Morris MtisiLAST week I wrote about adding value, lustre, flavour, to your English. The emphasis was on adding sheen, shine, patina, gleam, on one’s language, in speech or writing.
If you misunderstand what this means you may easily go to pains to look for long or big words to achieve the shine or sheen I am talking about. Many speakers and writers believe that the more you confuse people with big words and long complicated sentences the closer you are to the top shelf of communicative excellence. Far from it! If you are a student sitting an examination, say in composition writing, you will fail. Take it from me.
The purpose of good communication is to make it easy and clear for the reader or listener to understand you. Bad speakers and writers resort to big words and long twisted communication.
Consider the following example of words spoken by Mr Casaubon in George Elliot’s Middle-March:
The task, notwithstanding the assistance of my amanuensis, has been somewhat laborious one, but your society has happily prevented me from that too continuous prosecution of thought beyond the hours of study which has been a snare of my solitary life.
A simpler and more direct way of saying the same beautiful nonsense might be the following:
Even with your help, the work of writing has been hard, but your company has prevented me from over-working as I often used to do before we were married.
A man treads on someone’s foot by mistake, say in a queue, and he says the following:
I most humbly apologise for applying inexcusably unwarranted pressure on the outermost digits of your foot.
Surely, he could have simply said, “Oh how foolish of me! I didn’t realise I was treading on your foot. I’m terribly sorry.”
The former statement is not only verbose. It smells of empty arrogance and mockery too. How do you tread on someone’s foot and then begin to roar the apology in useless rumbling language?
In the first example, Mr Casaubon is pompous or pedantic with his language. It is fine in the literature context because it vividly brings out someone’ verbal arrogance. It clearly and interestingly brings out a character. But people do not just walk around speaking or writing like that; let alone in an examination.
The issue in discussion here is adding lustre, spine and shine to simple language. In the context of a composition you earn more marks for using an appropriate idiom or figure of speech. I gave you several examples last week. I will give you more this week:
1. (a) The woman was freed by the police and the courts but I am sure she was hand in glove with the thieves.
(b) The woman was freed by the police and the courts but I am sure she was one with the thieves and must have helped them in some way.
The speakers or writers are saying exactly the same thing but out of 5 marks a teacher like me would give you all marks in (a) and 3 out of 5 in (b).
I would award marks exactly the same way in the following examples. Study them carefully:
2. (a) Her husband’s head is screwed on the right way. You cannot deceive him in any way.
(b) Her husband is very alert and clever. You cannot deceive him in any way.
3. (a) Do not be hopeful you will get assistance from him. He is a broken reed.
(b) Do not be hopeful you will get assistance from him. He is useless and cannot help because he has no power any more.
4. (a) Mr Mtisi believes in calling a spade a spade.
(b) Mr Mtisi speaks frankly, openly and bluntly.
5. (a) She sounds very honest and sincere but that is all a cock and bull story.
(b) She sounds very honest and sincere but that is all nonsense she has made up.
6. (a) He is riding for a fall. Keep away from him.
(b) He is acting in such a way that he will get into trouble. Keep away from him.
7. (a) He heard the noise in the dead of night.
(b) He heard the noise in the middle of the night.
8. (a) The snake was as dead as a doornail.
(b) The snake was completely dead.
9. (a) Some people are not ambitious at work. They wait for dead men’s shoes?
(b) Some people are not ambitious at work. They wait for automatic promotion caused by the death of their superior.
10. (a) After walking for one kilometre, he could not go a step further. He was dead-beat.
(b) After walking for one kilometre, he could not go a step further. He was completely exhausted.
11. (a) You must remember that in every dark cloud there is a silver lining.
(b) You must remember that in every bad situation (person) there is something good.
12. (a) You must know that the darkest hour is always just before dawn.
(b) You must know that when things seem to be at their worst, the best is always very near / the best is around the corner.
Please note that though speaker (a) and (b) are saying exactly the same thing, (a) gets all the marks (5 out of 5) and (b) (3 out of 5). Why? There is shine, patina, gleam, flavour in A’s language. B is literal, plain, cold, straight and to the point. The figurative sense in (a) gives or expresses the same idea, but not the same flavour and lustre of expression. The metaphorical or idiomatic expression gives verbal interest and vividness. So, it is not enough to be grammatically correct, namely carefully minding the agreement of subject and verb tense. It is critically important to be able to speak or write with gleam, with shine, with flavour and grip the interest of the listener or reader. For the marker, particularly composition writing and literature essays, it is not only what you say that matters, but how you say it. Never forget this.
The rule about all the glory in idioms and figures of speech is, I will say this for the umpteenth time, DO NOT OVERDO IT! USE THESE BEAUTIFUL FIGURES OF SPEECH SPARINGLY, WITH DISCRETION. Do not flood your speech or composition with these colourful expressions. A maximum of two to three well chosen ones is enough in one essay or composition. Talented writers and speakers will use more without sounding overdone or boring. But you need to be a Martin Luther King Junior to do this.
Next week I will give you an example of a celebrated public speaker who could easily and intelligently use dozens and scores of figures of speech without one of them sounding out of place and without sounding, in the verbal sense, promiscuously impressive. Do not miss your copy of The Manica Post.
Enjoy learning English for daily use and examination with Yours Truly, the Newspaper/Radio Teacher-Morris Mtisi!