The English language: a treat full of tricks

From a talk on Words into Meaning in the Modern World, given by Tim Connell, the Professor of Languages, at London's City University
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The Independent Online

English is a tricky language, largely because the English seldom take the trouble to explain precisely what they mean. They simply know that any other English person will know what they are talking about. Think of the world of difference that lies between "I can recommend her highly to you" and "I recommend highly that you give this application further consideration". Perhaps this could be laid out on a sliding scale:

English is a tricky language, largely because the English seldom take the trouble to explain precisely what they mean. They simply know that any other English person will know what they are talking about. Think of the world of difference that lies between "I can recommend her highly to you" and "I recommend highly that you give this application further consideration". Perhaps this could be laid out on a sliding scale:

"I can strongly recommend him to you for your serious consideration." This means: "He's good enough for the job, but he's also pretty damn good here and I'm praying you'll take someone else, like the chairman's goddaughter".

"I am pleased to recommend him to you and wish him every success." For this read: "He's good enough for the job, but actually I am rather tired of him, and not a little worried that people may be thinking that he can do the job better than me. If you take him then he will be eternally grateful to me for giving him a push up and he might invite me to sit on a good committee somewhere when he's moved up a bit (as he will if you let him)."

"I can strongly recommend him to you on the grounds of his wide-ranging experience." In other words: "Jack-of -all-trades - and master of none, he is forever ranging widely to conferences in exotic places on the grounds that it will be good for the institution's international image. We would really like to have someone doing a 40-hour week on site - not 40 hours per month (not counting jet lag)."

"Within the constraints outlined above, I can recommend her to you for your serious consideration." What they really mean is: "The reason why you should not appoint is hidden away in the body of my reference, but you will have to spot it as I do not wish to be sued when she asks why she was not appointed."

"I can recommend her to you with the proviso that she should be interviewed." One can take this to mean: "I cannot quite remember why she should not be appointed so you will have to sort it out for yourself, and I don't want you suing me if you do appoint and find out then what I can't remember just now."

I notice from a recent press item that someone successfully sued their referee for loss of earnings because he or she had cast doubt upon their ability to do a job, which if one is being conscientious is the proper thing to do. In fact, the proper thing to do is to explain carefully in advance why the job is not a good idea, and hope that the person in question is listening.

Of course, if it is a current member of staff that one would like to see move onwards and upwards, then the matter becomes doubly difficult, hence resorting to the linguistic contortions above. Yet it is refreshing to come across a direct and honest reference, along the lines of one I received about a student, that began: "It is difficult to say anything positive about O'Shaughnessy, except that the French can never get his name right."

Getting the message across is another key task for the linguist, one in which not everyone is successful. While browsing through the Appointments section of The Times recently, I came across some ads couched in a type of language that is almost foreign: "This business is on the ascendant as new technology is put in place, quality customer service values kick in and the workforce becomes empowered. Hiring heavyweight communicators is an up-front priority. You should be capable of setting up an outstanding press office which is proactive and ahead of the field. Yours is a front-line role demanding an admixture of precision-thinking and a real nose for news. This is part of the community-involvement policy for a heavyweight communications professional."

Include me out at that point, then - my job is merely teaching people to express themselves clearly in more than one language. Bang goes my £50K exec package plus car and benefits.

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