Posted tagged ‘communication’

Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.

The importance of rhetoric

August 26, 2013

As a young boy I had, I believe, a very bad stammer. I don’t really remember this – I was very young at the time – but I understand I received some treatment for it; in any case the problem was overcome and my speech was fine. However, there is a legacy: there are a few words which, if I am at all self-conscious when I am saying them, make me stutter, for example ‘theological’ and ‘logistical’. If I know I am going to say them I become self-aware as the difficult word approaches, and then I have to work to get the word out. It’s not a big deal. I keep my verbal comments about logistics to a minimum. But the other legacy for some years was that I was nervous about public speaking and would avoid it. I had no problem speaking with friends or chatting in a group, but if someone called for silence and all eyes turned to me I would suddenly be mesmerised by the task and would stutter, and so I avoided such occasions.

When I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s, I was on one occasion persuaded to participate in a debate. I was really worried about whether I could do this, and so I assembled what I thought was a clever speech, wrote it out on a typewriter, and when my turn came I read it out from the paper. I must have been dire. I was one of a team of two. We came last. When the judges pointed out that my team mate delivered by far the best speech of the evening, I realised that my speech must have been catastrophic. In my determination not to repeat that, I found the secret of success for me: if I am going to speak, I won’t speak from a prepared script. Think about it in advance by all means, and structure the speech in my head; but no script. And that has worked for me. I am occasionally told that I speak well, if you’ll forgive the arrogance of that statement.

Anyway, the point of all this is that rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – is such an important skill in the academic environment. Few academics are trained in it, and if we’re honest not all of them do it well. Too often we believe that the intellectual cohesion of what we say should be enough, and that our skills in communicating it are of no great importance, or possibly even a sign that the academic pedigree of the content is deficient. I have never bought that: I believe that as lecturers we must be able to inspire, impress and entertain; these rhetorical devices help to engage the student and make the subject-matter memorable.

In other professions rhetorical ability is also important, and is often neglected. For example, we all know of a small handful of politicians who can make us sit up and listen, but most political speeches are a cure for insomnia. This is not helped by the fact that, in our system, parliamentary debates chiefly consist of either handing out wild insults and engaging in boorish behaviour, or when that is done, settling down to wholly tedious (if often worthy) speeches. But as Barack Obama showed when he first campaigned for office, the ability to communicate with skilful rhetoric is a powerful way of ensuring that citizens remain committed to the democratic political process.

In any case, rhetoric was one of the main subjects of study in classical times, sub-divided into invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Greek and Roman orators had a special place in society, and what they did was enlightenment (rather than propaganda). Why should we see this differently today?

In this particular phase of history, good communication is vitally important. When economic and social conditions become complex, the ability to communicate effectively is vital, not only for politicians, but for anyone who has a message to send out that can promote confidence and determination. Effective communication is not a dark art, it is what allows ideas to be disseminated and to grow. We should care more about this, and should ensure that speaking and rhetoric are skills that are valued by society. And we should train more academics to deploy these skills.

Getting the correspondence right

June 25, 2013

I have just been reading the biography of William Gladstone (UK politician in the Victorian era) by Philip Magnus, and was astounded to learn that, when Prime Minister, he wrote some 25,000 letters each year. I had always considered myself to be a very prolific correspondent, but Gladstone’s efforts make my own annual average of some 7,000 emails and maybe 250 letter look distinctly pathetic. Furthermore, I cannot really claim that each of my emails will match any of the Liberal Prime Minister’s letters. Some of my communications are, shall we say, rather short: I am perfectly capable of sending a three-word email, of which two will consist of first names. Still, for me and many others email has become the dominant form of correspondence and exchange of views.

Email is probably used more widely in the academic world than anywhere else. It is how most communication is done, most argument conducted, most arrangements confirmed. Emails have not only taken over from letters, they have also often replaced telephone calls and face to face discussions. Furthermore, place a person in front of a computer keyboard with the email client on the screen, and that person can become a monster, handing out insults and abuse that he or she would never deliver orally: it is the digital equivalent of road rage.

Anyway, email as a form of communication with students has become increasingly useless, as younger people have migrated from emails to social networking and other integrated messaging systems. A recent effort by a lecturer in an American university to find out how many of his 145 students had read his most recent email bulletin revealed that a week after he had sent it fewer than a third had read it.

I am not suggesting that email is dead. Certainly I cannot promise that I will be sending fewer. But we must be aware of its limitations. It does not adequately replace all other forms of personal contact, and it is becoming increasingly ineffective as a form of written broadcast to groups of people. It needs to be one of a much larger menu of communications, designed to meet the needs of those being addressed and encouraging them to engage and respond. There is no reason not to include the hard copy letter amongst the media used.

And while you are thinking about this, go out of your office and talk to someone.

Telling the university story

April 10, 2012

Universities are right at the heart of economic and social development and regeneration. In Ireland for example, most foreign direct investment attracted by the state and its agencies is now connected with high value university research. Regions of the country without a university proclaim that they cannot be developed successfully unless they get one. As the government tries to contain the ranks of the unemployed and to re-skill those looking for work, universities are seen as key. So why do we read stuff like this, as in last weekend’s Sunday Independent? Here are universities as seen by the paper’s Eamon Delaney:

‘In fact, our universities illustrate everything that is wrong with the Celtic Tiger. From being the envy of other countries, and a hothouse of entrepreneurial and intellectual talent, our third-level sector has bankrupted itself with high salaries, poor productivity and minimal periods of actual lecturing.’

Leaving aside for now the question of salaries, none of this is true, even remotely. And yet it is clear that it is a perspective shared by a good many people.  Universities have helped to mitigate some of the worst effects of the recession, and have been willing to take on more students for less money. ‘Productivity’ has increased dramatically.

So why is this not recognised? Why, in short, are universities so appallingly bad at making their own case and putting the record straight? Why are they so reluctant to gather and disseminate the information that would balance the picture? And indeed, why are universities so bad at demonstrating that they are willing to tackle under-performance and abuse of position in those very few cases where it occurs?

Universities are rightly keen to publicise their achievements and successes, but when it comes to explaining their performance more generally they prefer to stay below the radar. This won’t do any more. There are too many sceptics out there with half understood or plain wrong information. It is time for university communications departments to step out of the shadows and make a much more persuasive case.

Communicating in a time of crisis

November 16, 2010

Right now we do not know for sure whether Ireland will require EU or IMF support to secure financial stability. In fact, we don’t know whether there have, or have not, been discussions between the Irish government and EU officials or other member states about this. We don’t know what exactly the implications of a ‘bail-out’ would be were one to take place. We don’t know what impact any of this might have on the previously announced targets for cutting the public finance deficit. In short, we the people are pretty much in the dark about everything.

When there is a crisis, communication is almost as important as taking the right substantive steps. The key ingredient that will create confidence and a positive outlook, both at home and abroad, is a popular understanding of the position and of what must now be done. The Irish government may well be taking all the right steps, but it is not sharing its thinking with the people, and this is creating uncertainty and a loss of confidence. I confess that I cannot understand why the Taoiseach has not been on television explaining the position and the actions that will be taken to lift us out of financial crisis; indeed I don’t know why he has not been doing this on a regular basis. An ad hoc interview on a news programme, though probably better than nothing, is not a substitute.

An increasing number of commentators have been calling for a change of government. For myself, I doubt that would make much difference to our chances of recovery, and it would seem to me that political continuity right now has benefits. But there needs to be leadership, and this must include proper and visionary communication. This has been completely missing, and I suspect that our current difficulties have been aggravated by that. It is high time, perhaps beyond time, that this is corrected.

Communicating gargled messages

September 17, 2010

I understand that the noise and bluster around Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland earlier in the week is now being called ‘Garglegate’, another of those annoying ‘gate’ suffixes, but this time referring to the Taoiseach’s statement that the problem with the interview was that he was hoarse. It has taken me a bit of time, but I have now listened to the whole interview online; and I know I’m swimming wholly against the tide here, but I cannot see what the fuss is about. Yes, he mis-spoke twice, once referring to the Good Friday Agreement when he meant the Croke Park Agreement, and once saying legislation was ‘in place’ when he meant it was ‘in preparation’. In each case he corrected himself immediately. And I’d have to say, if I were to be condemned every time I suffered a slip of the tongue I’d now be on my way to hell.

And the rest of the interview? Well, it was boring as could be, and delivered in a monotonous tone; but with no disrespect to the Taoiseach, that’s how he does interviews, and I don’t think this one was very different from many others he has done. I can’t even say that he sounded particularly hoarse, and if he did it absolutely didn’t matter.

So why did Brian Cowen apologise? Or rather, what exactly was he apologising for? In fact, in listening to his apology I wasn’t wholly sure that he knew what he was apologising for. A storm had broken out around the interview, and he was probably advised he could calm it all down by apologising for something or other. However, it didn’t make one bit of sense to me.

The problem is, I think, that our senior politicians have totally lost the plot as regards political communication. This is not just Brian Cowen’s problem, it is also Enda Kenny’s, and for my money even Eamon Gilmore doesn’t ring the bells. We have a political class that simply doesn’t know how to inspire trust and confidence through well-judged communication. I believe that this is also why we are still being questioned in the global media about our economic performance – not because the economic policies are necessarily deficient, but because we are so bad in our national advocacy in support of them. Furthermore, two years into our financial crisis the Taoiseach has, despite calls from absolutely every commentator, not addressed the nation. The only politicians whose communication skills I rate right now are Brian Lenihan and Pat Rabbitte.

This country has several very skilled communications experts. Politicians need to take lessons.

Losing our attention span?

July 4, 2010

I think we’ve been here before. When I was 10 years old a professor of something or other (I think it was sociology) from England visited my school, and he had a very stark warning for us young students. We were likely to be the last generation, he said, that could face the rigour of tackling an argument or understanding a treatise. And why? Because of television advertising on ITV (and I guess, Telefis Eireann, as it then was). As these pesky commercials interrupted everything every 15 minutes, our brains would adapt and would be unable to focus on anything for longer than that. For good measure, he also pointed to the growing popularity of tabloid newspapers, and their tendency to wrap up every story, no matter how complicated, in three paragraphs. At least I think that’s what he said. It took him longer than 15 minutes, and my mind may have drifted; or maybe I was just thinking, what a load of codswallop.

Anyway, the professor’s intellectual heirs have continued banging this drum (as no doubt his intellectual ancestors did, from the first moment that the printing press distributed leaflets with bite-size arguments). The most recent drum banger is Professor Gary Small of UCLA (Los Angeles), who is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as warning us about the internet, and all the Twitter and Facebook stuff. It is developing ‘new neural pathways’, he says, and we should be very afraid:

‘Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it.’

All my life I have listened to people telling me that modern technology, communications or media are leaving us unable to handle big themes and arguments and are making us skim along the surface of knowledge without really taking anything in. I’m never sure what I am supposed to conclude from this – am I supposed to take a sledgehammer and destroy all that annoying computer hardware, televisions and so forth? Or am I just supposed to expand my complaints inventory and join the ‘Oh-aren’t-we-all-getting-so-thick’ brigade?

I don’t actually care about the new neural pathways, I see absolutely no evidence of a new more stupid generation. Nor do I believe that the availability of much more information, and of hyperlinks to pursue it, has killed good analysis. If there is evidence of anything at all here, it is the fear of the unknown, and of the impact of technology as it changes our lives. Right now the Amazon Kindle, and the iPad, and other devices (another post on this coming up) have helped to grow the number of readers of serious books, and news sites on the internet, including those undertaking serious analysis, are thriving. I believe that there is a natural instinct in humans to look for explanations, and the availability of information to pursue this is developing rather than hindering analytical skills. I am not of course saying that everyone does this well and that information is never misunderstood or abused – but that’s not a new problem.

So for heaven’s sake let us stop worrying about new ways of finding and disseminating information. Let us just harness it.

Through space and time

July 26, 2009

Earlier today I was driving along a major road when I saw an advance warning that told me there was a ‘dual carriageway ahead’. Fair enough. I drove another 200 yards or so, and at this point another sign suggested: ‘dual carriageway now.’ And indeed, right there the dual carriageway (divided road, for an North American readers) began. But as far as I was concerned, the sign was wrong, or rather conceptually confused. In a nutshell, the signwriter was apparently unable to distinguish between space and time. The message that was to be conveyed was that the road was changing into a dual carriageway there: but at that precise location, not at that precise moment. In fact, by its appearance the dual carriageway was built maybe two decades ago, so that the signwriter’s apparent comment might have read, not ‘dual carriageway now’, but rather ‘dual carriageway in 1989’. However, what was really meant was ‘dual carriageway begins here’.

I offered all this as a comment to my companion, whose somewhat harsh (but maybe justified) response was that I was an annoying pedant. Probably so. And yet, I still feel just a slight irritation that we have become so sloppy that we don’t distinguish between quite unrelated concepts. I wince when people say ‘less’ when they mean ‘fewer’ (as in ‘there are less cars on the road today’), or when they use a tautology such as ‘forward planning’ (have you ever planned backwards?). English is designed to allow the speaker to be very precise in conveying a meaning, but this is undermined when the precision is wrongly applied.

To make my point, I stopped the car just a foot or so before I reached the sign. There, I said, the dual carriageway isn’t happening now at all. I won’t repeat the reply.