Metaphors: find the right word to stimulate the brain

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase ordinarily used to describe one thing is applied to another:

Fill your paper with the breathing of your heart. William Wordsworth

It’s not just poets who use metaphors. We all do. Some have become so deeply entrenched we hardly recognise them, for example ‘deadline’, which derives from the literal line around a prison beyond which, should a prisoner go, they would be shot.  The language experts have branded these, inaccurately, ‘dead metaphors’ . They may have lost their freshness but they certainly live on in everyday language.

In recent years, neuroscientists have also been taking an interest in the metaphor. They have investigated how our attempts to turn abstractions into something more concrete are processed in the brain. Their findings reinforce an important lesson for writers: choose words that can arouse all five senses.

In 2006, the journal NeuroImage published a study by researchers in Spain who asked participants to read words with strong associations to smell. The participants were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When they saw the words ‘cinnamon’ ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’ not only did those parts of the brain that control language light up, so did the olfactory cortex. At Emory University in the United States, by changing the sentence ‘the singer had a pleasing voice’ to one with a tactile metaphor ‘the singer had a velvet voice’, the researchers activated the sensory cortical region, which had not responded to the word ‘pleasing’. Similarly, ‘he had leathery hands’ triggered a more widespread reaction than did ‘he had rough hands’.

Perhaps these scientific discoveries explain why wordsmiths don’t usually like the mixed metaphor, where two inconsistent images are used in the same description:

Some people sail through life on a bed of roses like a hot knife slicing through butter.

Asking different parts of the brain to process simultaneously the images of yachts, roses (and maybe their thorns), blades and butter is a recipe for confusion rather than clarity.

By the way, I should explain the difference between metaphors and similes (both used in the example above) or, rather, let Ann Edwards do so:

While both similes and metaphors are used to make comparisons, the difference between similes and metaphors comes down to a word. Similes use the words like or as to compare things—’Life is like a box of chocolates’. In contrast, metaphors directly state a comparison—’Love is a battlefield’.

 

Season’s Greetings!

Do you say merry or happy Christmas or both? Are you comfortable with Xmas or do you prefer ‘holiday’? As we approach the festive season, here are some explanations for these differences, some of which are, I’m afraid, political.

First to merry or happy: you’ll note that both are used on this Christmas card, the very first, designed by John Horsley and sent out by Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper at the UK’s Public Record Office, in 1843.

clever animation from Mental Floss suggests that ‘merry’ is more about behaviours (imbibing in particular), while ‘happy’ is a feeling.  It also thinks ‘merry’ more American, and ‘happy’ more English, though Dickens used ‘merry’ in A Christmas Carol and so do many Brits today.

As for Xmas, do you know where the ‘x’ comes from? In Greek, the word Christos  begins with the letter ‘X’ or chi. Here’s what it looks like: Χριστός. This is where the politics start: Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, has said the abbreviation is ‘taking Christ out of Christmas’.   The etymology suggests otherwise.

And President Trump has claimed to have brought ‘Merry Christmas’ back to the White House this year. Trump doesn’t like ‘happy holidays’,  seeing the term as a war on Christmas. But, as The Atlantic Monthly pointed out last year, ‘ironically, it’s a Christian-friendly greeting at its root; “holiday” stems from the Old English for “holy day”’.

My advice: put the semantics aside and embrace the best of the festive season but don’t forget that pesky apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Season’s Greetings!

 

Tone matters

Last month (May 2017) the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of his management duties (he remains the bank’s chief economist) after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly.

Romer wanted his staff to write succinct, direct emails, presentations and reports, using the active voice and avoiding too many ‘and’s’. Good advice, delivered poorly. Staff found Romer curt and abrasive.

Quoted in Bloomberg Romer  said, ‘I was in the position of being the bearer of bad news…It’s possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.’

Indeed. Writing is an expression of personality. Just think of how long it took you to refine your signature, still a common way to prove your identity. Criticism of the words you put on paper can hurt. Furthermore, writing according to an organisation’s style or a boss’s preferences takes guidance and practice. That’s something the supervisors of writing need to understand: to get the best out of writers demands clarity of tasking; consistent style rules; plus more coaxing than red pen or sharp tongue.

 

Fact check: turn to the dictionary

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate.

After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted:

A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer (noun: dictionary editor) Kory Stamper told CNN at the time:

We’re not going to change the meaning of the word ‘fact’ just because of the way one person uses it…We’re trained to pull words out of a jar and just tell the truth about what they mean. So we’ll keep doing what we do.

Stamper’s book, Word by Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published by Penguin Random House in March 2017. The blurb tell us that ‘Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language’.

Australian readers take note: it’s the Macquarie Dictionary (the seventh edition was published in March 2017) that holds sway down under. It too has a website, blog and podcast, and readers can vote for the Word of the Year. In 2016, the word (well phrase) was halal snack pack with an honourable mention going to, yes, fake news.

Latin-isms

Here’s an article from The Spectator about the plural of ‘referendum’ being ‘referendums’. I agree.

We didn’t adopt Latin grammar ‘holus bolus’ (that’s an archaic term from North America), so shouldn’t be imposing rules that apply to Latin but sound silly in English. The split infinitive is a case in point. The rule works for Latin verbs but is not necessary for English. If ‘to boldly go’ sounds better than ‘to go boldly’, split that infinitive (‘to go’). Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary people have to say on the matter.

Back to referendums: in this case, Dot Wordsworth in The Specator argues that even according to Latin rules there can be no referenda.

The Oxford Comma: usage in Australia

oxford comma

In my classes, I am quite often asked about the Oxford comma. When the question comes, others ask what on earth is that? The Oxford comma, because it was traditionally used at Oxford University Press, is also known as the serial comma and comes before the penultimate item in a list:

The wombat eats shoots, roots, and leaves.

I don’t think you need this comma. It might even cause some confusion, suggesting that the word ‘leaves’ is a verb rather than another item the wombat eats.

In Australia, most of us were taught NEVER use a comma before ‘and’; in other words, don’t use the Oxford comma. But what if the wombat eats shoots and roots, and also eats a different category of foods like bananas and mangoes? Then a comma might help:

In captivity, the wombat eats shoots and roots, and bananas and mangoes.

In the United States the Oxford comma is alive and well. Nearly every list I saw on a six-week trip across the continent contained a comma before the ‘and’ at the end of a list. This prevalence surprised me, for in so many other ways – take spelling and pronunciation – the Americans do not emulate Oxford English. A poll conducted in 2014 asked 1,129 Americans which sentence they thought was grammatically correct:

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.

or

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.

Fifty-seven per cent were for the Oxford comma. As the authors of the poll reported the split in the result probably originates at school where grammar was taught as a set of incontrovertible rules: don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’; never use a comma before ‘and’, etc..

For me there’s only one rule: use punctuation to aid clarity. So when the Oxford comma helps, go ahead and use it, and when it doesn’t, save yourself a keystroke.

 

 

Multilingualism matters

Welcome_multilingual_Guernsey_tourismOn 27 April 2016 I attended a public hearing of the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Education and Employment. It was part of the committee’s inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy . When I introduced myself as, inter alia, a former diplomat, I was greeted with a German ‘sehr gut’ and Russian ‘здравствуйте’! That was heartening though unfortunately we didn’t get to talking about languages, which I argue are part of the skills our workforce needs. Without them, monolingual Australians will be less competitive in the global market place.

As the Economist noted in 2014: ‘Oil economies aside, the top 10 [richest economies] includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones, where English knowledge is excellent.’  The article quotes a  Cardiff Business School study, which estimated the lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy £48 billion  or 3.5% of GDP each year.

In a more recent column in the same publication Johnson (a must-read for anyone interested in language) shows that those who negotiate in a foreign language gain added advantages because they think in a more utilitarian, less emotional way. They can also confer privately in their own language. Moreover, using another language is reminder that we don’t all see the world the same way, no bad thing when you are wanting to close a deal.

Cultural diversity and understanding  are becoming valued as an important part of any organisational structure, not just in businesses working in the international arena. In Australia, 16.7 per cent of Australian workers identify as Asian. Yet, according to the Diversity Council of Australia, only 17 per cent of people with Asian backgrounds strongly agree that their organisation uses their Asia capabilities very well.

So an easy step toward  increasing our ability to engage with Asia is to take much more advantage of the talent we have among those with Asian heritage. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for native English speakers to rest on their laurels. Yet, when it comes to Chinese language that certainly seems to be what’s happening. Dr Jane Orton writes that the current number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia of non-Chinese background is estimated to be 130 at most; and half of those are already over 55 years of age. In 2015 there were just 400 year 12 students of Chinese as a second language. (See also Orton’s  Building Chinese Language Capacity in Australia just published by the Australia-China Relations Institute.)

Goodness knows how we are going to greet the two million visitors the government hopes will come to Australia during the 2017 Australia-China Year of Tourism!

Oh, and if the economics of this don’t matter so much to you, remember: learning a language is good for brain function too.

Gobbled-up articles

A-an-the-definite-indefinite-article-testI’m just back from Islamabad, where I trained several enthusiastic groups of Pakistani professionals. Their English was good–one introduced herself as a fan of ‘Orwellian’ English, meaning plain-speaking language not the Big Brother type. The participants’ thinking and their expertise was impressive. Perhaps their brains respond well to all the articles they ‘gobble up’, as another participant put it. I tried to help these Urdu native speakers work out when to use ‘the’ or ‘a/an’, articles that their own language doesn’t have, but which in English do matter. Proper use of the definite and indefinite article can add important information to a sentence, such as whether you want to go to the movie that wins the Oscar or any movie that’s showing right now.

One way — not infallible, because English is so complicated — to decide which article to use is to ask:

is this noun one of one or one of many?

The movie that wins the Oscar is one of one; the movie showing right now is one of many. The first movie needs a ‘the’; the second an ‘a’.

For what it’s worth, my choice for the best film is one about the power of the printed word [these two ‘the’s‘ refer to all power and all words, something that is most certainly definite] called Spotlight [no article because you can’t quantify light].

 

 

Evidence versus emotion

Aristotle_Altemps_DetailAristotle identified three elements in the art of rhetoric: ethos (authority or evidence); pathos (the emotional hook, one might say); and logos (a logical argument). His point was that to win over an audience required more than the facts. How these are marshalled and how they resonate matters, as Nobel Laureate, Peter Doherty, explains in his latest book The Knowledge Wars, which I reviewed in The Weekend Australian. The art is to make sure that pathos (and, in this day and age, the pithy media statement or resort to celebrity rather than expertise) does not undermine the ethos and the logos.

‘i’ before ‘e’…

i before eEnglish spelling is hard. The language has over 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, with many having no relationship to pronunciation. You can blame history for this mess. English has always adopted words from other languages* — Norse, German, Latin, French to name few — but without  standard protocols on how to spell them.  There are some rules like ‘i before e except after c’ and plenty of exceptions to those rules.

In German, it’s easy: if you pronounce the combination of letters ‘e’, you spell it ‘ie’. If it sounds like ‘i’, it’s ‘ei’. So the European veal dish, named after the Austrian capital Vienna, is Wiener Schnitzel. Except in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald crossword, which I just couldn’t solve because Wiener had become Weiner, meaning the solution to the clue ‘shrivelled’ was ’emaciated’ but only if you spelled Wiener wrong.

Perhaps the lesson here is for crossword compilers to avoid foreign words though that’s hard when it comes to English. Instead, what about we all learn  another language so we can better appreciate the intricacies of  human communication…and exercise our brains without having to do the crossword.

*If you are interested, there’s a Ted-Ed talk on the Origins of English.