Code-switching (Post 28)

It sounds like something a double agent in a spy story would do. In fact, it’s something we all do – or at least, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t do it.

We speak in different ways when we are in different settings. I think the most influential aspect of the setting is the person or people we are with at the time. There are things that we would say to friends that we wouldn’t say to our parents; similarly, there are ways of speaking that we would use with friends which we wouldn’t use with our parents. For many people, swearing falls into this category.

HOW we speak, as well as what we say, changes when we are in different groups. In Post 3How do you sound? I asked you to record yourself speaking. You probably sounded rather different when consciously recording yourself, compared with when you speak naturally and in a relaxed way. That slightly more formal, more self-conscious way of speaking is one code; the relaxed, informal way of speaking with your friends is another code. Yet another code might be the way you would speak in an interview – more thoughtful and formal still, trying hard to create the impression you think the interviewer wants to hear (and see).

Gangs very often have their own codes – their own ways of speaking – which they use to identify one another. Rap often contains examples of gang code.

You might choose to speak in only one way all the time, and of course that is your prerogative [that is, it’s your choice to make]. You might think that that shows integrity, and it probably does. If you do only speak in one way all the time, however, you are losing what might be valuable opportunities to establish bonds with other people, and you may be displaying a lack of empathy [sharing other people’s feelings].

It is valuable to be able to code-switch. If people regard you as more like themselves, they are more likely to trust you. If they consider that you are not “one of us”, you must be “one of them” and so they might not accept you into their group. If their group happens to be the university you want to attend, or the business you want to work for, that’s going to place you at a disadvantage.

Here is the writer and journalist Oliver Kamm explaining why knowing how to speak (and write) in an appropriate manner (“code”) is helpful to you. The explanations in square brackets are by me. The extracts which follow are from his book Accidence will happen: The NON-PEDANTIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH. The title makes use of both a pun (see Post 18) and a homophone (see Post 19): “accidents will happen” is a much-used expression in our language, while accidence is the part of grammar dealing with inflection – where we put the stress on words; see Post 17Rhythm.

“We all adapt our style … according to our audience. We use intimate terms (and perhaps a private vocabulary) with a loved one, casual language with friends, and varying degrees of more formal language … with strangers, experts or figures in authority. … code-switching … saves us time and gains us credibility with listeners or readers whose attention we want … .”

” … the conventions of language enable you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised [treated as if you were a child] because of the way you write or speak … .”

“The reason for speaking and writing fluently in Standard form [conventional or “correct” English] isn’t to show refinement; it is to make us at home in the world. Slang makes us at home in a like-minded group. That isn’t wrong but it is limiting.”

“Teenagers may be highly intelligent and also habitual users of slang and non-Standard forms; but if all they use is slang or non-Standard English, then their intelligence will not be recognised and their abilities will be needlessly constrained … .”

“… Linguistic superstitions don’t matter. Tacit [unspoken] conventions that make up Standard English do, because they enable you to get listened to without prejudice.”

And here is another writer on English language use – Professor David Crystal – making the same point about punctuation [commas, full stops, inverted commas, etc] in written English:

“… non-standard punctuation used in settings where we expect standard forms to prevail … can affect the user’s social credibility or career prospects.” [From his book Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.]

I’d argue very strongly, then, that knowing how to speak and write in Standard or formal English is a valuable tool for anyone to have in his or her language tool-box. It might be said to be a power-tool. And this blog is all about the power that language use gives you!

Criticism – not always a bad thing (Post 27)

In day-to-day life, criticism tends to mean disapproval, an observation of something badly done, or something we think is wrong.

In the world of the arts – writing, music, painting, etc – criticism is a less loaded [biased] word. To criticise a work of art is to analyse it, and to make both positive and negative comments about it, backed up by evidence.

Analysing a poem is one of the least popular parts of English and English Literature courses for many pupils. It has a reputation for being difficult, and/or boring and pointless.

If you have to analyse poetry – or even if you’re just interested in how it’s done – try to get rid of those off-putting barriers; if you are prepared with a range of things to consider, and prepared to be honest in your reactions and to say WHY you react in that way, you’ll be fine!

Let’s look at a poem which has been set in exam courses over the years. Relatively modern poetry is often set by examiners because they think it will be more appealing to teenagers. Sometimes that is the case; sometimes it’s not.


Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

(written by Carol Ann Duffy)

Suggestion: if you can, print the poem out or find it in a book. Then you can look at the whole poem at the same time, which is useful.

Suggestion: you might want to look back at Post 15, which is about poems, to remind yourself of a few things about them.

1 What does the title – Valentine – make you think of? Today St Valentine’s Day is a big commercial occasion, with card, gift and flower shops making a great deal of money out of objects covered in red hearts, and the exorbitantly high mark-ups on the price of red roses. So perhaps this poem is about that sort of thing.

2 The first line (also the first stanza) tells us immediately that this is NOT going to be about conventional Valentine-related things. So that’s one remarkable thing about this poem: the writer has set up an expectation in the reader that she immediately overturns.

3 So, if it’s NOT about the conventional Valentine’s Day things, what IS this Valentine poem going to be about? Line 2 tells us: “I give you an onion.” Now, an onion is a very everyday, unromantic thing indeed. It is ordinary – round, and brown – and quite cheap; and once cut into it smells (and not a very nice smell at that). Many people find that their eyes water painfully when they are cutting up an onion, which is because of the chemicals released at that point.

4 Let’s look at the whole of the second stanza (I’m not calling it a verse because it doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t have a pattern of rhythm – but we’ll get to those things later). It describes the onion in two ways that we’d never have expected. The onion “is [like] a moon wrapped in brown paper”. And “it promises light/ like the careful undressing of love.” Both the moon and love are things traditionally associated with Valentine’s Day – so perhaps this poem is more romantic than we thought!

5 Writing about the onion as a moon is an image. Imagery is used to describe one thing in terms of another. The poet writes that the onion “Is a moon”. That’s a metaphor: a description of one thing in terms of another – usually things that we wouldn’t normally associate with one another – without using the words like or as. (If the poet had written, “It is like a moon” then that would have been a simile – the same as a metaphor but using either like or as.)

6 Is the onion = moon metaphor an effective one? (Try to avoid using “good” in your criticism; it is too vague to be helpful.) The onion is like the moon in that it is round. Also its skin is brown and has a texture rather like paper – so the brown paper wrapper is an effective way of describing the object too.

7 And “It promises light” is also part of the moon metaphor: the onion is a soft, pearly white inside its brown skin, which when removed will show a pearly white orb like a small moon. The point of imagery is to make us look at (or think about) things in a new way – so I’d say that this image is an effective one. You might disagree, of course, and that’s fine as long as you can support your opinion with evidence.

8 “Like the careful undressing of love” is the first of the erotic images in the poem, suggesting one lover undressing another in an atmosphere of gentle expectation. Again, I’d day that that is effective, this time because it creates atmosphere – and gradually builds our realisation that this is a poem about love, even if it’s not about the conventional aspects of Valentine’s Day.

9 “Here.” The one-word line is an effective way of focusing the reader’s attention. This one also suggests action – that the writer is handing the onion over to the reader NOW. It refers to the first line of the previous stanza – “I give you an onion.” This sense of immediacy – that is, that the action that’s being written about is happening NOW – gives the poem a freshness that isn’t present in many poems, where there is a tendency to write in the past tense.

10 “It will blind you with tears” – yes, we know that that is true of onions. “like a lover” – she puts this in a separate line, so that it comes as a bit of a surprise to us. Here’s something not so romantic about love: the people we love can make us cry. This – for me – is another way in which this is an unusual, and therefore interesting, poem.

11 “It will make your reflection/ a wobbling photo of grief.” When our eyes are stinging and overflowing with the tears caused by the cut onion, we won’t be able to see clearly. When we look at ourselves in a mirror, our reflection will seem to be wobbling because we are looking at it through tears. I like the fact that she describes the reflection as “wobbling” even although it’s not; it’s the tears that make it seem to us, the viewer, to wobble. It also makes me remember that lovers can make us cry too – the “photo of grief” may foreshadow the future of the relationship.

12 “I am trying to be truthful.” Like the one-word line, the one-line stanza can also be used to focus the reader’s attention. This is a statement of the poet’s purpose – or, if we have already picked that up from what’s been written in the first stanzas, a reminder that she is not writing about conventional Valentine’s gifts and sentiments, but about real life.

13 And here’s another part of the reminder: “Not a cute card or a kissogram.” Another one-line stanza focuses our attention. Writers have to be careful not to over-use devices such as this, or they lose their effectiveness, but I think three one-line stanzas in a poem of this length is a reasonable rate – especially as this third one reminds us very strongly of the first one – “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”

14 “I give you an onion.” Repetition of an earlier line reminds us of what’s happening, here in this poem. “Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,” is another image; the taste of the onion is like a kiss because the raw onion has to touch our lips in order to create the taste. And the taste is strong, “hot” and fiery: it is a “fierce kiss”. And as anyone who has ever eaten raw onion will know, the taste does indeed stay in your mouth for a long time afterwards.

15 So the “kiss” of the onion is “possessive and faithful” – the taste dominates your tastebuds (“possessive”) and it lasts for a long time (“faithful”).

16 “as we are”: that’s a pleasant (Try to avoid “nice”: like “good” it is an overworked word that doesn’t convey very much nowadays.) message: the lovers – the writer and the reader – are in a close and mutually loyal relationship.

17 “for as long as we are.” Again, a new line for this means that we come across it rather unexpectedly. Just when we were enjoying the pleasant feelings of the lovers’ relationship, here’s a reminder that it won’t last for ever!

18 “Take it.” This command to action is again in the present tense, and it’s the next action after the writer has given the reader the onion, an action which she marked with the word, “Here” earlier. The action reminds us – or perhaps helps us to imagine – that this exchange is happening NOW.

19 “Its platinum hoops shrink to a wedding-ring”: an onion consists of concentric skins of that translucent, pearly white that we noted earlier. As you slice it, each skin becomes a ring in the slice, like the rings in sawn-up trees except that each ring of the onion will separate from the others if you press them. The rings towards the centre of each slice are small, and some could indeed fit round your finger like a ring. Platinum is a slightly less shiny, slightly greyer metal than white gold. I think the metaphor here is effective because it is very unusual but also has a basis in physical similarities between the two objects being compared – the onion-rings, and a platinum wedding-ring.

20 “if you like”. This for me is the point at which the poem turns. Up until now it’s been clever – witty – with its comparisons of the onion and traditional romantic thoughts and actions; there’s also been a suggestion of true love, desire and care between the lovers. Here, however, the writer’s casual, “if you like” suggests to me that she isn’t as keen on the relationship being formal and long-term as we might have expected after everything that’s come before this.

21 The final verse reveals a pessimism and possible bitterness that undercuts much of the playfulness that has gone before. “Lethal” means deadly; it will kill. What is it that is lethal? Is it the onion – or the wedding -ring? And what will it kill? Your tastebuds (for quite a long time afterwards) – or the relationship between the lovers?

22 “Its scent will cling to your fingers” suggests the onion – but in a metaphorical way the “scent” of a wedding-ring might cling to the wearer’s fingers. “cling to your knife” again suggests the taint of the onion being transferred to other things cut by the same knife – but what else might the reader’s tainted knife be used for? Perhaps I’m getting carried away here – and I certainly don’t think the writer’s suggesting that the reader might stab her! – but the last picture we hold in the poem is of the reader’s knife, which to me suggests the possibility of the relationship being cut through.

23 Look at the poem on the page. The layout is irregular: the lines are of different lengths and so are the stanzas; there is no over-all pattern to them (although we have seen some patterns within the poem); there is no rhyme-scheme. (Re-visit Posts 16 and 17 if you want to be reminded about rhyme and rhythm.) This suggests to me that the poet wants us to pay more attention to the line-divisions and stanza divisions that she chooses to make within the poem, rather than to an over-all pattern; and that she wants us to pay more attention to the meanings and echoes of the words within the poem than to any pattern of sounds they might make. I think it works; I wouldn’t want to be distracted from her message by the patterns imposed by regular rhythm and rhyme.

So there you have it: read the poem; explain your reactions and how the poem has caused these reactions. Say whether you think the poem was effective or not, and how/why. Not so difficult after all!

PS I have referred to the writer and the poet as if the poem were the thoughts and views of Carol Ann Duffy. Actually this is not ideal because writers are great at using their imagination and Duffy might well be imagining how someone in the poem’s situation might feel. You can avoid this problem by referring to the voice in the poem as “the protagonist” or “the narrator” – although “the narrator” is normally used when a story is being told. I wanted you to focus on analysing the poem, so I didn’t add more to absorb by using “the protagonist”.

Write a story today (Suggestion 26)

As I write this, there is a strong, gusty wind blowing the trees outside rapidly and roughly in a range of directions. I can hear the wind in the chimney. It is a day for staying indoors, and either losing oneself in reading a good story – or writing one!

In Post No. 13 I set out some guidance as to how you might set about writing a story, if you find it tricky. You might want to revisit that now.

Or you might just be inspired by one of the topics below – quotations, situations, descriptions, possible titles … .

Have fun!

“I’ll tell you, shall I, something I remember? Something that means a great deal to me. It was long ago.”

Write a story arising out of one of the following situations:

finding a solemn occasion very amusing

being mistaken for another person

discovering that you have no money, app or card with you when the moment comes to pay for something


Write a story suggested by one of the following statements:

“That’s my last word,” he said.

It seemed a great chance, but I had learned my lesson.

“Absolutely terrified!” was the answer.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to get too involved.

“This is a wild land, country of my choice, with harsh craggy mountains, moor ample and bare.”

How are you getting on now? (Suggestion 25)

If you’re still reading this having started back in early April – well done! If you’ve only just dropped into the site – welcome, and I hope you enjoy some of the activities in these blogs.

As we’re at Post Number 25, I thought it would be a good time to look back at what you can have achieved if you’ve followed the posts so far. With the exception of No. 1 – listing where you got to before the schools closed because of Covid19 restrictions – none of the activities is finite, of course (that is, it doesn’t have a definite end), so you can return to them, or start them anew, at any time.

We’ve been looking at Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening – as the name of this site suggests. There have also been suggestions for Thinking about particular things, however, and in some ways Thinking is inseparable from the communication activities of Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening.

Thinking activities are in Posts 1 (see above), 4 (Why should I do schoolwork when my exams have been cancelled?), 10 (Remind me again: why are we doing this? which is about the importance of communication in people’s lives) and 21 (The Power of “Why?”). All of these are thoughts worth holding in your mind, and acting upon.

Reading has featured in the largest number of posts so far – 10 out of 24. Some of the reading activities are basic – but very effective (Posts 5 and 6); 11 is intermediate; 15, 16 and 17 – on poetry, rhyme and rhythm – are more sophisticated; and some are just fun (I hope) – 18 on Puns, 19 on Homophones (Eye Tolled Ewe Sew) and 23 on Limericks. Post 22 shares with you some quotations from people who are thoroughly convinced of the power and importance of reading books, and I hope you found those inspiring or at least encouraging.

Writing activities are in Posts 1, 2, 8, 13 and 24. If you try what’s in these, you’ll have covered a considerable range of writing activities.

Of course there is overlap amongst the four methods of communication – reading, writing, talking and listening – in most activities. You might well have been writing in Activity 9, for example, which is mainly about how you look when you speak. And in the word game of Post 20, you have to read the words before you can start trying to describe them to your partner.

Talking and listening almost always occur together, and so it is in activities 3, 7, 12 and 14, as well as 9 and 20 (above). The activities 16, 17 and 19, which I mentioned under Reading, are also about speaking and listeningrhythm, rhyme and words that look different but actually sound the same.

Remember that words are immensely powerful, and that how you use them – and understand them – can give YOU power in the world. They give you power to impress people, to influence people, to help people, to learn from others and to pass on what you have learnt and what you think is important. Keep practising!

A scrapbook of your life. (Activity 24)

OK, you do need a bit of kit for this one, unlike most of my other suggestions.

The most basic requirements are a book in which you’re going to stick the “scraps” (about which, more later), some glue and a pen.

There are many scrapbooks available online or in larger supermarkets. The old-fashioned “sugar paper” type have a lot of atmosphere about them (thick, absorbent paper pages that can come in several different, muted colours – or just grey). They are difficult to write onto, however; but if you write or print out your explanations on white paper, then cut that to size and stick it near the “scrap”, that can look fantastic.

Some more sophisticated scrapbooks – e.g. those that have large spiral bindings – come with their covers already designed. If you go for the basic model, though – which is usually stapled together – you have the extra option of covering your book in your own choice of paper, making it even more individual. Wrapping paper is an obvious choice to use here, but old-fashioned waxed paper is possible, as are more unusual things such as old maps or pieces of sheet music that you’ve finished with. Newspapers are possible, but unlikely to last long without tearing, and one of the purposes of a cover on your scrapbook is to protect it from wear and tear. Newsprint can also come off on your hands and lead to dirty marks on the inside pages. Much better to save newspaper for the contents of your scrapbook . . . .

There are many, many everyday things that you take for granted now but which will change or disappear in coming years. You may not value these things now, but in times to come they may have monetary value, and even if not, they will have a fascination for you that you probably can’t imagine at the moment.

For example: when my brother and I were growing up, we would occasionally be given a Matchbox model car. These were very small, scaled models of real cars, vans, lorries, etc, made in metal and with what now seems extraordinary attention to detail. They had tiny wheels which went round and allowed you to run the vehicle – by pushing it – across the floor or a table or other smooth surface. The little doors could be opened and closed. Lorries carried advertisements for actual products. And they came in small cardboard boxes, about 3cm by 3cm by 6 cm. We used to throw the boxes away, usually, and as we grew older the cars, vans and lorries were either broken (not easy, as they were sturdy little things) or forgotten about.

Today, Matchbox model vehicles are worth a considerable amount on the collectors’ market.

We couldn’t have put the cars into our scrapbooks (if we’d been keeping scrapbooks, which we weren’t) but we could have pasted in a flattened box or two, and explained what it was and when and why we came across it.

Chocolate and sweet wrappers are other things that you probably take for granted, but if these change as much in your lifetime as they have in mine, you’ll be amazed how many memories come back to you, as you look at the old wrappers in times to come! Chocolate bars used to come in an internal wrapper which was thin foil, with an outer sleeve of printed paper. Nowadays most bars come in single, sealed plastic wrappers.

Your task is to start building a collection of objects from your everyday life – particularly now, during Covid19-restricted times – and to stick them in your scrapbook. Each time, write a short description of where and how this object figures in your life, and stick or write the description next to the object. Best to include the date, as well.

If you have the inclination (that is, if you feel like doing so), write too about how the object makes you feel. Don’t be afraid to include things that you might not want to reveal to others; after all, you don’t have to show this collection to anyone else. (But make sure that you keep it in a safe place, if you don’t want anyone else to see it.)

If you want to collect objects which can’t be stuck into your scrapbook, you could expand your collection by putting larger, or 3D, objects into clear, sealable plastic bags (such as freezer bags) – one object per bag – then labelling each one with a number. Write about that object and make a note of its number, then stick the description into your scrapbook and keep the object itself in a box alongside the scrapbook. Be careful only to store clean, dry objects and not to store anything which will rot, such as food.

Alternatively, you can take a photo of a large or bulky object, and stick a hard copy of that in the scrapbook along with a written description.

Your phone might well feature in your scrapbook; it will be interesting to see the different models that you use over the years. Take a photo of your phone (use a mirror if need be), and stick that in your scrapbook along with the date and a description of how you use it, what your favourite uses are, etc.

Newspapers and magazines are a great source of informative “scraps”. You can cut out articles, or photos, or adverts, or games, stick each one in your scrapbook and then write about why you’ve chosen it and what it means to you/how it figures in your life.

Try to keep adding to your scrapbook over the weeks to come, even although you’re bound to slow down after the initial gathering of stuff from your everyday life. Keep it safe, and in years to come you (and possibly your children?!) will marvel at how your life looked in 2020.

“There was an old fellow named Green …”. Limericks. (Post 23)

There was an old fellow named Green,

Who grew so abnormally lean,

And flat, and compressed,

That his back squeezed his chest,

And sideways he couldn’t be seen.

Although some poetry neither rhymes (see Post 16) nor has a pattern of rhythm (see Post 17), limericks very clearly have both. If you want to practise writing rhythmical rhyming verse, have a go at composing some limericks.

The rules are these:

The poem has five lines, and lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme with each other.

Lines 3 and 4 rhyme with each other.

The rhythm is: Dit DAH dit dit DAH dit dit DAH for lines 1, 2 and 5; and Dit DAH dit dit DAH for lines 3 and 4. (There can be an extra weak syllable [dit] in each case if you want – I’ll show you an example later – but the pattern must be the same in lines 1, 2 and 5, and lines 3 and 4 must also match.)

A limerick makes sense by itself – it doesn’t need any scene-setting beforehand, or more than one verse – and limericks are usually (mildly) funny and quite witty.

Many limericks are sexually suggestive; many written some time ago would be considered unacceptable and “not politically correct” nowadays. It took quite some searching before I could find some that were “clean” enough to put on this website! That said, many people still find them wryly amusing.

Here’s an example of a limerick that has an extra (weak) syllable in each line (in fact it has an extra two in line 2, but if you read it rhythmically it works). It also bears the hallmarks (characteristics) of an earlier age than our own, where secretaries were stereotyped as young, beautiful women and bosses as older men!

A cute secretary, none cuter,

Was replaced by a clicking computer.

‘Twas the wife of the boss

Who put this deal across;

You see, the computer was neuter.

Here’s a limerick where the joke is based on physics, which is very unusual!

There once was a spaceman named Wright,

Whose speed was much faster than light.

He set out one day,

In a relative way,

And returned on the previous night.

And here’s a limerick which plays on alliteration – where a sound is repeated at the beginning of words which are close together in a text. It also makes use of the homophones (see Post 19) flea/flee:

A fly and a flea in a flue [A flue is the inside of a chimney]

Were imprisoned, so what could they do?

Said the fly, “Let us flee!”

“Let us fly!” said the flea.

So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

No-one has come up with a really satisfactory explanation of why these poems are named after a town in the Republic of Ireland!

Where Reading Can Take You (Suggestion 22)

Back in Post No 11The Joy of Reading – I encouraged you to get to the stage where reading is not an effort for you. I wrote of the pleasure of losing yourself in fiction, fantasy or real-life stories. I suggested how you might work up to the stage where you read almost without realising you’re doing so. And Post No 5Read, read, read! – starts at a more elemental (basic) level, if you want or need to work from there.

Today I want to renew that encouragement, and urge you again to invest in getting to the stage where you can look at words and read (and understand) them without making any conscious decision to do so.

Here are some reasons why, and although they are not made up by me, I thoroughly agree with them and think that these two readers express them far better than I could do.

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to leave and return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next, and there is the bonus magic if it is another in a series we already love, so we are plunging back into a magic other world but one we already know.” [From: Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill]

“Today books for me mean looking at the world, learning about it, seeing it through the eyes of others. They are a brilliant device for shape-shifting, as we can slip into the skin of authors from other times, other cultural backgrounds, brilliant minds who give us a new perspective on life and the world – something we all need from time to time. Books give us the unique chance to talk to the dead, listen to their stories, use their words as a time machine, a flying carpet to faraway lands. Books make time and space meaningless; they give us witty and wise companions; they teach us that our worries and fears are shared by others – and they give us words for what we sometimes cannot express.” [Cornelia Funke being interviewed in The Bookshop Book, by Jen Campbell]

The Power of “Why?” (Post 21)

Some parents won’t thank me for this post, because children can drive their parents mad by asking “Why?” all the time! However, used sensibly and tactfully, the question, “Why?” can unlock some – possibly most – of our problems.

A Head of Department – Science, as it happened – was telling me one day about a pupil who had been, as he saw it, very cheeky to her teacher. When the teacher tried to get her to settle down to the task she’d been set, the pupil asked “Why?” – and whenever the teacher gave her an answer, the pupil would respond, “Why?”. I can see that it was a difficult situation, and knowing the pupil in question I think it was a genuine challenge to the teacher’s authority.

While I listened sympathetically to the Head of Department, and agreed that that sort of behaviour wasn’t acceptable in the circumstances, and we agreed on a way forward which would support the teacher in question, I wish I had said what I also thought, which was this: “Isn’t it strange that the very behaviour we want to encourage in pupils as scientists – constantly asking “Why?” – is the same behaviour that can cause so much friction when used differently?”

The Five Whys is something I was told about during a post-graduate Business Management degree course. The idea is that if you want to get to the bottom of a problem, asking “Why?” five times will get you to the source of it.

Like much Management tuition, that idea suffers, I think, from being packaged in such as way as to make it attractive and memorable – but there is a core of valuable truth in it.

“Why?” unlocks reasons. Take a simple example, in the business setting. A customer complains about the order he has received. Question 1: why is the customer complaining? Answer: the order was incomplete. Question 2: why was the order incomplete? Answer: only three out of the four books ordered were included. Question 3: why was one book missing? Answer: packer no. 425 broke off his packing to talk to a colleague. Question 4: why did he break his routine in order to talk to a colleague? Answer: because he was very stressed. Question 5: why was packer no. 425 very stressed? Answer: because he felt his line manager was bullying him. And now the business knows what it has to tackle, in order to prevent any more such mistakes and to improve workplace relationships.

Note that we don’t yet know whether the bullying is a fact, or whether the packer is misinterpreting his line manager’s behaviour or attitude towards him – but the underlying cause of what might have seemed to be a simple administrative error has been revealed as something more important.

How about “Why?” in our personal lives? I read recently about a “Habit Coach” who needs to find out what she calls her client’s “intrinsic goal”. ‘Someone will say they want to lose weight because they want to be thinner. And I’ll ask, “Why?” and they’ll reply that they want to be the best they can be, and I’ll ask, “Why?” And we’ll go on like this until we uncover the core issue, which is a desire to be happier.’

Finding out “Why?” is important in all aspects of our lives. To finish where we began – with science – Terry Pratchett once wrote that the most exciting sound in a science laboratory isn’t “Eureka!” it’s “That’s funny … .”

Enjoy finding out “Why …?” in all aspects of your life!

Another Word Game (Activity 20)

I hope you’re enjoying playing Just a Minute (Post Number 12). Today’s game requires a little more preparation but the preparation itself is easier. You need teams of two; if there are only two of you, you can play together, but it’s more competitive if two-person teams compete against one another.

This is a communication game: it tests how well the speaker can describe the word on the card, and how well the listener can pick up the clues that the speaker is giving to him or her.

The more people you have playing, or the longer you want to play, the more words you have to have prepared in advance.

Get some paper and cut it into strips (15cm by 6cm is a minimum size) or if you have access to card, use or make cards of about that size.

Take a marker pen (a pen with a very thick nib) and write clearly on only one side of each strip or card.

Write one word on each. The words can be as easy or as difficult as you choose – but as with subjects for Just a Minute, remember that you may well have to guess the difficult ones yourself!

If you can manage 100 different words as a minimum, that allows you a good stretch of playing time (see below for ideas to get you started). If you can manage 200 or 300, all the better! And if you want to return to playing this game, of course people will forget the words they saw the first time, and/or there will be new players, so your pack of cards or strips can be used many times over.

The rules are simple. The speaker sits with the cards in front of him, with a shield between the cards and the listener – perhaps a cereal box, or a pile of books. A timer is set for one minute (or two minutes, if you prefer). If you have a third person as a time-keeper, that can help.

The speaker has to help the listener to guess correctly the exact word on the card in front of her/him, without using the word, or part of it, directly him/herself.

For example, if the word is HAPPY, the speaker mustn’t use (or spell out) HAPPY, HAPPINESS, HAPPIER, UNHAPPY and so on.

The speaker starts with the word on the top card/strip on his/her pile and is not allowed to move on to the next one until the word has been correctly guessed by the listener.

When a word has been correctly guessed, its card is put on a separate pile. When the time is up, the number of correctly guessed words is noted as that person or team’s score. If there are only two of you, whether you count the score as the speaker’s or the listener’s is up to you! That’s the important thing about communication: it requires both a good speaker and a good listener to be successful!

In the next round, the listener and the speaker change roles.

Don’t just put the used word-cards back to the bottom of the pile. Keep them until the game is over and then shuffle them around for the next time.

Suggestions for words to get you started: cat; dog; house; sky; clouds; planet; universe; stars; food; water; clothes; vegetables; lemon; purple; uncomfortable; wet; newspaper; sadly; song; theatre; poem; bowl; tennis; partnership; business; will; crash; books; music; terminus; forcefully; weak; curtain; rushing; trip; velvet; muddy; deep; theoretical; triangle; substance; incredible; diver; oxygen; trumpet; shellfish; quilt; see-saw; carpet; shoes (50).

Stealthily; fog; needle; jumping; twinkle; loud; forgetful; waterfall; puddle; tiger; horrible; dizzy; opera; baseball; over; virus; thermometer; electricity; waist; slippers; category; final; opening; across; island; remarkably; volunteer; pencil; yellow; flipper; magazine; tentacle; hypothetical; professor; writing; kick; dry; fold; pathway; mist; laptop; sunshine; dirty; propose; upset; quotation; keypad; remote; chair; shadow; porcupine (another 50).

Eye tolled ewe sew – Homophones (Post 19)

Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelled differently – I/eye; told/tolled; you/ewe; so/sew. There are many in the English language.

Eye-rhyme is when this happens the other way around: words look as if they should rhyme, but they’re actually pronounced differently – rough, through, although, cough. The language is well supplied with traps for the unwary!

If you were brought up from your childhood to speak (and read and write) English, you are fortunate: you will have learned to avoid most of these traps almost as a matter of course.

Even native speakers can struggle at times, though. See how you get on with this ditty (a ditty is a short poem that rhymes very obviously and has a very distinct and simple rhythm), reading it for understanding. Read it aloud (it’s allowed …) if you want to make that easier!

Spell Chequer

Eye have a grate spell chequer:

It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,

And weight for it to say

Weather eye am wrong oar write;

It shows me strait a-weigh.

Whenever a mist ache is maid,

It nose bee four two long;

And eye can put the error rite.

It’s rare lea ever wrong.

Eye ran this poem threw it and

I’m shore your pleased two no

It’s letter perfect awl the weigh:

My chequer tolled me sew.