The Intensity of These Times

Image by ractapopulous on Pixabay

There are many ways people have found to refer to this era of Covid-19 and all its baggage: widespread testing and temperature checking, social distancing, hand washing and sanitising, and the wearing of masks. 

One of the most common is ‘these times’ and variations on that — these strange times, these difficult times, these awful times, and so on. There are myriad adjectives one could choose, although some are more socially acceptable than others. 

Recently, I’ve observed that people have started to capitalise the term as These Times in blogs and social media posts. 

This interests me, because of the way in which the language is being ever so slightly adjusted to add weight and significance to the term. Those capital letters are acting as an intensifier.

Intensifiers are those parts of language that add strength to what we’re saying or writing. Words like ‘absolutely’, ‘completely’, ‘terribly’, the commonplace ‘very’ and even the humble little ‘so’ are all intensifiers. Some people use expletives to do the same job, especially in spoken English. The meaning of the sentence doesn’t change if they are removed, but the sense of degree or importance in the words around them isn’t necessarily communicated if those intensifiers are not present. 

By capitalising those Ts, writers are communicating their assumption that their readers will know exactly what they’re talking about. And, in These Times, there is little doubt that they will. 

The Latest, Perhaps Greatest, Swear Word

Last week I asked my students to do something creative. 

 Today, Student A  wasn’t very impressed with the outcome of their efforts. “I tried, but it’s turned out a bit 2020.” 

“It’s a bit what?” I asked. 

“2020.” 

Obviously, I was expected to understand. 

“Mine’s pretty 2020 too, to be honest,”  Student B admitted. 

I looked at their faces on my screen. They were being serious. 

“So…” I asked, “Are we using that as a swear word now?” 

They’re right. It actually works.

“More meaningful than swearing, Miss,” said Student B.

The rest of the class concurred. 

“And we can’t even get in trouble for saying it.” Student A grinned, clearly rather pleased with that reality. 

I smiled, told them their work was way better than 2020, and moved the lesson on. 

I don’t know if they just started doing that by themselves or picked it up from somewhere else, but at least they’re finding some practical use for 2020. I may just follow suit. 

Is English A Salad?

Today’s English class was the most fun I have had in a long time. I wanted to exercise the kids’ minds and get them thinking laterally. I also wanted them to enjoy it. A lesson with a difference seemed to me a great way to start our final week of term and inject some interest into our online classroom.

I began by presenting my students with the contention that a box of chocolates is a salad.

This was not a popular suggestion. 

“No it’s not!” one student said… quite defensively, I might add. “Salad is salad. Chocolate is chocolate. You can’t ruin chocolate like that!”

But, I asked, what is a salad if it’s not simply a mixture of vegetables? Chocolate comes from beans… and if you add nuts, or fruit, or herbs like peppermint, then it’s definitely a salad.

We spent quite some time redefining food, presenting the most persuasive arguments we could think of, and debating the nature of reality. 

Every time it sounded like the students might be in danger of reaching a consensus, I made another suggestion. 

Ice cream, on its own, may just be ice cream – but the minute you put it in a cone, or add fruit or chocolate, it’s a salad. 
Coffee, like chocolate, is made from beans. It’s a salad.

“No!” was the response. “Coffee is hot – it can’t be a salad.”

So then I really twisted it up.

Is coffee soup?
Is cereal soup? Or is it a salad with too much dressing?
According to one student, and I quote, “Soup is not what soup is.”

Is the English language a metaphorical salad? Because it’s a mixture of a whole bunch of languages, right? The flavours are all mixed, but the parts are still recognisable if you know what you’re looking at.

Is the English language a sticky weed? Or velcro? Because you know, it takes something from every other language it swipes past. Maybe it’s double sided tape… 

I am not ashamed to say that I really had fun. Despite their groans and protestations, I think they did, too. 

Perhaps the most satisfying moments, though, were two comments made by different students: 

“You’ve just entirely ruined the English language.”

and

“These have been the most problematic fifteen minutes of my life.”

What started out as a brain tease turned into a really interesting discussion about how we use language and define things in our own ways, and often assume that everyone else understands what we’re talking about, and that everyone else agrees with us.

It’s safe to say most of them enjoyed it… but it’s also safe to say that I enjoyed it more. 

A Dark And Stormy Night

Image Credit: Mylene2401 on Pixabay

I generally love a good thunderstorm. Tonight, I appreciate it even more than usual.

Growing up, I loved seeing Snoopy start his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night”. I used to giggle at that clichè long before I understood the deeper allusion to the fact that authors sometimes use the weather to reflect or foreshadow what characters in their stories feel or experience.

This is a literary device known as pathetic fallacy. It is used to set mood and tone in a piece of writing or art, emphasising emotions and heightening reactions. Rain can be used to reflect sorrow or misery, dark clouds can suggest anger or resentment, and a storm can suggest conflict, inner turmoil or violence.

If you’ve ever read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte, you will have experienced pathetic fallacy being used so expertly that you may not have even noticed. Blended seamlessly with gothic imagery, turbulent relationships and the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, Bronte’s use of snow, rain, storms, cold and dark makes for incredibly powerful writing. Who can forget Cathy at the window during that storm, begging Heathcliff to let her in? It’s legendary because it is powerful, emotive writing that embeds its imagery in the consciousness of the reader.

My other favourite example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s King Lear shouting at the snowstorm, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” Lear has literally been left out in the cold by his daughters Goneril and Regan, who have exploited his love and trust before throwing him out, homeless and broke. It’s such a potent scene — the depths of human coldness are amplified by the vision of a broken-hearted old man outside in a blizzard. It is chilling in more ways than one, and possibly one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes.

At other times, pathetic fallacy seems predictable and cliched. Sometimes it is almost painfully obvious and clunky. It often appears to be overused by authors who don’t have the finesse required to make it work — possibly because when authors do have that skill and it is done well, it it works as it is intended to without irritating the reader.

Tonight, nature is doing the author’s work for me. Outside, it is indeed a dark and stormy night. It has been raining steadily for hours now, thunder rolls and reverberates every now and then, and a draught of wind occasionally howls at the door. I am sitting in my father’s hospital room, having been called in late at night because he has been distressed and agitated. I have shed tears while talking with family members or sending messages. My emotions are all over the place. I’m both incredibly tired and wide awake.

A rainy night with the occasional rumble of thunder is most fitting.

Holy Moly, It’s a Minced Oath!

Oh gosh! I do this all the freaking time!

Having discussed the meaning of “not mincing one’s words” n my previous post, it seemed logical to explore the practice of using minced oaths. 

You might never have heard of a minced oath, but most of us use them all the time. 

A minced oath is a term we use instead of a swear word. Just as minced words are diplomatic so as to not cause offence, minced oaths are likewise designed to express surprise or to emphasise reactions or feelings without causing offence through swearing or blasphemy. 

Therefore, it’s a kind of euphemism: a word we use instead of a less polite or more uncomfortable term. We use them all the time, and there are probably thousands of them in common use in English. For example, we call the toilet “the bathroom”, we call dying “passing away” and the dead our “dearly departed”, and we refer to swearing as “colourful language”.

A minced oath can also work as an intensifier: it can give emphasis and power to a statement, just as effectively as a swearword or any other adjective or adverb. To say “that dratted virus” or “that freaking thing!” enables the speaker to inject more force and emotion into their statement without actually offending anyone.

21st century English is full of minced oaths.
Darn. Dang. Dagnabbit. Gosh. Golly. Jiminy. Jeepers Creepers. OMG. Geeze Louise. Heck. Holy Moly. Shut the front door. 
If we tried to list them all, we’d be here all day.

Some are closer to actual swearing than others — in fact, some come painfully close — but most are used without causing any real offence to most people. 

When I was a kid, my parents never allowed me to say anything that approximated ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ because they believed it was just as bad as using those names as blasphemy. My friends and I used to joke that “heck is where you go if you don’t believe in gosh or jeez’, but we still wouldn’t use those terms around our parents. In contrast, kids now are shocked to discover that those are the origins of their common expressions. 

It’s all part of the way in which language evolves and adapts to suit different purposes and situations. 

Holy Moly, It’s A Minced Oath!
#Language #EnglishLanguage #vocabulary #grammar #words

Easy Ways To Build Your Word Power Without Investing Extra Time Every Day

Boosting your vocabulary and improving your communication skills does not have to cost extra time or money.

The best way to build your vocabulary and improve your ability to use the new words you learn is through reading. Books are magic in many ways, including their ability to expand the mind and the vocabulary simultaneously. 

Some people find that challenging for a variety of reasons: they may have limited free time due to parenting, caring or work demands, or they may have low literacy levels to start with. They might not be native English speakers, and find a whole book way too daunting. They may have limited or decreased eyesight for any number of reasons. 

The first piece of good news is that there are ways to develop and improve one’s vocabulary without having to pick up a book. The second is that these are things a person can fit into a day without requiring much extra time at all. 

Learning through listening is a valuable and highly beneficial skill that is greatly under-utilised these days. 

There are podcasts relating to just about every field of employment, hobby or pursuit, or field of interest that will boost a person’s vocabulary both in general ways and by using language specific to that area. This can be invaluable for achieving higher professional standards and keeping on top of key terms used in a particular field or occupation. There is no doubt that actually knowing what you and others are talking about is far better than appearing as though you do. 

Audiobooks and podcasts are both brilliant ways of enriching the time already spent commuting, at the gym, cooking, or cleaning the house. One can escape into fictional worlds or choose content that enhances your knowledge and understanding of the world around them. They can delve into the past or ponder the future. 

There are podcasts of book readings and dramatisations. There are podcasts of everything from stand up comedy to beauty tips. And the beauty of podcasts is that they are usually absolutely free, although some do offer premium content to particularly avid listeners who are willing to pay for extra listening material.

Podcasts are easily searched using key words in any podcast app, most of which are also free, Personally, I love both Downcast and Podbean because they are easy to use and offer an enormous range of podcasts. 

Audiobooks don’t have to be fiction, either. There are probably bazillions of non-fiction books available on audio format. If cost is an issue, local libraries often have an audiobook lending service that removes that barrier. 

Radio — particularly the public talk-back variety — can be another great source of interesting listening material. Although it’s generally not limited to specific areas of interest, radio presenters often use highly varied and interesting language to keep their shows engaging and fresh. In Australia, the ABC has interesting conversations on all sorts of topics happening all the time. There are some stations dedicated to sport or news and current affairs, and others that offer diverse topics of intelligent conversation with both expert guests and listeners calling in to contribute. There’s a brilliant quiz called The Challenge just after midnight Sydney/Melbourne time every night, which is very entertaining and quite enriching for the vocabulary, too. And now that we live in the age of the Internet, that content is all freely available world-wide using the ABC Listen app on any device. I know from personal experience that there are similar stations and programs in Canada and The USA, too. 

Although a little more time-consuming than adding listening material to a regular routine,  one can also boost their vocabulary by watching or listening to documentaries. Free-to-air TV may not present as many documentaries as it used to, but for anyone subscribed to Netflix, Foxtel or any of the thousands of other streaming services, there are plenty available there, too. These can be great for developing both vocabulary and general knowledge at the same time. 

“Word of the Day” features are offered by many online dictionary websites and apps. Each day, they will select a random word and send a notification, message or email including the word and its meaning and usage. 

Whichever choices of source or content or style one makes, it is important to go beyond just hearing new words being spoken in order to incorporate them into regular vocabulary. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be time-consuming either. 

The first step is to find out what the word means. While you are listening, it takes just a few seconds to look up an unfamiliar word on Google or an online dictionary, and by doing so, turn it into a word you understand are able to use. You can even ask Siri or Alexa to look it up for you if you’re really pushed for time. 

Repetition equals reinforcement. Using a new word several times a day in regular conversation or even by making up different sentences or silly rhymes in your head for a few days will consolidate your learning and understanding of the word so that in a week, you’ve got it for keeps. 

Making use of a new word doesn’t mean trying to inject it into conversation and potentially getting it wrong, or sounding like you are showing off. That kind of artifice isn’t helpful to anyone. Instead, you can create genuine conversations by sharing your new word with family over dinner, or turn it into a game in which the closest guess among family members is treated as winning, or ask your friends if they know the word. It could make an engaging social media post that could created and shared in less than a minute. 

Jotting down a new word and its meaning into a notebook takes less than a minute, and provides quick and powerful reinforcement of the learning. When you write down something you have heard or read, your brain processes that information in multiple ways, making your learning more complex and more likely to be retained. That notebook also then becomes a great personal reference tool for looking up words on future occasions, too! Any regular notebook would do the trick, or one of those alphabetised address books could be handy for this purpose, too. After all, there’s no rule that says they can only be used for phone numbers! 

The alternative term for vocabulary is ‘word power’ for very good reason. Why not take one of more these opportunities to improve yours? 

Easy Ways To Build Your Word Power Without Investing Extra Time Every Day #vocabulary #languagelearning #LearningNeverStops #learning #selfimprovement

A Punny Thing Happened In My History Class Today…

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned here before that I enjoy a good pun. Today, to my delight, one of my students came up with a pretty good one, so I responded in kind.

It happened in history, where my students were mapping the three arenas of WWII.

Student A: Syria. Sy-ri-a. *grins* Are you…syyyyyyrias? 
Me: Hey, I was just dam-ask in’…
Student B: That’s SO bad. 

Well, we laughed hard. And then student A explained it to the rest of the class, and they laughed too.

Poor Student B, though. As Student A explained, he put his head on the table and moaned, “It’s like having my dad in the room… twice!”

Still, it it wasn’t enough to stop him from piping up a little later.

Student B: Did you know that it wasn’t just Darwin, Broome got bombed too? 
Me: Yes, the Japanese swept right across north-west Australia…
Student A: Haha! That’s genius! 
Student B: No. NO. That’s awful! 
Me: I didn’t expect you to bristle like that. 
Student B: I’m leaving. *walks out of the room*
Student C: Where’s B? 
Me: *just as B is walking back in* I made a joke and he flew off the handle. 
Student B: No. *walks out again*

It was a fun moment which we all enjoyed, but it also made the facts the students were working with more memorable. Once we’d had a laugh, they all just kept on working.

Opportunities like that don’t happen all the time, but when they do, they are welcome.

Humour is such good medicine, and it makes excellent social glue. It was wonderful to be able to laugh together during a week when the world seems far more uncertain and a lot less enjoyable than it did a couple of weeks ago.

I’m thankful that my students have the confidence to express themselves in my classroom, and that they do it in ways that are clever and fun. It really is a huge blessing to be able to have such great rapport with my students, and these kids make it easy to keep going to work every day.

These anecdotes were retold here with the permission of the students involved.

Easily Confused Words: ‘Dessert’ and ‘Desert’.

This is a confusing set of homophones. 

Dessert is  the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal. What’s your favourite? I’m an absolute sucker for lemon meringue pie, but I also love a creamy lemon cheesecake.  A dessert wine is, similarly, sweet and intended to be enjoyed after a meal. 

The key thing to remember is that this is the only meaning for this spelling.

Fun fact: ‘desserts’ is ‘stressed’ spelt backwards, and an anagram of ‘de-stress’.  
I don’t know about you, but I do not believe that can be a coincidence.

The word ‘desert’ is used when someone gets what they deserve, and it is said they have “got their just deserts”. It is usually used in a punitive way – ‘getting your just desert’ is generally not considered to be a pleasant experience. 

Because this is a “thing” that happens, this use of the word is also a noun. 

Fun fact: this is a phrase that came to us from French via  Shakespeare, who used it in Sonnet 72, albeit in a more positive way than is usually done. So anyone using the word ‘desert’ in this way is using Shakespeare’s language without even realising it. 

The word ‘desert’ can also mean abandoning or running away from a place. A soldier who goes AWOL is said to desert their post, while rats are said to ‘desert a sinking ship’ as a metaphor for people disowning or abandoning a place, person or situation that has become painful, awkward or insupportable. 

When we say a place is deserted, it does not mean it looks like a desert. It means that there are no people around – everyone has departed. 

Finally, a desert is a place that doesn’t get much rain, and is quite barren as a result. 

This is the only meaning that sees ‘desert’ pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: dez-ert This makes it a homonym, not a homophone.  Because it’s a place, this is also a noun. 

Fun fact: while the Sahara Desert is hot and sandy, Antarctica is the world’s largest cold desert. 

You can use a sentence to help you remember the three different words that share this spelling. Saying it aloud will help you remember which is which.
Example: The soldier got his just deserts for deserting his post in the hot desert.

Practice or Practise – Which One Makes Perfect?

Knowing whether to use ‘practice’ or ‘practise’ can be tricky. Because these words are homophones, and the spelling is very similar, it is easy to make mistakes. 

Practice is the noun
I need more practice. 
Practice is key to being a good pianist. 

Practise is the verb
I must practise if I’m going to get this right. 
I used to practise on the piano for an hour every day. 

There is one easy way to remember which is which: these words follow the same spelling rule as ‘advice’ and ‘advise’. 

Advice is a thing you give or receive.  Advise is something you do. 
Because that pair of words don’t sound the same, it’s easy to remember which is which.

You can also think of the ending – ‘ice’ – which we know is a thing, and that reminds us which one of the pair is the noun.

Fun fact:  In British and Australian English, ‘licence’ and ‘license’ follow the same rule. 
I have my driver’s licence. I am licensed to drive. 

However, American English spells both the noun and the verb as license. 

Woulda Coulda Shoulda.

One of the biggest battles I face as a high school English teacher is the plague of “would of”, “could of” and “should of”. 

These incorrect terms have arisen from the corruptions of “would’ve”, “could’ve” and “should’ve”. Of course, those are contractions of “would have”, “could have” and “should have”.

The irony is that people use “would of” instead of “would’ve” because they think they are speaking or writing better English. 
However, using “of” instead of “have” is never correct. 

If you really want to set yourself apart from the masses, this is a great place to start. Say it correctly and write it correctly. Join the resistance, and lead by example.