs like this are an incredibly valuable education resource.  Long live Special English!

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October 13, 2009

Empty Words and Phrases

Filed under: Uncategorized — Judy @ 5:18 pm

Speaking_849x1200They are common currency in our everyday speech, so much so that we often fail to notice them.  I’m talking about the empty words and phrases that litter day-to-day speech.  I hate them and kick myself whenever I find myself falling into the trap of using them.  Everyone has their personal Top 5, here are mine:_

How are you today?  Used by everyone in a customer service role as a totally superfluous add-on to a normal greeting.  I’m often tempted to give them a comprehensive answer, as in “Well I didn’t sleep well last night, my back is playing me up and I’m dying for a coffee.  How are you?”  But I know I’d get the automatic response (which I’m expected to give) of “Fine , thank you.”  It particularly irritates me when my doctor asks me this as we walk from the reception area into her office.  Does she really expect me to start explaining the reason for my visit in front of her entire office?  But if I answer “Fine, thank you,” will she accuse me of wasting her time?

To be honest.  When someone starts a sentence with this, I’m so sorely tempted to interrupt and say “Aren’t you usually honest when you speak to me?”  I know that this is a warning that what is about to be said is going to be blunt,  so then why not say “To be blunt,”?

With the greatest respect.  Similar to “To be honest,” except that in this case you know whatever is said next will not be respectful at all.  People like to use this as a Get Out of Jail Free card, trying to abdicate responsibility for rude and abusive speech, but fooling nobody.

Enjoy.  This one has spread through restaurant staff all over the world faster than H1N1 and is sheer laziness.   Is it really so hard to complete the sentence “Enjoy your meal/food”?  Every time I hear it, I clench my knife and fork and feel my throat tighten as I say “Thank you,” through gritted teeth.  A sure fire recipe for indigestion.

Whatever.  Last but not least.  The Marist Institute for Public Opinion have just declared this the most annoying word or phrase in the English language.  I don’t know that it’s Number 1 on my list, but certainly its dismissive “I don’t care” tone grates, particularly with parents when uttered by their offspring. 

These words and phrases are a disservice to our rich language.  They are even worse than “Umm” and “Ahh” because they imply meaning but fail to deliver.  Resolve to remove them from your vocabulary.  Language pedants, unite!

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September 26, 2009

Chatspeak and Spelling

Filed under: Language — Judy @ 6:42 pm
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AbbreviationI always claim that learning to touch type ruined my handwriting.  For me, writing with a pen or pencil seems so laborious as my thoughts race ahead of my ability to put the words on paper.  I usually end up with a messy scrawl that even I have trouble deciphering.  So I was surprised by the results of a recent study conducted by the University of  Alberta which concluded that students’ ability to spell is not being eroded by the explosion of “chatspeak”.  By that they mean the abbreviations and misspellings commonly used these days in text messages, instant messaging services and the like.

Not only is this new chatspeak language not adversely impacting our children, but researchers found that girls who used a lot of abbreviations were actually better spellers than those who didn’t.  It appears that chatspeak is developing as a whole other language and trying to express yourself clearly but concisely can be a good mental workout.

OMG wot wud my mom say?  ROFL!

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The Wonder of Whiffling

Filed under: Language,Media — Judy @ 6:07 pm
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whiffling_ukcoverLooking to add to your vocabulary?  Then you might want to add this as a fun stocking stuffer to your Christmas Wish List.  “The Wonder of Whiffling” by Adam Jacot de Boinod is an eclectic mix of slang, ancient, and regional English words that you have probably never heard of.  Who knew that a “stridewallop” is a Yorkshire term for a tall and awkward woman?  I certainly didn’t even though I was born and raised in that part of the world. 

Adam continues to add to his collection of comic and curious expressions with a blog.  I’m particularly fond of “seagull manager’ – a manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, shits all over everything, and then leaves.  I’ve worked for a few of those!

His website also has a great resource page with links to other websites specializing in quirky language.

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September 13, 2009


Filed under: Language — Judy @ 9:53 pm

Tom SwiftI’ve just discovered a new type of pun which I hadn’t heard of before.  It’s called a Tom Swifty (or Swifties), named after a series of books cataloging the adventures of Tom Swift, similar in style to the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  The books were authored by several writers, using the pen name Victor Appleton and written in a rather dramatic style with heavy use of adverbs describing the dialogue.  It was almost as if the author were deliberately avoiding the use of the word “said”.

A real example is “”No professor?” cried Miss Perkman indignantly. “Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor.”

This style has parodied into a wordplay which links the adverb to the meaning of the sentence.  Some of my favourites are:-

“I cut myself on that broken window,” Tom said painfully.

“I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.

“I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish

“You must be my host,” Tom guessed

and a real groaner . . .

“I’m going to end it all,” Sue sighed.

I just love this sort of thing.  I must be a real nerd . . .

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September 8, 2009


Filed under: Language,Media — Judy @ 9:20 pm
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TwitterAre you on Twitter yet?  I joined a while ago and at first just listened to what others were saying,  my usual observe-first-before-jumping-in strategy.  Like Facebook, there’s a lot of rubbish on Twitter (do I really need to know what my friends are cooking for dinner?) but the immediateness of it is addictive.  For example,  I watched closely on the evening of August 19 to see if Ramadan would be announced in the Middle East, so I could be one of the first to wish my Muslim friends there “Ramadan Kareem”.   

There’s lots of useful information on Twitter.  My favourite magazines, newspapers and tv shows all tweet their updates.  It’s a quick way to check new posts on the blogs I follow and I’ve also “met” several interesting people through it.  Shopaholics can check out the latest sales and special offers and for business is, it’s a great way to develop personal relationships with customers and drive traffic to your website.

Twitter is teaching me to be concise.  With tweets restricted to just 140 characters  it can be a challenge to get your message across without resorting to adolescent text message abbreviations.  So imagine my delight when I came across this 1996 article in the New York Times on the subject of famous telegrams.  As they were also restricted in length they are perfect examples of how write well with less.  A few examples speak for themselves:- 

It is believed that the telegraph’s founding father, Samuel F. B. Morse, sent his first formal telegram from the Capitol in Washington to Baltimore in 1844.  WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.

A reporter asked the actor Cary Grant about his age.  HOW OLD CARY GRANT?  The actor supposedly replied:  OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

And the now famous THE REPORTS OF MY DEATH ARE GREATLY EXAGGERATED.  The cable which Mark Twain sent from London in 1897 when he heard that his obituary had been published.

It remains to be seen if Twitter will produce similar literary masterpieces!

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August 27, 2009

Change is constant

Filed under: Language — Judy @ 9:03 pm
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Just as we are always dealing with change in our lives, so does the language we use change constantly.  One of the strengths of the English language is that it is open to change and accounts in part for its popularity as a major world language.  Not only does English import words from other languages (“brunette’ from French, “cotton” from Arabic), it also constantly incorporates new words as it adopts slang (bling, hoody) or as a result of new technology (email, internet).  Grammar also changes, much to the chagrin of pedants and English teachers.  “As compared to” still makes me flinch, but since I hear it so frequently on the BBC news I’ve come to accept it.

Two articles which I read yesterday got me thinking about “politically correct” changes to the language, which we often deride as bureaucratic nonsense.  The first articleI read gave some good examples  what appears to be PC-ness gone mad – an agreement “based on trust” rather than “gentleman’s agreement” and “perfected” rather than “mastered.”   However the second article gave me pause.  It reminded me that many of the terms we used when I was a child are now considered quite unacceptable and even taboo – “retardation” was the word discussed.  Maybe thirty years from now “gentleman’s agreement” will be equally offensive.

It’s a bit of a minefield and demonstrates how important it is to keep up-to-date with the language we use.

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August 4, 2009

Social Media Suicide

Filed under: Media — Judy @ 4:53 pm
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Social MediaA dramatic example of the power of social networking, and how we all need to understand how it works, is the recent case of Horizon Realty.

Amanda Bonnen, a Chicago resident, posted the following tweet on Twitter “Who said sleeping in a mouldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon really thinks it’s okay”.  Horizon Realty is her landlord and who hasn’t moaned to their friends (she had only 20 followers) about their landlord at some time or another? 

Little did she know that Horizon was listening.  Like many companies they monitor the internet through search engines and social media sites to find out what people are saying about them.  Presumably not anticipating that it could turn round and bite them on the bum, they decided to take a sledge hammer to kill a fly and issued Amanda with a $50,000 lawsuit for libel.

If this overreaction wasn’t a bad enough PR mistake, Jeffrey Michael, whose family runs Horizon, told the Chicago Sun-Times “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organisation,” a remark which he later said was made tongue-in-cheek. 

You may think this is just lesson to us all to watch what we say on the internet, but what is really interesting is the firestorm it created on Twitter and later on blogs and mainstream media.  A Google search shows over 300,000 blogs and 500 print publications have covered the story, including the BBC and The Wall Street Journal.  Needless to say this has significantly raised Horizon’s profile, but not in the way any company would want, as it is has been portrayed as both a slum landlord and a bully.

So while we do need to watch what we say on the internet, the underlying lesson is that social media (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, newsletters, etc) is a powerful tool.  We need to understand it and we need to use it to our advantage.  Have you Googled yourself lately?

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