Melvyn's rules for the conversation game

Miles Kington
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:06

Every Monday morning on Radio 4 there is a programme called The Conversation Game.

Well, it is not actually called The Conversation Game. It is called Start The Week. But it might as well be called The Conversation Game, because it is one of the few radio programmes left in which you can hear conversation being played according to the traditional rules of the game.

What happens is that Melvyn Bragg gathers together in his studio a random selection of one scientist, one author, one person involved in a big TV production and a token person who is always a woman, and he plays the game of conversation with them. This is not such a tightly ruled game as Just a Minute, and in fact the rules of the game called conversation are so loose and so unwritten that not many people realise it is a game at all, but game it is, and if you should want to play it at home, it helps if you know some of the rules.

For instance, you have to know that you do not need to stick to grammatical rules. You often hear quite literate people saying hideously ungrammatical things such as:"He is the kind of person who, if he had lived in the 19th century, people would not have been able to categorise him." In conversation it does not always matter if things are plural or singular, which is why people with a good education can be heard to say: "These are the kind of thing which ..." instead of the correct "kinds of thing which ...". We now accept things like this in conversation.

But the rule of conversation which I would like to draw attention to this morning is the rule which says: "In any given situation, you can use one fashionable adjective to show that you approve of a thing, and another one to show that you disapprove of exactly the same thing."

Let me give you an example. If, as sometimes happens, one of Mr Bragg's guests says that television is a cold medium compared to radio or literature, meaning that you can provide an imaginative response to radio or books whereas watching TV is a passive, non-participatory, non-creative activity, Mr Bragg can always be relied upon to get very cross and defend TV - the last time I heard him do this, he told the guest that she was talking absolute nonsense, and that anyone who had ever sat round a TV set with other people watching a vital football match, cheering and groaning every inch of the way, would know that television could be highly participatory.

This shut the woman up, because it was quite a telling example. However, if at any time another guest brings forward such an experience or example to back up something with which Mr Bragg disagrees, he will often dismiss it as purely anecdotal.

Do you see the technique at work? If you do it, it is "telling". If someone else does it, it is "anecdotal". Same thing, different adjective.

Another example. I watched England playing a sort of rugby football against France on Saturday, in the hopes of being entertained, and as I slumped lower and lower into my seat, hoping I would stay awake until we got to the Ireland vs Scotland game, I knew it would only be a matter of time before some commentator would notice that neither side looked like scoring a try and would say something like: "Well, this may not be the most skilful/entertaining game in the world, but no one could deny that it is very exciting." And it duly happened. "Exciting" is the word rugby commentators use to mean that the scores are quite close and that the two sides are so dully matched that they both have a chance of winning. There is another adjective which can be applied to such a match. It is "boring", and it is the word that would be used by everyone in the world who was not English or French, and by many who were.

Here are some more pairs of words. Those on the left are approving, those on the right disapproving.

Romantic Sentimental

Reductionist Simplistic

Erotic Dirty

Protean Shapeless

Economic Cheap

Low-budget Shoddy

Traditional Formulaic

High-quality Elitist

Personal Incomprehensible

Please send sae and blank cheque for full list.

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