NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.
The way we use language changes depending on the situation. The words you use in a job interview are obviously more formal than the words you choose when chatting to your mates. If you write a fawning comment to win a competition you’ll use lots of superlatives (think ‘biggest’, ‘best’, ‘brightest’) but for a political speech on bank debt you’ll use financial terminology.
The division of Paper 1 into language categories (information, argument, persuasion, narration/description and aesthetic language) reflects the fact that we use language in different ways in different contexts. These categories aren’t absolute, in fact they often overlap, but understanding the basic rules for informing, arguing, persuading, describing and narrating will make you a more discerning reader (i.e. better at comprehensions) and a more skilled writer (i.e. better at QB & composing).
Language of Information
What is it?
Writing whose main purpose is to communicate information.
Report, leaflet, instructions, travel guide, encyclopaedia.
The reader wants to glance at the page and select the information they are looking for instantly. Present the facts using a logical, easy to follow structure. Use headings, sub-headings and bullet points or numbering. However, if you are writing an informative essay, full prose paragraphs, rather than bullet point lists, will be expected.
Your focus needs to be on facts and statistics. Every point you make should be backed up by a specific example. If you are giving advice, it needs to be specific – think “count your daily fruit and veg intake and try to gradually increase by one a day until you reach your target” rather than the so-vague-as-to-be-almost-completely-useless “eat more healthily”. You can make statistics up, but you’ll have to make them sound believable. One way to do this is to name the source of the statistic – researcher, title & institution e.g. “According to research carried out by Dr. Hazel Nolan, sociology professor at Harvard University, one reason for the increase in smoking amongst teenage girls is because it is perceived as a good way to control weight gain”. However, your statistic must be convincing! I once had a student write that “92% of teenage girls in Ireland are now smokers”. You only need to look around you (or sniff those around you!) to know this couldn’t possibly be true.
Your language must be appropriate to your audience. Reports commissioned by the government or by an organisation such as the Central Statistics Office (CSO) or the Economic & Social Research Institute (ESRI) adopt a very formal and professional tone and use subject-specific vocabulary. However, a leaflet offering advice to teenagers on staying safe online would need to adopt a much less formal approach, otherwise the people it’s aimed at (teenagers) would stop reading.
Language of Argument
What is it?
Writing which offers personal opinions & refutes opposing views logically is argumentative.
Speeches, debates, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, election material.
The headings and bullet points you used for the language of information are generally speaking not appropriate here. You are expected to write in complete sentences, alternating between short snappy sentences and longer more complex ones. You need to build up a series of inter-connected ideas paragraph by paragraph, with each one flowing into the next. Election leaflets, however, will use headings, bullet points, etc…
Argumentative language is logical, rational and convincing. Obviously there is a certain amount of overlap with the language of information, with a focus on facts, statistics and examples. However, unlike the language of information, you are not presenting all of the facts and allowing the reader to decide for themselves. Instead, you are emphasising only those facts which support your point of view and offering logical reasons why those who disagree with your viewpoint are wrong.
A strong argument uses logic and reason:
1. to arrive at a particular point of view
2. to defend this position and
3. to refute counter arguments.
Once a person stops utilising the facts to prove their point and resorts to personal insults, they are no longer arguing, they are now persuading.
Language of Persuasion
What is it?
Writing which draws you in emotionally to manipulate how you feel and how you think is persuasive.
Advertisements, competition entries, sermons, inspirational speeches.
It depends on the genre. Advertisements pay close attention to layout and use a wide variety of headings and font sizes for captions, slogans, statistics etc. A persuasive speech will use a traditional essay-style layout. A competition entry or proposal will have a clear structure – introduction; details (3 – 4 paragraphs); what you expect to happen next.
Rather than purely factual (information) or logical (argument), persuasion manipulates your emotions to make you feel strongly about an issue. The writer draws on personal experiences to lure the reader or viewer into feeling certain emotions – sympathy, distress, disgust, admiration, pride, anger, fear, amusement. Once you are emotionally ‘hooked’ it becomes harder to analyse, assess and accept or reject the writer’s message logically because the heart, not the head, is now in the driving seat! Asking rhetorical questions, making urgent references to time, using emphatic, superlative and emotive words, repeating a key phrase, adopting collective personal pronouns, creating vivid imagery, hyperbole, contrast and humour are all effective ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Argument & persuasion often overlap – logic and emotion is a great combination if you want to win people over. You’ll also find significant overlap between the language of persuasion and descriptive writing, which also draws people in emotionally.
Language of Description / Narration
What is it?
Narrative language tells a story, descriptive language paints a picture using words.
Novels, short stories, memoirs and diary entries narrate. Travel writing, personal essays and feature articles describe.
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Hemmingway’s six word short story “For sale, baby shoes, never worn” has all the ingredients of a compelling story:
set the scene, rousing the reader’s curiosity (for sale)
draw the reader into the action emotionally (baby shoes)
finish with an unexpected development (never worn)
Obviously you need a more fully developed plot, setting and characters for a 1,000 word short story. Descriptive essays are less demanding because they do not require a plot, but they too must draw the reader in emotionally to what is being described.
To write descriptively, you must choose specific verbs. Rather than writing “Susan walks over and says she’s really excited” select verbs which add energy and movement: “Susan bounces over, squealing with excitement”.
Adjectives add details about the size, shape, texture, location etc of the noun being described. Rather than writing “As rain fell from the sky, my daughter began to cry” include adjectives which add vivid detail “As heavy rain thundered from the dark grey sky, tiny tears flooded my daughter’s pale face”. However, be careful not to overload your sentences – too many adjectives can make your writing slow and cumbersome.
Evoke all five senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch) to add depth to your writing. Rather than writing “A van pulled up and a burly man jumped out, ran into the shop, pulled out a gun and demanded that the shop assistant open the till” instead create a multi-sensory experience for the reader: “A shiny black van screeched to a halt and a burly man jumped out, bursting through the double doors and barrelling into the shop. Reaching for the cold metal butt of his revolver, he growled at the trembling shop assistant “open the f**king till!”.
What is it?
Language which is crafted to create something beautiful. Only the language of information deliberately avoids trying to be beautiful & engaging, choosing instead to present the facts in a purely objective fashion. All other types – argumentative, persuasive, narrative and descriptive – aim for beauty as well as clarity.
Poetry, song lyrics, novels, plays. Any great work of art: think William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney or equally Emily Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Eavan Boland.
There are no rules, there is only beauty. Emily Dickinson ignored all the ‘rules’ of grammar to create an aesthetic effect; so did James Joyce. Great writers master their craft by obeying the rules at first but they will also experiment and play with language to create something new.
Similes, metaphors, personification, symbolism, contrast, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, rhythm, recurring motifs, pathetic fallacy, allusion, foreshadowing, dramatic irony, poetic justice. However, just using literary techniques won’t necessarily make your writing aesthetically pleasing and beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so what I might consider beautiful, you might consider boring.