Monday 24 November 2008

On Just a Minute

An English-language teacher from Spain writes to ask whether I think the BBC Radio 4 game 'Just a Minute' is a good activity for EFL learners. Is the pressure involved to play well of benefit to students? His gut feeling is yes.

For those who don't know, the game requires a player from one team to speak for a minute on a given topic without any repetition, deviation, or hesitation. If they repeat a word, go off-topic, or hesitate, then they are challenged by a member of the other team.

It is of course impossible to speak for such a length of time without repeating some words. I seem to recall a player being cheekily interrupted for re-using the word the! But even if one plays the game by challenging only content (as opposed to grammatical) words, it is still virtually impossible to satisfy the criteria. This is because there is a tension between the notions of repetition and deviation. If one stays on topic, then the vocabulary is likely to stay within the same semantic field, thus making repetition more likely. Conversely, to use different vocabulary immediately allows challengers to say you are going off-topic. It's the impossible nature of the task that makes it fun, of course.

The notion of hesitation is also hugely subjective. It isn't possible to talk for a minute without pausing for breath. So how long should a pause be before people start judging it as a hesitation? If someone makes a hesitation noise, such as erm ('filled hesitation' or 'voiced hesitation', as some researchers have put it), then there isn't a doubt. But 'silent hesitation' is a problem. The grammatical location of the pause is a factor: inserting a pause between clauses, or between the elements of clause structure, is not as noticeable as inserting one between the elements of a phrase (such as between the and a following noun). The latter are more likely to be judged as hesitations.

I can't talk for a minute without some instances of repetition, deviation, or hesitation, and I don't know anyone who can. Nor do I know anyone who could successfully monitor a minute of monologue to catch all the instances when these things happen. I know that some players of the game get through the minute unchallenged, but that is more a comment on the attention focus of the listeners than on the innovative fluency of the speakers. And of course the whole point is to introduce a challenge that is itself in some way anomalous or funny - as emerges when the MC asks the challenger to explain himself, and the explanation produces a roar of laughter. It would be a disaster if this game were to be played by linguists. The accuracy levels would be greater, but there'd be a distinct absence of laughs.

Is there a point in playing this game with an ELT group? I strongly believe that playing with language is a beneficial teaching strategy, as long as the difficulty of the game suits the language level the learner has reached, and argue thus in my Language Play, as does Guy Cook more expertly in his book Language Play, Language Learning. So as long as players of 'Just a Minute' realize that they are being asked to do something which no native-speaker can do, and treat the game with the amount of disrespect that it deserves, I don't see a problem. It would be interesting to hear from others who may have tried it out.

Sunday 23 November 2008

On read rage

A correspondent writes to ask for the background to an item he heard on a radio station recently about the language of instruction manuals. He evidently tuned in half way through and heard me going on about it, but wasn't clear why.

It was in relation to a survey carried out for a UK firm called The TechGuys, who make their living by helping people who have trouble understanding the instruction leaflet or manual that comes with newly purchased equipment. The survey showed that, nationally, 67% of people say they don't get the full use out of their technical devices because the manual is too difficult to understand. Over a third, 34%, avoid the manual altogether, preferring trial and error instead. A remarkable 20% admit to throwing the manual across the room. And an even more remarkable 8% have taken their frustration out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up. This is 'read rage', indeed.

Manuals for mobile phones evidently top the list, closely followed by those for cameras, washing machines, TVs, PCs, and DVD players. But it isn't just the high-tech devices, as anyone knows who has bought a piece of self-assembly furniture.

Why are the manuals so hard to understand? A mixture of nonlinguistic and linguistic reasons. Under the nonlinguistic heading we find the trend for manufacturers to create a single manual for all international markets: there is a massive booklet, but we find that only a couple of pages are in English. Similarly, there is a trend to use one manual for many different models, which makes it difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. And some manuals are these days available only online, which can be a separate problem - especially if the item you've bought is a PC which you need to get online in the first place!

Related to this is the density of the presented text. Presumably to keep these manuals as compact as possible, type-size is often small, and the information is packed together on the page. Labels in diagrams are often so tiny that they are very difficult to read. Online versions can be just as bad, with dense paragraphs and poor page navigation.

The linguistic reasons fall into two types. First there is the fact that many products are now manufactured abroad, often in the far east, where the level of English can be poor. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker (not necessarily a native speaker - competence is the criterion). I am used to seeing jocular collections of 'fractured English' as books and websites, where the grammar is wrong but the meaning is usually obvious. Instruction manuals illustrate a rather more serious side to the phenomenon, where the poor language makes it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant.

Second, there is the actual choice of words and constructions. Many manufacturers assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother to explain them. Some quite clearly have not had the product to hand when writing the manual, as the name of a feature in the manual does not correspond to the name of the feature on the machine.

Sentences can be long and complex. And the discourse structure is often badly thought through. Once I tried to put a kit together. Instruction 1 said: 'Glue A to B'. I did. Instruction 2 said 'Before you glue A to B, do X.' It proved impossible, now that A and B were joined.

It's the semantic inexplicitness which apparently people find especially annoying. Presumably it is just laziness on the part of the manual writers which led to one laptop manual saying: 'The appearance of your computer may be different from those illustrated in this manuel due to variations in specifications. It may also vary in some countries or areas'. And what does this instruction mean? 'Note: CD-R, DC-RW Discs recorded with writing device can only be used when they are correctly treated'. Is the device to be used only with CDs that have been handled with care? Or is it something to do with the way the CD is 'burned'? Or something else?

Some instructions are simply semantically puzzling. What were the writers getting at when their hairdryer manual said 'Do not blow-dry when sleeping'? Or culturally puzzling. I think the most fascinating example of inappropriate instructionese unearthed by The TechGuys was this heading, found in the manual from the Russian manufacturers of a fridge-freezer on sale in the UK: 'How to kill the animal and prepare the meat before storing in the freezer'. Perhaps somebody should have told them that Surbiton is not Siberia.

Sunday 9 November 2008

On Obama's victory style

A correspondent - from the Sunday Times, no less - writes to ask what I thought of the Barack Obama speech, stylistically. A selection of my off-the-cuff remarks is printed in today's ST. Here are some on-the-cuff reflections.

Speaking as a stylistician - as opposed to a human being (if you'll allow me the distinction), as excited as anyone about this event - it blew me away. As the speech started, I turned to my wife and said, 'He'll never do it!' What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma. Try it for yourself: get a sense of the strain on your memory by starting a sentence with a 19-word if-clause, and see what it feels like. But he didn't stop at 19 words. The first who-clause is followed by a second. Then a third. It was real daring. It's difficult for listeners to hold all that in mind. But it worked. And then the short 4-word punch-clause. And deserved applause.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy

The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a 'magic rule of seven, plus or minus two' - that most people find seven 'bits' of information the most they can handle at a time. Get someone to repeat after you a sequence of random digits:

8, 6
9, 5, 7
4, 2, 7, 5
9, 3, 6, 8, 2
8, 4, 6, 9, 2, 7
2, 5, 3, 8, 6, 9, 4

People start sensing a difficulty when the sequence reaches five. Some can't get beyond this. Most of us get into trouble if we try to remember more than seven, though some people can handle up to nine without a problem. (The psycholinguistic issues aren't as simple as this, but the basic idea is illuminating.)

Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy

As the sentence progresses, note how the demands on our memory get shorter. In fact the demands are even less than the numbers suggest because of the structural parallelism: who still doubts... still wonders... still questions.... With still set up as part of the pattern, we do not need to devote any processing energy to it, and can concentrate on the following verb.

The rhetorical 'rule of three' is an important feature of the speech. It's something that all famous speech-makers use. Churchill was brilliant at it. But all public speakers know that they can get a round of applause if they use a triptych with structural parallelism:

I was with you yesterday
I am with you today
And I shall be with you tomorrow!

You have to put it across right, of course, with an appropriate prosodic climax. Obama is brilliant at that too.

What you mustn't do is overdo it. For Obama to follow this first paragraph immediately with another triptych wouldn't work. A different stylistic technique is needed to provide variety and maintain pace. He switches to a 'pairs' structure - and pairs within pairs. The 'lines' vs 'people' contrast is itself a pair - but it contains paired noun phrases:

lines that stretched around schools and churches...
people who waited three hours and four hours...

Note how, strictly speaking, the pairing is unnecessary. He could have said simply:

lines that stretched around buildings...
people who waited hours...

but the pairing is more effective. A triptych is unwise here, for the underlying meaning is banale, and to keep it going would be to produce a sense of padding:

people who waited three hours and four hours and five hours...

He rounds the paragraph off with another pairing:

they believed
that this time must be different,
that their voices could be that difference.

And then he produces what, to my mind, is stylistically the most daring piece in the whole text: a list entirely consisting of pairs. From a content point of view, lists are dangerous, as they prompt people to notice who might have been left out. But that evening, I don't think anyone was counting. Yet it's worth noting that he respects the 'rule of seven' - there are just seven groups mentioned (or six, if you put the ethnic groups together):

young and old
rich and poor
Democrat and Republican
black, white,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American
gay, straight
disabled and not disabled

Why omit the ands in the middle group? Precisely because the omission of and reduces the force of the contrast and allows the suggestion that the list can be extended. Unlike 'young and old' and the others, the list of ethnic groups is open-ended. Maybe the same open-endedness applies also to 'gay, straight' - I'm not sure.

This first section of the speech ends with more pairs within pairs:

we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Having devoted so much rhetorical energy to pairs, it's not surprising to see him round off this first section with more triples:

cynical and fearful and doubtful...
on this date, in this election, at this defining moment...

And we should also notice that the whole of this first section is structured as a triptych. Each of the paragraphs after the first begins in the same way:

It's the answer told...
It's the answer spoken...
It's the answer that led...

And the paragraph lengths are almost the same: 52 words, 53 words, 48 words. So we have threes within balanced threes. Elegant.

When you go in for rhetorical structures, you have to know when to use them and when not to use them. Obama's second section is a series of acknowledgments and thanks. This is a more personal sequence, and this kind of sincerity needs to be expressed in a more loosely structured language. No climactic rhetoric wanted here. Sentences are shorter, the vocabulary is more private and down-to-earth, and the only hint of elaborate structuring is a single triptych in honour of his wife:

the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady

The rhetorical contrast with the rousing first section is striking.

One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I've learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you'll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama's speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience's motivation to listen. Each section ends with a short audience-rousing statement:

An opening section:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

A 'thanks' section:
It belongs to you.

An 'origins' section ('I was never the likeliest candidate for this office...')
This is your victory.

A 'scale of the problem' section ('And I know you didn't do this just to win an election...')
I promise you, we as a people will get there.

A 'challenges' section ('There will be setbacks and false starts...')
And I will be your president too.

A 'story' section ('This election had many firsts...')
Yes we can.

Note what happens after the rhetorical 'lull' in the 'thanks' section. He returns to the rule of three, pounding steadily away:

It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Chicago and the front porches of Charleston. give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
...Americans who volunteered and organized and proved...
...a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
...two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education. energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build...
...block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
...a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice ... a new spirit of patriotism.
...partisanship and pettiness and immaturity...
...self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
To those who would tear the world down... To those who seek peace and security... And to all those who have wondered...

When he reached the end of his 'challenges' section, I thought the speech was about to end. It used two time-honoured ending motifs. First there is a sequence of four rather than three:

the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

And then an appeal to the future:

What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

He could have stopped there. But then there was an electrifying change, as he moved from the general ('America can change') to the particular ('Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old').

It was a risky strategy. The end of the speech was not far off. He had just produced several hundred words of highly crafted rhetoric, with many vivid and climactic images - 'from parliaments and palaces', 'America's beacon still burns as bright', 'the true genius of America'. The audience is being brought to the boil. To tell a quiet, intimate story now could have produced an anticlimax. But it didn't. Why?

Because the speech-writers had a trick up their sleeve. The Cooper story starts quietly:

She was born just a generation past slavery...

but within a few words she is part of a new rhetorical build-up, first with a pair:

...a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky...

and then a stunning triptych, with each element containing a pair:

I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -
the heartache and the hope;
the struggle and the progress;
the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

There's the trick that gets the speech out of any possible trouble. The audience has already shouted 'Yes we can', three times, at an earlier point. It has become a catch-phrase, used throughout the campaign. The real climax of the speech is going to build on that.

But an audience has to be taught what to do, by way of reaction. People won't intervene en masse in the middle of a story. They have to be invited. And Obama uses the rule of three to teach them.

...with that American creed. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can. [audience: Yes we can.]

From then on, he's home and dry. Every 'Yes we can' trigger is going to get a response. The triptych rhetoric continues to flow:

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma...
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected...
to put our people back to work... to restore prosperity... to reclaim the American dream...

And there, with 'dream', he ends as he began. 'Dream' is a powerful word in American political rhetoric, thanks to Martin Luther King. King is not mentioned in the speech, but he is there in spirit, from the beginning to the end. Obama's opening words link dreams to questions. His closing words link dreams to answers. The speech is a Martin Luther King sandwich, and it went down very very well indeed.

I still don't know how he did it. Was he reading from some teleprompter somehow? Was it memorized? Was it partly prompted and memorized? But however he did it, it will rank as one of the great political speeches of our time. It won't rank with the very best, without editing, because the 'thank-you' section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance. But there are sections here which are as fine as anything I've ever heard in a speech. And if the role of style is to get one's content across as effectively as possible, then Obama and his speech-makers have proved themselves to be stylists second to none.

Friday 7 November 2008

On twoth

This is twoth in the sense of 'second', rhyming with tooth; not the combination of twee and Goth, rhyming with moth.

A correspondent writes to say she heard someone say 'a thirty-twoth of an inch' rather than the expected 'thirty-second', and wonders whether I know this usage, as it's the first time she's encountered it.

As a playful alternative to second it's been around a while, though the OED has no file on it. I can recall playing with this word as a child, and saying such things as twenty-oneth and twenty-twoth. Certainly, the force of analogy from the usual -th ending has had an impact on the irregular first, second, and third, so we do find oneth and threeth as well.

There's plenty of playfulness online. I've just done a quick search and found chapter the twoth, the twoth of July, part the twoth, and many more, as well as quite a wide range of jocular expressions relying upon it. One person bought a second toothbrush and called it a twothbrush. US columnist Larry Levy has a piece on two-player games headed The twoth, the whole twoth, and nothing but the twoth.

The word has a minimalist entry in Wiktionary, so plainly it is widely recognized. It's labelled 'nonstandard', and that's correct. But is there any evidence of a usage in standard English? Yes, in mathematics and computing, where such forms as nth and zeroth are also found. We find such expressions as 'the twoth-complement number'. I don't think this use of twoth is especially frequent, but it exists.