Wednesday 5 June 2019

Did you mean to say that?

Labrador chewing a stick next to open-mouthed cocker spaniel
Gratuitous picture of dogs...
I was walking the dog this fine morning when we encountered a cockapoo bounding towards us. It was the epitome of joyfulness, fur flying, his red bandana striking a nice contrast with his sandy complexion. The owner followed behind, pausing to corral his cockapoo forward along the path.

"He's a cheerful chap," I remarked jovially. The sun was out and the birds were tweeting so I was feeling friendly, despite the early hour. 

As the owner acknowledged my comment with a puzzled air, I realised my mistake. This was a dog-and-owner combo that we regularly met on our daily walks - for some reason I had failed to recognise them. The cockapoo was usually eager to play with my Labrador, who generally chose to ignore him (dogs being less concerned with social niceties than humans). 

What I should have said was: "He's a cheerful chap today," thereby communicating with my time reference that I did recognise them from previous sorties in the woods. Instead, I implied I'd never seen them before - how rude!

It was minor incident but it made me realise how the use of language is quite subtle. I've recently finished sub-editing my third novel, weeding out superfluous words like just and rather, as well as verbs like starting to, trying to and seems to. My manuscript was bloated with these hedges that slowed down the story or risked distracting the reader.

I often collaborate with other writers and I've seen similar verbal tics in their work. I wonder why we do it - a lack of confidence perhaps? A need to moderate what we're trying to say? (Argh! Trying to again...) I mean: a need to moderate what we're saying? Is it a female thing? Have we been socially conditioned to hedge and moderate from birth?

At the weekend, I asked my husband to write an email to a lady who is doing some work on our house, asking her to change something in a plan. After he had sent the email, I read it. His tone was so direct and perfunctory! Come Monday, I felt obliged to call up the same woman and check she was okay. "Don't worry," she said, "Men are like that, they say it as it is."

At times, the art of linguistic hedging is useful - when negotiating, for instance (is this where Theresa May went wrong?) or delivering feedback. But I'm often guilty of hiding behind all those modifiers - slightly, rather, a bit. There's a risk that we forever dilute what we a̶r̶e̶ ̶t̶r̶y̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶o̶ say. I need to be less inhibited and more cockerpoo. Language is a tool; use it well.

1 comment:

Ros said...

Great point Emma, it’s so true of us females I think - ( were those last 2 words superfluous?! )

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