I received two emails worthy of remark this week. One praised my turn of phrase, the other said I was a pompous ass for criticising the way other people use language.
The phrase the first email writer liked was: “a scandalous glimpse of curvaceous wheel arch” in last week’s column. But, really, I’m not worthy of praise. Not because it isn’t a fairly adequate scattering of words, but because all I did was employ a trick of rhetoric.
I applied the adjective to the wrong noun in the sentence. A glimpse isn’t scandalous. It is the curvaceous arch that deserves the “scandalous” tag. But it sounds better, hopefully more memorable, to label the glimpse scandalous.
This trick is termed a “transferred epithet”, a well-worn technique that I (along with anyone else who ever studied the art of writing) have learned. Frankly, I stole the idea.
I wasn’t taught rhetorical disciplines. I left school aged 16, so have had to discover for myself the flowers of rhetoric. I read books, puzzle over how words are put together, and seek explanations.
That doesn’t make me special. And certainly not clever. Most people study to improve their performance at work. They learn new skills. They gain experience. That’s how you get on in life. I learned to use a transferred epithet in the same way a joiner learns to make a dovetail joint.
But should I complain about the way other people express themselves?
Yes. And no.
Yes, if you value communication. Look around you at a world that exchanges endless texts, tweets, and emails. Some of the written English is, frankly, pitiful. It deserves criticism. Perhaps someday, somewhere, someone will pay attention and seek to improve.
If you have something to say, you want to be understood. If you want to be understood, then explain yourself clearly. If you want your words to resonate, couch them in memorable fashion.
But “no” if you think that all criticism is bad. The world, I fear, is moving towards a situation where it is impossible to criticise anyone for anything in case you hurt their feelings.
I’m still learning to use language. I will continue to learn, I hope, until the day I die. So I urge you to disagree, criticise me, berate me, if you don’t like something I say. I will thank you, because that is one of the ways I learn.
Word of the week
One who utters light and or feeble witticisms. EG: “Mine are the scribblings of a witling, a poor copy of an accomplished writer.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at email@example.com