Home > General > Use and Misuse of Language

Use and Misuse of Language

Following on from certain posts on this site concerning swearing and an article in yesterday’s Telegraph about the fact that students will lose marks for poor grammar, you will be delighted to know that I have decided to give my attention to the use of language in its various forms.

In broad terms, the purpose of language, I hope we can all agree, is for the communication of ideas, feelings and information. Leaving aside signing (and possibly other forms), language falls into two main categories, spoken and written. Within this context, we have several tools at our disposal that enable us to communicate more effectively.  

Both forms make use of words. The greater the vocabulary, the more explicit, subtle and impactful are the ideas that can be expressed. Other tools that apply to either or both forms of communication, include, punctuation, spelling, grammar, figures of speech – alliteration, similes, metaphors, irony etc.  styles, font, capitalisation, accent, pronunciation, tone, volume and so forth. To this list one can add slang, swearing, text-speech, emoticons and no doubt other less formal methods of expressing oneself.

While each of these tools is valid when used appropriately, their efficacy declines when overused or misused.

A poorly punctuated sentence can convey the opposite message to that intended. An officer to his troops:

‘Gentlemen, the French. Fire first!’

‘Gentlemen, the French fire first.’

Likewise with spelling:

Did the best man say of the bride:

“What a waste!” or

“What a waist!”

Irony and sarcasm have their effect when used sparingly. Used excessively, however, and things can backfire. A man who says to his wife who has kept him waiting for half an hour while she gets changed, ‘Right on time as usual. You look very pretty.’ The second statement may easily, though unintentionally, be taken in the same context as the first, obviously sarcastic, which could lead to a frosty drive to the party.

Slang, when used in an appropriate audience can be very effective. If I were to say, to a visiting team of Zimbabwean or South African rugby players, ‘come braai later. We have hobos of boerrie and vleis. It will be a lekker jol’, they would feel welcomed. On the other hand saying it to a parliamentary delegation from theCanada, for example, would probably lead to some blank stares.

Text speech can also be misconstrued. To many ‘lol’ means ‘laugh out loud’. To others it means ‘lots of love’. Some know that ‘book’ means ‘cool’. To others it just means ‘book’.

The other day it was suggested that one of the posters might be more effective at communicating his real thoughts, which have apparently been misconstrued on occasion, if he were to make use of ‘smiley things’ when he was attempting to be humorous. Of course, emoticons are a perfectly valid way of conveying the mood that is intended to accompany the text that has been written. But they too are open to misinterpretation, misuse and down right abuse. Calling somebody a ‘daft twit’ accompanied by J is probably ok if the ‘twit’ has done or said something obviously silly. But, if the poster has just torn to shreds the argument of another blogger and called him ‘an ignorant slime ball’, adding a J is not going to coupé le moutard.

So now we get on to swearing. It is my belief that, by definition, swearing is offensive. It is intended to express disdain, contempt, disgust and any other negative sentiment. The question is that given the diversity of various English speaking nations, the use and meaning of words evolves from one country to the next, so when does a word cease to be a swear word and become acceptable in polite society? Julia Gillard, addressing the Australian Assembly may ( I stress, may) very well feel comfortable using the word ‘bugger’ in reference to a colleague or a member of the opposition. I doubt very much that the Queen or even David Cameron would use it when addressing Parliament. Cameron might say ‘damn’, but I doubt the Queen would.

(Incidentally, did you know that Anne Boleyn was convicted of having breached the Buggery Statute, introduced by Henry VIII in 1534, for having induced her brother to have sexual relations with her brother? Buggery covered a multitude of sins including sodomy, bestiality and incest. (According to Catherine Arnold in her book, City ofSin.))

Swearing is commonly used as an expletive. A frustrated boss may berate his wayward subordinate such: ‘You are no bloody use to man or beast’.

Here, the word ‘bloody’ adds nothing to the actual meaning of the sentence but may convey a degree of personal contempt on the part of the speaker. That level to which the impression is interpreted by the junior may depend on how often his boss curses. If he says ‘bloody’ or uses some other coarse epithet every second word, the impact in the above example may be lost. On the other hand, if it is a rare occurrence for his boss to swear, the ‘swearee’ may take its use, in this instance, very seriously.

Swearing can also be used as an interjection as in ‘Bloody hell!’ to express surprise. The degree of surprise on the part of the speaker can better be interpreted by the listener depending on the frequency with which speaker is known to curse. If the Archbishop of Canterbury were to use that phrase, I would imagine he was genuinely taken aback and that a jackdaw was sitting in his chair. (Sorry, the jackdaw sat in the Cardinal’s chair not the Archbishop’s.). If Kevin Wilson were to say it, it would probably mean that his beer was nearly finished.

The point being that swearing has currency only if it is used sparingly. Excessive use reduces its value and shows the speaker to be on par with those illiterate teenagers who intersperse every word with ‘like’. As in, ‘shall we like go to the mall? Or, ‘I like like you!’

This is all just a pompous way of saying that I am with Soutie. I believe in rules rather than laws. So, if we would not want our children, or grandmother, the Queen or our confessor, to read what we write, then perhaps it would be a good rule to think about what we say and how we say it and thereby avoid offending anybody. But, I hasten to add, nobody should be shot for breaching that rule, least of all me.

E and OE
  1. October 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Hello Sipu. I hope you are well. What I say has to do with language and perception and therefore links to your blog here.

    Do you remember that we once spoke about Alexandra Fuller’s book ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight’? You mentioned the book and I told you that I had already read it. I told you that my Malawi cousins know the family quite well. I also said that I thought the author was unfairly unpleasant about her mother. I was shocked that one could write a book like that about one’s mother.

    My sister (who was born in Zambia) has just sent me another book by Alexandra Fuller. It is called ‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’. There is much reference in it to ‘That Awful Book’ ie the first one. I am reading the more recent book at the moment. It gives a much better and kinder portrait of ‘Nicola Fuller of Central Africa’ as she likes to call herself in fun. I hope that you will read it too.

  2. October 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Dogs not dog’s

  3. Sipu
    October 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Hello Cymbeline. Lovely to hear from you. Please excuse my tardy response. I have just returned from a mammoth trip through Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, arriving back in Cape Town a few hours ago, absolutely shattered. About 8,000 km in total, over three weeks. I hope to write a post about it at some point.

    In any event, I do recall the above exchange and I do agree that she was quite harsh about her mother. I sort of assumed, though, that she had her mother’s approval to say such things. It would appear that she has a bit of a sense of humour. I did not know that Alexandra had written a third book. I have yet to read the second which received very mixed reviews. But based on your recommendation, I will read the last.

    I hope you are well and happy. xx

    PS. Damn those grocers’ apostrophes.

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