A ‘PUERILE’ RACE?

‘Expert commentary’ on a volatile, contentious process

I was somewhat bemused to be asked, as a linguist and someone who has written about government communications and messaging, to comment recently, this time on the self-presentation of the candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party, hence also for the role of Prime Minister of the UK (in a series of back-and-forth slurs and clumsily staged photo-opportunities characterised today by Cabinet Office Minister Johnny Mercer as ‘puerile’). My first observations concerned Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s identification with an earlier political icon.*

These were my comments in answer to the Daily Mail‘s questions on the performance of Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak in the latest and final stages of the contest…

  1. Both candidates seem to me to be reaching for very simple and basic images and messages – not complex or ‘deeper’ concepts and as a linguist I suspect that they are both trying to avoid having to demonstrate the ‘oratorical’ skills that Boris Johnson’s supporters claimed for him. In other words they are going for visual over verbal as neither of them is renowned as an inspiring public speaker.  
  2. In terms of oratorical skills or lack of them Liz Truss has been gaffe-prone and can come across as hesitant while Rishi Sunak, though articulate, has to avoid the impression of an over-eager schoolboy in his attempts to convince.
  3. In  terms of the core messages, Rishi Sunak is very obviously trying to counter the sense of him as someone removed from the concerns of ordinary people because of his privileged upbringing and his great wealth. Thus he emphasises the (quite authentic) role of the family man, devoted to wife and children, at the same time countering Truss’s projection of herself as an assertive ‘lone’ female – the image Margaret Thatcher conveyed in her exercising dominance over male colleagues. Thatcher also kept husband and children in the background and emphasised her own gravitas and steeliness above all else.
  4. Pulling pints is another attempt by Sunak to demonstrate that he is not wholly out of touch with the ‘common man’, but this sort of posing does risk backfiring as when he fumbled in his attempts to use a bank debit card to buy fuel for a humble, borrowed car.
  5. I’m surprised that Sunak does not more strongly emphasise his financial background and expertise gained as a financier/fund manager (the sort of professional experience that Liz Truss would have trouble competing with), but he may rightly sense that public perceptions of hedge fund manipulators are far from entirely positive.

Both candidates are attempting to focus, as they must, on the universally understandable issues of taxation and immigration/refugee management, subjects on which those entitled to vote for them (a very small number of key individuals incidentally) are already likely to have very firm views.

I added the following…

I don’t wish to seem contentious or uncharitable, but their messaging – in both cases – really does leave much to be desired, beginning with the campaign slogans, ‘Ready for Rishi!’ and ‘Liz for Leader.’

On Rishi Sunak’s part, his public postures belie the fact that he is, among many other things, a teetotaller…

And as for Ms Truss…

Which approach, I was asked, was likely to play out better with the 1600 party members entitled to vote in the leadership contest?

I think it’s very difficult to predict: I suspect that many Tories will still instinctively prefer the certainty and strength of purpose that Margaret Thatcher represented – the steely glare rather than the eager-to-please smile. But perhaps on reflection they may come to decide that someone at ease with financial manipulations (public or private!), and someone who is not really encumbered with ideological baggage could be more convincing in the long run and a safer pair of hands? It’s perhaps reassuring and worth noting that those two ancient bugbears of British political life, ethnicity and gender, probably are no longer barriers to advancement.

This is how my remarks were incorporated into the Mail’s front page of July 25 2022…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11045839/Nigel-Farage-blasts-teetotal-Rishi-Sunak-copycat-man-pub-routine.html

*https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10828621/Now-Liz-Truss-SOUNDS-like-Margaret-Thatcher-Speech-expert-says.html

…PUNCTUATED BY RUDENESS

Image result for messaging punctuation

Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.

The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.

And this  – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.

Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X β€” part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’

Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?

Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.
 

The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like –  were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.

Image result for punctuation in messaging

Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation,  emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).

The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49182824

…and the Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/full-stop-onwhatsapp-cutting-weapon-choice-use-wisely/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

…but the first article based on actual research to raise this issue actually dates back to 2015:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/dec/09/science-has-spoken-ending-a-text-with-a-full-stop-makes-you-a-monster?CMP=share_btn_tw

…and Binghampton University usefully summarised the topic in 2017:

https://phys.org/news/2017-11-punctuation-text-messages-cues-face-to-face.html

I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.

There was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:

…a subject nicely spoofed by the Daily Mash a year ago:

Man throwing semicolons around like confetti

One year later the punctuation issues were still being debated on Twitter, and summaries posted to help teachers and students. One such is here, from Rhona Graham at Queen Mary:

http://linguistics-research-digest.blogspot.com/2020/07/ok-ok-and-ok-how-we-use-punctuation-to.html

More recently, in March 2021, and after a lengthy hiatus, aggressive punctuation made the headlines anew. This from Metro:

Most recently, at the end of this year, Professor Simon Horobin‘s piece appeared in the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/28/punctuation-complicated-full-stop-culture-war