Writing (And Speaking) To Be Understood
What happens when we fail to realize how idiomatic our communications are
It’s been fashionable for a while now to pretend that it doesn’t matter how people write or speak because all forms of expression are equally valid and creative. In fact, clarity of expression is merely another form of patriarchal/colonial/elitist domination of the public discourse and is Intrinsically Wrong.
Which is lovely so long as one is writing or talking entirely for or to oneself, or at best with a close cohort of friends in mind who can be relied upon for their ability to decipher one’s meaning amid a welter of argot, vernacular, and idiom.
One of the many advantages of speaking more than one language is that we become aware of the perils inherent in assuming one’s particular argot will automatically be comprehensible to others. Those who fluently speak multiple languages rarely use colloquialisms because they’re aware of how limiting such usage becomes; the result is that their speech and writing is generally far more accessible and also tends to be more focused and precise.
Most people, however, are effectively monoglots. Let’s take a look at some of the productions of monoglots in order to illustrate the general thesis.
We first venture Down Under to the land of sun and Christmas barbeques. What do we make of the following sentence, uttered by a mid-thirties woman to her party guests:
My battler’s in the dunny ’cause he’s feeling a bit crook after his recent dingle.
Translation into Standard English: “My blue-collar/working-class male partner is in the lavatory because he is feeling somewhat unwell after his recent automobile accident or fight.”
There are of course a great many other Australian slang words and phrases. If your son was a bludger who was sleeping on the floor after a few too many Cadburys, you could think yourself a dill rather than a figjam, but at least he’s not a hoon! And though he spends considerable time on the beach with his shonky mates he’ll never be a sharkbiscuit because he’s afraid of the brine. His Sheila is a skimpy who pays for his tinnies but you’re hoping she doesn’t get knocked up because she’s a bit of an ashtray on a motorbike.
Leaving aside the verbal charms of godzone, we can take a flight to India and step out into the fetid air of Mumbai or Delhi where we can interact with the locals in the manner of the following sentence, which combines both English-Indian vernacular and British English nouns:
You are too clever, he said, when I guessed correctly the values of his lakhs and crores. But he was puzzled when I told him I weigh eleven and a quarter stones.
Here the basic intent is reasonably apparent but the information inherent in the colloquial terms is entirely inaccessible. A lakh is a unit of value equaling 10⁵ rupees, which Indians helpfully write as 1,00,000 in order to maintain confusion for as long as possible. A crore (also called a karor or koti, just to keep things easy for outsiders) is 10⁷ rupees. Oh, and English-speaking Indians always use too when they mean very. Thus the phrase you are too clever isn’t meant as a reprimand or a subtle insult but is in fact approbative.
Meanwhile the British still mourn the loss of their old system in which four farthings made a penny and twelve pennies made a shilling and twenty shillings made a pound but — of course! — twenty-one shillings made a guinea, the latter being the unit of currency in which most large transactions were helpfully denominated. Sadly the practice of counting in dubloons and pieces of eight ceased too long ago to be resurrected as part of Britain’s post-Brexit glory. Instead, the Brits will doubtless soon be counting in turnips and spuds, as in two-and-three-nineteenth turnips equals a spud, and one and three-twenty-ninths of a spud equals a sack. What’s a spud, I hear you ask? It’s a potato of course!
In order to comfort themselves a little in the modern era of bleak international decimals, the British cling resolutely to stones. In the proud tradition of never finishing anything properly, the British have failed to develop the theme; thus we can’t thrill to the concept of seventeen and two-thirds pebbles making a rock, eleven and one-seventeenth rocks making a stone, and five and eleven-twelfths of a stone making a boulder. The thin comfort of ounces and pounds and fluid ounces and gallons must suffice.
Speaking of ounces and gallons (and wouldn’t galleons be so much more swashbuckling and fun?) we find ourselves in the USA — a nation surrounded on both sides by vast oceans and topped & bottomed (if you’ll pardon the phrase) by nations far less powerful and thus easily ignored. The USA in consequence has its own quite bizarre forms of quasi-measurement, being keen on cups and sticks. Once again we must feel somewhat disappointed that US inhabitants have failed to develop fully such a delightful system: how many twigs would make a stick, and how many sticks to a branch? We can so readily imagine a world in which eight and a half branches make a trunk. This would enable the following sort of recipe: take five and a quarter cups of milk, one-ninth jug of vanilla essence, mix in a twig and a half of cinnamon, add three sticks of butter, and one and a half branches of flour. Make two-thirds of a trunk of frosting and serve immediately.
At least US citizens cling resolutely to Fahrenheit, a system of measuring temperature that was invented around 400,000 years ago by a member of Homo heidelbugensis as a prank and is today utilized only by Americans and the largely apocryphal Himalayan Yeti, as everyone else moved to the coherent and useful decimal system many years ago.
Odd measurements are, however, the least of our worries when it comes to attempting to understand what is being presented. As the USA is a nation of immigrants, US English has been pared back in order to permit rapid acquisition. Regardless of one’s native language, it’s possible to learn enough US English in three months to become reasonably conversational. This is because, in contrast to British English, US English has only three tenses, no subjunctive, and only two verbs (do and got). Hence expressions of the form I didn’t get laid yet ’cause she’s doing acid.
Stripped-down grammar is actually a very adaptive thing and only language snobs would consider it vulgar or malformed. Unfortunately, the lexicon of US English is likewise stripped-down and this leads to significant problems. Whereas the typical middle-class Brit will utilize a daily vocabulary of around 3,700 words (excluding business & technical terms) the typical middle-class US citizen will use a daily vocabulary of only 500 words (subject to the same exclusions). This means that in the USA phrasal verbs are called upon to do duty in the absence of more precise options. And this can lead to all sorts of trouble.
Let’s consider the following:
He made out he could make out her making out in the distance.
Any idea at all what that sentence could mean? No, I thought not. Here’s the translation into Standard English: “He pretended he could discern her engaging in foreplay in the distance.”
How about: She made up that she was making up to improve her chances of making up with him.
Translation into Standard English: “She invented a story that she was applying cosmetics in order to improve her chances of reconciling with him.”
As these two (admittedly slightly contrived) examples demonstrate, phrasal verbs are extremely context-sensitive and highly ambiguous. Yet US citizens go further in their noble quest to ensure no one can understand what they are trying to communicate. Leaving aside the senile mumblings of senior US politicians, ordinary people do their part to spread mutual incomprehension. One hears many times per day phrases such as “I never always do that!” and the classic “yeah-no.” Compared to such works of linguistic genius, the perpetual likes and you knows and awesomes are but as mere chaff in the wind.
Where, then has this peregrination through the byways of idiom finally brought us? What insights may we carry home, having thus scaled if not majestic heights then at least a slight bump in the middle of an otherwise flat prairie?
Simply this: when we write and when we talk, unless we are at home or among age-worn friends, we should be mindful of the fact that if we wish to be understood by those outside our immediate social circle we should attempt to write and speak unambiguously. In this way we can avoid unintentionally confusing our readers and perplexing our interlocutors — which is something we should never always do, yeah-no?