Say what you mean
Jargon, slang and clichés
Cluttered speech
Remove words that clutter!
Andy says: "Mid-year exams - very near already. Aiyoh, now kena whack by stress. So chia lat. Corright? But, no problem! I can maintain - exercise every day. Just walk, walk, walk near the sea. But, sure to stop lah when exam starts."

Mei says: "Owing to the fact that mid-year examinations are around the corner, at this point in time, I would like to say that I feel a great desire to alleviate my heightened state of anxiety. My solution to this problem is to partake in daily exercises that constitute mainly of lengthy walks in close proximity to the sea. There is a high probability that I will discontinue this physical regime when my examinations commence."

Jo says: "Because the mid-year exams are nearly here, I feel I must reduce my anxiety. My solution is to exercise every day. Most often, I go for long walks near the sea. I will probably stop when the exams start."

Who said it best?
Andy, Mei and Jo are describing the same situation. In their minds, they have identical points to make. But, when they put their thoughts into words, they sound very different, don't they?

Of the three, Jo speaks English most effectively. We know what she means; her words are familiar to us; she uses simple, clear sentences. As a result, Jo's English is easy to listen to and understand.

Mei uses too many hard words. Her sentences sound stiff and pompous. You might even think that she is showing off! If that annoys you, then you would probably tune out. As for Andy, his message is lively and friendly. But, to enjoy Andy's speech, you have to know enough Singlish.

Most of us like to understand what we hear right away. Not many people bother to check dictionaries while listening to someone. So, effective speakers use clean and clear language. They avoid clutter. Verbal clutter can be as messy as physical clutter lying around at home. The actual meaning of what you want to say gets lost in that clutter.

There are three common types of verbal clutter: jargon, slang and clichés (say "klee-shays").

The first step to being free of verbal clutter is to recognise it. Then, by simply deleting the unwanted jargon, slang and clichés, you may have better sentences.

Otherwise, replace clutter with more suitable words. Try doing this for Andy and Mei's sentences after reading about these three types of verbal clutter.

Jargon includes special terms that certain groups of professionals use. For example, doctors have technical terms such as "abdomen" (belly), "tibia" (shin bone) and "hypotension" (low blood pressure). They know what their medical jargon means and it helps them to communicate quickly and accurately with one another. However, to the rest of us, medical words can be confusing and hard to understand. That is why good doctors and nurses will use simple words and avoid medical jargon, especially when talking to children.

Go through Mei's sentences once again. This time, underline words and phrases that are uncommon. These are another kind of jargon. Mei's words do not belong to any one profession. But, they make her sentences harder to understand because they are unfamiliar. Maybe, Mei thinks that good English should have many big words and long sentences. In fact, the reverse is usually true.

Slang is street language. It is very informal, and usually only locals can understand it. Singlish is full of slang. Underline Andy's words that are borrowed from other languages. His sentences also have missing words. Write in the words that would make his sentences complete. For example, his last statement would become: "But, I am sure to stop exercising when my exam starts."

Slang can also combine words. One example is "corright" ("correct" plus "right"). This new word is interesting. But, until it becomes part of standard English, it is clutter. Likewise, short forms such as McD's (McDonald's), buds (buddies) and "ex" (expensive) are clutter unless everyone knows what they stand for.

Clichés are expressions that are used so often that they have become boring or even annoying. When an expression is new, everyone wants to use it. After a while, we get tired of hearing it. That is when it becomes a cliché. An example of a once-popular expression that is now clichéd is "think outside the box".

One university has a novel way to discourage its students from using clichés. Every year, Lake Superior State University's students and faculty submit words they feel are overused. The words receiving the highest votes are added to a "Complete List of Banished Words". For example, "YOLO" was banished in 2013 and "selfie" in 2014 because people were fed up of them! Try creating such a list in your class.

When you read and listen to good English, your language improves. In the process, you learn to avoid verbal clutter and, instead, speak in crystal-clear sentences. Then, you can even help to keep Singapore's Standard English stay alive and well by contributing new expressions that help us all say exactly what we mean.


The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.