Lifestyle tips for English [Archives:2005/882/Education]

October 3 2005


The Socratic distinction between the 'man of spirit' and the 'mechanic' holds in communication too. Accordingly, it pays to be a 'lifestyler' (my new millennial version of 'man of spirit') than a mere survivalist in matters of language learning. Paradoxical as it may sound, nothing illustrates this better than the burgeoning literature on communication skills. The readers come to these books in the hope of a quick uploading of survival tips for on-the-spot speaking and writing techniques only to find themselves being led along the slippery slopes of 'satisficing', 'voyaging out' and 'chaos.' The thing is that in matters of communication the fast-food model, premised on the idea of quick fixes and instant solutions, does not work. Linguistic finesse is a matter of skirting round the simple survival response of flight-or-flight. The premium in communication is on developing buffer zones of elaborate verbal fencing skills as a way of giving full play to the whole range of our emotional wiles. In the current scenario of communication focused on English, it translates into a preference for 'lifestyle English' as a category distinct from both literary and 'communicative' English.

A concrete instance may serve to clarify the point. Below are three sentences, dealing with the same content and representing graded difficulty levels.

(I) The dark forest path is full of the footprints of frogs and mice.

(II) The dark forest path blazes with the trails of the prey animals.

(III) The dark forest path becomes a spaghetti-junction of hot trails.

Everyone will agree that the first sentence poses the least and the third sentence the greatest difficulty of comprehension, while the second sentence falls in between the two. Besides, the third sentence differs from the first two in kind by taking a quantum leap forward. The radical loss of contextual data here together with the significant telescoping around the word 'spaghetti-junction' makes this elliptical, but not elusive. The comparisons used in this sentence, which offers to give us a sense of a snake's hunting technique, may appear far-fetched in and of themselves. Yet this third sentence was the one used in a wild life programme on snakes on the National Geographic channel. Almost all the classes I have taught on communication skills have regarded the third sentence as the finest.

Why does the plain fare ill compared to the stylized? Aristotle has long since answered this question in his excellent commentary on diction. The best thing for diction, he says, is to be clear without being banal. The way to go about it is to express a thought or emotion in a striking combination of ordinary and strange words. Metaphors are a staple ingredient in Aristotle's recipe for strangeness. They are also a part of today's repertoire of lifestyle words and usages being fashioned in our print and electronic media.

If we think back on the sentence from the National Geographic narration, we shall instantly see how the far- fetched comparisons are astute and topical symbolizations for the snake's sensuous tracking of its prey in the tuck shop of the forest.

The triumph of the elliptical use over the simpler one in the above example represents the cutting edge efficacy of lifestyle English, making it an ideal halfway house between the plain and literary usages.

“There is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can't ) information that is needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent. But at the same time it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity.”

“There is a difference between exposing deceptions that sustain injustice and attacking confidentialities or privacies that in some sense protect the vulnerable.”

“Journalistic communication is bound to a market model, whose ambiguities we have looked at; it is not going to change overnight by moral exhortation.” (Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury in Times, London June 16, 2005)