Let’s Argue Semantics

No, it’s not about sailors with afflictions – but that old thorny problem of the meanings of words and phrases in prose and their correct usage.

Prose is defined as: A form of language that exhibits a grammatical structure and a natural flow of speech rather than a rhythmic structure (as in

traditional poetry).’

In other words: reasoned thoughts considered and then committed to paper. In our recent WW meeting we argued vociferously and at length about the use of punctuation. I would make the case more strenuously in favour of better use of appropriate words in prose; those that help make the meaning clearer.

Note the word better which, in this case, does not mean superior but simply more appropriate: those in tune with the emotional sense of the language. Particularly as regards pace of the action or events being described.

I was taught and grammarians would agree with me, I’m sure, that every sentence should contain a subject, an object and a verb – i.e. ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’

This famous conundrum illustrates this function regardless of the fact that it also uses every letter in the alphabet. However, I would argue that an emotion is best conveyed with the minimum of words in a sentence.

Another example which highlights the danger of misappropriation of wording in language is the famous one about the pub sign that needed painting. The landlord of the The Pig and Whistle Pub left what he thought were precise details for the sign writer and insisted that his instructions were followed to the letter.

He was furious when he returned from a business errand to discover the sign writer’s handiwork. The sign read: ‘The Pig and and and and and and Whistle.’

The sign writer scratched his head in confusion, yet was adamant. ‘You said you wanted a sign with a space left between the words shown, which were: Pig and and and, and and and Whistle. And that’s what you got.’

Words can only ever be signposts we are assured by that eminent scholar and QI notary Stephan Fry, and I would agree with this up to a point.

However, we only have words to communicate with so let’s make the best of and briefest of them count in our search for better understanding.

In the case of the poor landlord I would have simply changed the name of the pub to something like the ‘Red Lion’ which is one of the most popular in the country so we are told.

Chris Owen