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Life, love and language


OK, here is another short article to put under Language since I feel I have been neglecting that section of my blog (along with all the rest, truth be told). And it’s on hyperbole because there has been so much of it on TV right now that I think we need to consider exactly what it is and if ‘truthful hyperbole’ is actually a thing.
Most of us would have to admit to telling the odd “white lie”, often justified by assuring ourselves that we just don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and, probably more truthful, because we don’t want people thinking badly of us. And more and more we seem to be happy to accept lies told by our politicians and other newsmakers and relaters to the extent that we are said to be living in the untruth era.
But, on the whole I think most of us like to think of ourselves as being basically truthful. And yet we will happily use hyperbole without thinking twice. So, what is hyperbole, and can it be equated with lying?
The simple answer, of course, is that hyperbole is exaggeration. To be an exaggeration it has to be at least linked to truth. ‘The crowds at my inauguration were the biggest ever’ is only hyperbole if there was, in fact, an inauguration. If there wasn’t it would be a flat out lie.
From a language point of view hyperbole is a figure of speech, generally used to emphasise a point, for example, “I won’t be eating there again, that meal cost me a fortune!” Very few people hearing this would believe that the meal actually cost a fortune but would understand that it was very expensive. Similarly, if you complained that your shoes were killing you, no one would rush to apply life saving techniques since they would realize that you simply meant that your shoes were hurting your feet.
In these examples, then, hyperbole is an innocent and effective way of getting your point across to your listeners. There is no expectation that anyone would take you at your word and, in fact, to correlate it with lying is hyperbolic in itself.

But what about hyperbole being used in the commercial or political fields? Here I believe exaggeration is often intended to mislead, in which case the link to lying is much stronger. This is especially true where the hyperbole is used for self-aggrandizement. For example, ‘the economy is the best it’s ever been.” It is this form of hyperbole which has been called truthful hyperbole – “an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion” (Michael LaBossiere).

However, given that many people choose to take a statement at face value rather than go to the trouble of checking facts this sort of hyperbole is far from innocent and can lead to an almost cult like belief in an influential person who indulges in it.

Hyperbole 3


August 2, 2018 Posted by | Language | 2 Comments

Why Spelling is Important


When I started lecturing at University I was surprised to find that spelling and grammar was not to be a factor in marking as long as the essay/exam was understandable.  I imagine it would have been different if I had been teaching an English class but my area of expertise is child development and I was lecturing in the Education Department. I still shudder to think of the variety of written English been taught by some of my ex-students!

Of course English writing, and therefore spelling, is based on the Roman alphabet which dates back to the 600’s and was developed for a language which is phonologically very different to English.  To overcome this digraphs – sh, th, ch, and gh were created to represent sounds not readily available in the existing alphabet, which made for some interesting spelling, for example enough and high

Generally though, in the Middle Ages, writers spelt words phonetically.  The problem with this was that, with all the regional dialects in the UK at the time, there was no consistency in the pronunciation of words.  Night, for example, had more than 60 different spellings. including nyght and nicht.  Drowgh and trghug, among other variations, were both acceptable ways to spell through; and cloudy could be rendered clowdie, clowdy, or clowdye, just to mention a few.

For hundreds of years writers gaily went their own myriad ways, with spelling, punctuation and grammar being matters of individual preference.  Then came the advent of the printing press in 1452, which made the written word more accessible to the common man.  Before then books were laboriously copied out by hand, often by monks, and were only available to those in the upper echelons of society who could afford them.

With the printing press, of necessity, spelling became more uniform.  This made reading and interpreting the writers’ ideas a whole lot easier.  Whereas before the same phrase could be written “Trghug the clowdye nicht”, or “Drowgh the clowdy nyght”, or even  “Yhurght the clowdie nihte”,  the use of the printing press ensured that at least some effort was made to come to an agreement about the spelling of most common words.  This doesn’t imply that writers immediately began expressing themselves in standardised English.  In fact, most letters, diaries and other handwritten documents continued to display a very varied choice of spelling. Nor does it imply that the most logical forms of words were chosen as the standard for spelling. To try to bring some order into the system reformers in the 16th century tried using the etymology of a word to determine its spelling.  For example the word double originated from the French doble.  Sometimes this worked, but just as often it didn’t.

To add to the confusion there were considerable changes in spoken English around about the 15th and 16th centuries. However, the now fairly standardized written form of the language remained much the same.

And then, just when we thought we had it all worked out, in the early 17th century Britain started to colonize America and it all fell apart again.  Today the differences in British and American spelling seem to revolve around the KISS principle.  Whereas British English steadfastly retains most of the quirks of centuries of spelling traditions, the Americans seem determined to keep it all as simple as possible.  So, for example, they dropped the redundant ‘u’ –  colour became color, neighbour became neighbor, behaviour became behavior. And they dropped the extra ‘l’s’ – cancelled became canceled and modelling became modeling, except where the British version of a word has one ‘l’, whereupon, presumably to be contrary, they added one – so wilful became willful Then they turned ‘s’ into ‘z’ (and, to add insult to injury started calling it zee instead of zed).

But we adjusted, dividing English spelling into two camps in the northern hemisphere  – American and British – with Canadian spelling hovering uncomfortably between the two. And again a reasonable compromise seemed to have been reached, until social media appeared and suddenly any gains made over the past fifteen centuries fell by the wayside.  With auto-correct barely keeping our online correspondence coherent, abbreviations, hashtags and  other examples of ‘text-speak’ are the order of the day.

So what do we do? Revert to the idiosyncratic, individualized spelling and grammar of the middle ages? And, in view of its shady past, is spelling that important anyway?

Surprisingly it is.  Firstly misspelt words do affect textual communication, they can drastically change the meaning of a sentence and make it almost impossible to read, however versed in textese one may be and, secondly, while this might come as a surprise to some, sending out a resume full of spelling and grammar errors is still almost certain to put you out of the running for your dream job.  Rightly or wrongly glaring mistakes tend to make you appear less intelligent than you may be.

Still not convinced? According to a 2009 study done by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder.com 45 percent of employers interviewed used social networks to screen applicants; and of the 35 percent who decided not to offer a job based on the applicants’ social media content, 29 percent did so because of poor online communication skills. https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/more-employers-use-social-networks-to-check-out-applicants/

February 21, 2018 Posted by | Language | Leave a comment

Calgary is turning gold

Calgary is turning gold,

though the grass is still green and lush from the rain,

and the sun rides high in the pale blue sky.

The sparrows are bright-eyed and noisy and bold

as they fight for seed at the feeder.

Calgary is turning gold,

though the mountains hide in the shimmering haze

and the streams reflect the sun’s brightening rays.

On a shaded deck in the lazy heat

we bask in the dog days of summer

*  *  *

But the trees know there will be snow

and Calgary is turning gold.

September 12, 2015 Posted by | Language, Living in Canada | , , , | 1 Comment

Soccer match on the community green

Summer is over, as fall arrives here is a memory of the long summer twilights:

7 o’clock.

The lengthening shadows

creep across the park

though the sun, hung low in the sky,

shines bright and warm.

Little boys, like erratic ants


Running, pushing, climbing, playing.

Parents, talking, laughing,

Mingling and re-mingling,

Slowly drift across the grass

to take their places at the side of the field.

A small child squeals indignation

at some lost freedom,

An elderly couple on an evening stroll,

smile briefly, indulgently, and move on.

A dog barks.

A call brings the small boys to scrambling, jostling order.

A whistle blows.

In the long shadows the soccer match begins.

October 24, 2009 Posted by | Language | | 1 Comment