Say what you mean
Speaking with elegance and style
Elegance and style
Our articles in this series first advised you to speak plainly, using simple words and crisp, clear sentences. Then, last month's article said that long-winded sentences are sometimes better than short ones. Is that a contradiction? No, not if you realise that grammar is more than a set of rules to obey. Grammar rules are important. But, speaking good English goes beyond its rules. Syntax matters immensely. It is syntax that breathes life into your language.

Syntax is about choosing the words you prefer to use, and deciding the order in which you string them together. It is about speaking with elegance and style. You may think, "Hey, wait a minute - I'm only a kid. Why bother with all this until I grow up?" The point is, elegance and style make you sound good at any age, and they never go out of fashion. Start right away and enjoy being able to say what you mean in precisely the way you want to.

It is a little like rollerblading: in Stage 1, you learn to put on the roller blades and safety gear correctly, to balance and glide safely, and even to stop properly. Only in Stage 2 would you try daring twists, turns and somersaults.

Where is the parallel to speaking English? Stage 1 is for grammar and vocabulary. Stage 2 (or the Syntax Stage) is when you get to play with language for special effects. When you write, the special effects include how your sentences look to your readers.

When you speak, sounds and rhythm make a huge difference. Given that you are now reading this, you are likely to be in Stage 2 or very nearly there. And so, tune in to syntax.

There are lots of ways to have fun with syntax. For now, let's explore two of them: one uses verbal pictures, and the other relies on rhythm and sounds.

Paint verbal pictures
When you say something, the easiest way to be more expressive is to add adjectives to nouns and adverbs to verbs. Take, for example, a Fathers' Day card that says, "Thank you for your love, patience and advice." Insert a few words and it will say a lot more: "Thank you so much for your warm love, incredible patience and valuable advice".

Now, what if you were to plug in scenes that illustrated what you wanted to say? The card might now read something like this:

Thank you for all the loving bear hugs you give me whenever I feel sad. You are also so patient with me. Do you remember how many times you had to show me how to whistle before I got it right? And, you gave me such good advice when I couldn't decide which CCA to sign up for.
In this final wording of the card, the verbal pictures work because our brains like to visualise scenes even as we read about them.

Use rhythm and sounds
Here, the focus is on the effect of sentences when spoken out aloud. Once you know a language - any language - well enough, you can pick words and arrange them to make good use of the rhythm and sounds created by your sentences. If you have never tried doing this before, then a first step would be to listen to great speakers: it doesn't matter what they say; pay attention only to the rhythm and sounds and you will get the idea.

Then, listen to your own sentences. Say a sentence out loud to hear its rhythm and sounds. Change words or even simply shuffle the same words around, and listen again. Do this until your sentence sounds pleasing to you. Of course, you can't be doing it every time you need to say something, can you? People might run and hide when they spot you approaching. And so, you would probably experiment with your sentences only when you are speaking to yourself or to a few close friends.

One clever way to bring in effective sounds is to use onomatopoeia (say "ono-mater-peeya"). Onomatopoeia is the use of words that resemble the real sounds they stand for. For example, an old door creaks and car horns honk. Better still, instead of saying "animals make sounds", you would say "bees buzz, dogs bark, snakes hiss and wolves howl". Another strategy is to use alliterations where the same letter or sound is there at the start of several words in a sentence. You may have tried the tongue twister "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, a peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked" for fun. Or, learnt the saying "Good, better, best; never let it rest till your good is better and your better best." In real life, we are unlikely to come up with such whacky alliterations. But, a couple here and there can add some zest to your speech because the rhythm and sounds are pleasing to listen to.

Both these strategies may seem difficult at first. Don't let that stop you from trying to use them. Just as watching the greatest inline skaters might inspire you to attempt twists, turns and somersaults, listening to the greatest public speakers may give you a good start. Get ideas from how they make people listen to them and really hear what they have to say. Then, let syntax enable you to speak with elegance and style, too.


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