Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Clinching the cliché?

So, what's hot in the language news this week? Well, it's that hoary old chestnut (to use a cliché) the cliché - those phrases or expressions that have been so overused they have become almost meaningless. Why the big fuss? Well, the Plain English Campaign recently surveyed 5000 people in over 70 countries in a bid to discover the most irritating phrase in the English language. Most of these linguistic irritations were clichés, and the following ones hit the nomination big-time (oops, there's another one...):

singing from the same hymn sheet
thinking outside the box
move the goalposts
it's not rocket science
touch base

It may not seem a very big deal (oops, there I go again...) but one teensy little press release from the Plain English Campaign, and both the readers and writers at The Times were off. There stood the poor little cliché, on one side heralded as the essential lubricant of the language, a good honest sheep in the linguistic farmyard; and lambasted on the other as meaningless babble, an evil unworthy goat to be cast out amongst the wild and the wicked where it belongs.

In this debate we see the eternal linguistic battle between those who want to regulate our language, to fix it in some idealised form so that we can clearly say that this is right and that is wrong; and those who want to accept it for what it is in all its chaotic and idiosyncratic glory. Where do you stand? Check out the links and post your thoughts.

First the Plain English Campaign's press release:

"At the end of the day...we're fed up with clichés"

Then the debate. The link below will take you to the homepage. Type "clichés" in the search box in the top left hand corner. Then click on the "search" button in the "search the site" box. Then click on the links to the following 3 articles:

"With greatest respect your lordship, this cliché is getting away with murder", John Mortimer, 25 Mar 2004

"Celebrate clichés, the grace notes of English", Simon Jenkins, 26 Mar 2004

"Plain English: time to get real", Jane Shilling, 26 Mar 2004

The debate in The Times

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Linguistic fingerprints

Popular opinion would have you believe that punctuation is a fixed and certain thing which you just need to learn like your two times table. Lynne Truss is certainly making a packet out of this idea, with her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation still riding high at number 1 on the Amazon.co.uk Hot 30 language and reference books list. Who would ever have imagined that punctuation could be "Hot"?!

But hot it is, and fixed and certain it is not. Never mind for the moment the fact that punctuation conventions have changed considerably over time. Never mind either that in texting and i-messaging a semi-colon is far more likely to show someone winking at you than linking complementary clauses at you. No, the hot issue today is the way your idiosyncratic use of punctuation marks can reveal your identity.

The quality press has been buzzing recently with the news that another blogger has landed a book deal. Now this is hot, because the blogger in question, one "Belle Du Jour", claims to be a call girl, and her blog apparently chronicles her daily life in this occupation in graphic detail. Sex and The City eat your heart out... But with the rise to fame and fortune comes intense curiosity in the media to know just who this woman is. And so, they call in Don Foster, the Professor in English whose forensic linguistic skills also tracked down the author of Primary Colors, and what did he find? Read it and see...

Internet 'call-girl' author unmasked