Falling to pieces: common mistakes with AQA Language Paper 1 – Q3 Structure

I’ve marked a lot of Q3 responses during the last week or so. Here’s what can, and invariably does, go wrong with this tricky little 8-marker:

  1. Using the bullet points/Re-telling the story

 Using the bullet points is a bad idea. I’m not saying they’re the most unhelpful bullet points I’ve seen in a GCSE English exam question, but they’re in the top one. As well as encouraging an unhelpful tick list approach to the text, they also actively encourage weaker candidates to re-tell the story, with comments like:

‘At the beginning of the text the boy is sat waiting for his parents to pick him up but as the text develops the writer changes the focus on to him thinking about what he’s going to have for his tea. At the end of the text he never gets his meal and goes to bed hungry.’

How to avoid your pupils doing this: tell them to ignore the bullet points completely

  1. Writing about language

 Pupils might well produce beautiful analysis on the use of personification at the start of the extract, but it won’t be credited, as it isn’t the focus of the question. Unless pupils can show how language (e.g. repetition, use of short sentences and so on) contributes to an overall structural pattern, then it will go unrewarded. That’s not to say that pupils shouldn’t ever focus on key words or phrases, but they must be used to support comments about structural features, rather than looking at language in isolation.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: when giving feedback highlight the amount of wasted words they’ve written due to a sole focus on language

  1. Not identifying structural features

 Pupils might not need to use complex terminology when writing about structure, yet I find giving pupils some common structural features to focus on allows them to write about structure more convincingly. Vague comments like ‘the feelings change halfway through’, usually become more confident when framed as ‘a disruption in the equilibrium’, as knowledge of the feature encourages students to be more precise about when things have gone awry and what the implications are.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: teach them a few generic features that crop up frequently. I came up with the mnemonic SPENT (Spatial shifts, Patterns, Exposition, Narrative time, Todorov’s narrative stages) for my class, but you could probably trim this down even further for struggling pupils

  1. Ignoring the effect on the reader

 Having said that, you can identify structural features all day long, but they’re pretty useless without a clear explanation of why they’ve been used by the writer. It might well seem helpful to point out that the narration comes from a third person perspective, but it’s an unwelcome example of feature-spotting if it doesn’t spell out exactly how this adds to a sense of tension for the reader.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: say or write ‘so what?’ every time they pick out a feature without explaining the wider meaning

  1. No evidence

 Similarly, writing about structure in general without using evidence, to pinpoint specific turning points or key features, is usually indicative of a pupil that hasn’t really understood why a writer has put the text together in a particular way. Often structural features are lobbed in randomly without any real sense that the pupil knows what they actually mean.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: initially, lots of live modelling then practice on single paragraphs. It’s better to do one well than three badly

  1. Meaningless attempts to identify effect

 You know which phrases I mean. I’m reluctant to even mention them, lest a pupil accidentally see this and think it’s a recommended list of phrases to use. My pupils know they are banned. I tell them each time they write any of them, somewhere in the world a baby hedgehog dies:

  • Makes the reader want to read on
  • Creates an image in the reader’s head
  • Makes the reader want to find out what happens next
  • Grabs their attention for the rest of the novel
  • Puts the reader on the edge of their seat

Of course writers structure their texts in a way that encourages a reader to want to keep reading. It would be a brave writer that deliberately intended to discourage a reader from reading any further. Even Finnegan’s Wake was constructed in the hope that people might want to keep on reading it. As such, these phrases need to be excised from your pupil’s work with extreme prejudice. Even if they use the phrase as a springboard for identifying precisely how the technique makes a reader want to continue they may have deflated the examiner’s sense of hope for life in general at the first sight of the abomination.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: have a banned list. Refer to it frequently. Mark very harshly for pupils who use prohibited terms in mock exams. See @heymrshallahan’s excellent ‘alternatives for… resource’

  1. Hyperbolic interpretations of effect

 Conversely, pupils can get a bit carried away by effect, leading to sentences like this:

‘The spatial shift of the character ‘walking into the shadows’ clearly signifies that he is destined for eternal damnation in the sulphurous fires of Hell. As a result, at this point of the text, the reader will feel utterly traumatised and will not be able to sleep for 72 hours, such is the haunting effect of this totally terrifying movement into the world of the Satanic.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: use my example above, or create similarly breathless exaggerations. Get them to critique it. They’ll soon stop.



I Only Have Eyes For You: Themes of perception in GCSE English literature

As happens from time to time, I’ve recently become fixated with a song. Released in 1959, The Flamingo’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of romantic love.

Set to an alluring, beautifully harmonised doo wop, it tells a much-told tale of attraction and fidelity. Dig beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find something of a slightly different order. Take a look at the opening lyrics:

‘My love must be a kind of blind love, 
I can’t see anyone but you’

What we’re actually dealing with, appropriately enough given its newly-acquired earworm status, is not romantic attraction but blinkered obsession. As the song progresses, we find a speaker so love-struck that they become utterly dislocated, having lost all sense of space and time. It may well be read as simple hyperbole – a way of expressing everyday feelings of longing in exaggerated form – but I prefer the reading of a person so transfixed by another that they are utterly unable to focus anywhere else. It’s almost as if the fondness has become so accentuated that we are dealing with a borderline stalker.

Anyway, why am I boring you with my sub-NME muso meanderings? Well, I’ve thought for some time that the theme of perception is a very helpful (if you’ll forgive the puns) lens through which to view much of the literature texts that we study at GCSE.

Set yourself a quick challenge. Name as many quotations from the texts you study that mention eyes. And then preferably, as I did, set this same challenge for your pupils. See how many they can come up with. We do Romeo & Juliet, Jekyll & Hyde, DNA and AQA’s Power and Conflict poetry anthology and my list – certainly not exhaustive – looked like this:


Then we discussed what the eyes represent. We came up with things such as:

  • Honesty
  • Human emotions (often hidden)
  • Personality
  • Seeing things clearly
  • Being blinded to the truth
  • Affection and adoration
  • Sexual desire
  • Pain and suffering
  • Memory

We then applied some of these symbolic themes to the individual texts. For the poems this allowed us a basis for comparison. I also got the chance to re-use one of my favourite adjectives, lachrymose (tearful or tear-inducing).

In a future lesson, I may play The Flamingo’s while my pupils read ‘My Last Duchess’. I get the impression that Duke Alfonso would like it as much as I do.

Thanks for reading (with you eyes – wooh, spooky),



Evaluative verbs – adding sophistication to analysis

Recently, I wrote an article for TES about how an unexpected number of pupils at my school achieved grade 9s in GCSE English. It was popular and I received lots of feedback. One area that interested many people was the discussion about the evaluative verbs that top students tended to use in their writing. Traditionally, teachers of GCSE English have encouraged pupils to use analytical verbs, often pushing them for a synonym for ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’. I have an example list of my own that I’ve used for some time:

Analytical verbs – some alternatives for ‘suggests’ with brief definition
Adumbrates – puts forward an outline/foreshadow a future event
Advocates – puts forwards a particular opinion/viewpoint/belief
Amplifies – emphasises by adding extra impact
Connotes – creates a deeper metaphorical meaning
Constructs – builds up an idea
Conveys – gets across a message/idea/theory
Defines – gives us the clear meaning of something
Demonstrates – Provides a clear explanation/example
Denotes – what the word actually means/dictionary definition
Emphasises – draws attention to something
Evidences – provides evidence/proof for an argument/theory
Evokes – brings about a strong feeling or idea
Exhibits – Displays a certain attitude/tendency
Foreshadows – hints at subsequent events/themes
Highlights – draws clear attention toward by making it stand out
Identifies – provides the clear meaning of something specific
Illustrates – creates a distinct image
Implies – suggests something beyond the obvious
Indicates – acts as a clear pointer or a signpost
Insinuates – mages a vague suggestion beyond the obvious meaning
Mirrors – A similar or the same visual image
Parallels – runs alongside a similar idea/theme
Portrays – Shows or represents something/someone in a certain way
Presents – Introduces an idea
Projects – takes an idea and makes it more distinct
Proposes – puts forward an idea/theory
Puts forward – Gives a theory/opinion/idea
Reflects – Espouses the same or similar theme/idea
Reiterates – repeats or supports the same point/feeling/idea
Represents – takes an idea and puts it forward in a different light
Reveals – makes a meaning/interpretation clear that was previously unclear
Signifies – uses a word or a sign to make the meaning clear
Symbolises – takes a visual image and uses it for a deeper meaning

With the advent of the evaluation question on GCSE English language specifications, teachers have now placed a greater onus on ensuring their pupils use the language of evaluation to ensure that examiners can tell they are attempting to sum up the quality of a piece of writing or the technique that the writer has deployed. Often this takes the form of the ubiquitous adverb ‘effectively’ and adjective ‘effective’. For example ‘Orwell effectively portrays the unpleasant conditions for miners through his personification of the ‘roaring…machines’…’ Or ‘This is effective because ‘roaring’ implies the lethal nature of these giant machines and gives a sense of the deafening volume…’

What I find, however, is that the most successful pupils evaluate consistently, whether or not the question prompts them. In the literature exams, our highest attainers wrote about how a writer ‘ridicules’, ‘trivialises’, ‘demonises’ or how a character ‘coerces’, ‘sentimentalises’ or ‘derides’ another. I’ve tried to put together a list of the evaluative verbs pupils might typically use in their writing. This is far from definitive. And some of the verbs are only evaluative if used in a particular context. But it’s a good place to start if you wish to really stretch your top pupils:

  • Criticises –  rebukes, admonishes, chastises,  lambasts, castigates, demonises, condemns
  • Questions – queries, disputes, casts doubt upon, refutes, interrogates, examines, challenges, exposes, provokes
  • Ridicules – mocks, trivialises, satirises, lampoons, derides, pillories, parodies, caricatures
  • Celebrates – commemorates, honours, salutes, recognises, acknowledges, memorialises, lionises, fetishises, idealises, eulogises, elevates, glorifies, sentimentalises, romanticises, beautifies, deifies
  • Subverts – undermines, overturns, alters, modifies, corrupts
  • Accepts – welcomes, embraces, affirms, reaffirms
  • internalises, externalises
  • Technical terms – anthropomorphises, zoomorphises

Here are some examples of how evaluative verbs might elevate responses to a sophisticated understanding of the writer’s intention:

  1. Stephenson portrays Jekyll as a duplicitous character. (simple statement)
  2. Stephenson insinuates that Jekyll has repressed his transgressive desires, leading a conflicted dual nature. (analytical statement)
  3. Through his portrayal of  Jekyll’s conflicted dual nature caused by his repressed transgressive desires, Stevenson ridicules hypocritical Victorian attitudes towards sin. (evaluative statement)

Thanks for reading,


A quick word – retrieval practice for single word quotations

For some time now, I’ve begun virtually every lesson with a memory platform. Usually, this takes the form of a simple quiz, sometimes using a multiple choice format. Crucially, I interleave topics that we haven’t studied for a while with things that we’ve recently covered. Pupils regularly tell me that this approach has a) improved their retention of knowledge b) made them feel more confident ahead of assessments and c) become a nice, familiar routine at the start of each session.

But sometimes, in the hectic life of the average teacher, things go wrong. I haven’t had the chance to construct a quiz on a particular topic. My soporific PC won’t load up in time. I’ve had to deal with an incident at break time and my class are sat waiting for me to begin. Then I have to wing it. I have to make up a quick knowledge quiz on the spot. So I’ll do things like have a brief scan of the extract we’re about to analyse, work out the likely key quotations, and write things like:

Write down a synonym for the following words

  1. expensive
  2. guarded
  3. empty
  4. depressing
  5. waste


Identify the word class of the following

  1. hopelessness
  2. under
  3. somebody
  4. could
  5. extremely


Which characters could the following adjectives be applied to?

  1. callous
  2. impetuous
  3. nurturing
  4. possessive
  5. arrogant

The other day, under pressure to come up with a worthwhile memory platform in a matter of seconds, I remembered a brilliant blog that Chris Curtis had written a while back about single word quotations, which had inspired me to write something about Shakespeare’s use of single word motifs as a trope throughout his works.  So, under pressure with 29 expectant eyes on the board, I scrawled the following on the board:

Identify the text/character from the following single word quotation:

  1. sweet
  2. signature
  3. sunlight
  4. somebody
  5. squat
  6. shipwreck
  7. suddenly
  8. sabre
  9. sneer
  10. sheath

And it worked well. In most cases, with most words, pupils were able to use the single word as a springboard for identifying the ‘wider’ quotation. Even if they couldn’t recall the ‘full’ sentence or line, they took comfort from the fact that they could analyse the single word anyway. Follow up questions bounced around the room: who said it? to whom? which scene? what’s the line before? ‘Sweet’ worked really well because of its frequency in Romeo and Juliet, prompting multiple answers, and allowing me to bang on about single word motifs once more. ‘Sunlight’ performs a similar function in ‘The Emigree’.

So the following day I did it again. But this time I planned ahead, this time planting some deliberately ambiguous single word quotations in there – words that could come from two or more of the texts (Jekyll & Hyde, R&J, DNA and the AQA Power & Conflict poems) that we study:

  1. blind
  2. grave
  3. dark
  4. black
  5. ache
  6. fear
  7. doomed
  8. somebody
  9. head
  10. plague

This worked ridiculously well. Next day, I started getting a bit more creative, linking the words thematically:

  1. dove
  2. crow
  3. nightingale
  4. swan
  5. lark
  6. drugs
  7. intoxicated
  8. beers
  9. stumbling
  10. gin

And the day after:

  1. fetch
  2. throw
  3. catching
  4. fall
  5. stumble

And so on.

The beauty of this is it’s quick, effective and requires not much planning. But it also has the following (originally unintended) benefits for pupils:

  • it enables them to make links between texts
  • it highlights motifs within the texts
  • it highlights key themes (such as perception/inability to see clearly) within the texts
  • it makes them realise that one word could help them remember three different quotations in the exam
  • it makes them appreciate that they might well remember the word but they can’t remember the context of the text (who said it and when for example).

Give it a go. It might just rescue your lesson the next time your memory stick malfunctions or you leave your photocopying in the staff room.

Thanks for reading,


Why bother with complex terminology?

It began as a mistake. The other day, I went to an AQA GCSE English language feedback meeting. I shouldn’t have gone. Like a bruised rib that you can’t resist poking, or a declining TV series that you give just one more chance, I rarely find anything other than discomfort from these things. But, I felt I had to go. I wanted some answers. It’s a tough job, speaking on behalf of a huge organisation, fielding difficult questions from annoyingly opinionated people like me. I wanted reassurances that steps were being taken to avoid this year’s marking fiasco , which saw a frantic rush to mark papers before the deadline, and trainees and postgrads given contracts to mark. I also wanted to understand what in the hell examiners were looking for on Paper 2 Q2.

The AQA facilitator was really nice: an amiable woman who was clearly trying to reassure those of us (most of us, I felt) who were worried about key aspects of the spec and the first round of examinations. But one thing she said very much riled me. We were discussing technical terminology. We spent a lot of time discussing complex technical terminology. Technical terminology got a bad press. Technical terminology was asked to leave the room, tail firmly tucked between its legs. Her case against complex technical terminology went something like this:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

I’m paraphrasing, and taking a few stylistic liberties of course, but the central argument remains accurate. There was relief in the room. The backlash had begun. We could finally consign these esoteric and arrogant words to the (A level) dustbin.

I demurred vigorously. Here’s why I believe the argument against complex technical terminology is wrong:


1.The pupils end up feature spotting and forget to focus on the effect

This is an odd argument for sacrificing sophisticated words. Let me be clear: feature spotting is a bad thing. Feature spotting should not be awarded good marks, regardless of how clever-sounding the features are. Feature spotting is, however, a sign of poor teaching – or perhaps poor listening on the part of the pupil – rather than the sign of an inherently unnecessary term.

What do I think is the most important part of analysis? Effect, effect, effect. If, in their desire to bedazzle examiners with sophisticated terminology, some (or rather, from speaking to examiners I have met, many) teachers haven’t made that clear to pupils then there lies the fault.

Good pupils can and will do both, if given sufficient models, practice and quality feedback. I’ve given examples of effective use of terminology and effect here and here.

2.  These words unnecessarily complicate things

Why bother with obscure Greek terms like ‘anthropomorphism’? It’s such a mouthful and difficult to spell. Well, firstly, the most significant myths of Western civilisation (and Eastern I’m guessing) are based around anthropomorphic ideas. The Garden of Eden and the Satanic serpent. Most of the Greek myths. Much of our great literature – such as Animal Farm – and classic children’s literature – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for examplerelies on giving animals human characteristics. But it’s a clever sounding word, so let’s ditch it right?

The gazillion different types of repetition like anadiplosis, commoratio and epimone are also daft aren’t they? If used without exploration of effect, or course they are. But wielded judiciously they can really help pupils achieve a whole new level of understanding of the writer’s craft. Anadiplosis offers an excellent insight into the way that the interaction between language and theme develops, often in a cause and effect structure, as in the classic example from the Star Wars:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda’s s powerful wisdom is certainly amplified through the use of anadiplosis. The original emotion mushrooms to more destructive feelings. Anadiplosis is domino rally repetition and deserves our attention not mockery.

3.They are best saved for A level

If a teacher feels that pupils are ready to deal with more complicated-sounding ideas and terms, why should we wait? I walked in on a colleague teaching (or rather re-teaching) the concept of liminality to a group of Year 9s the other day during an Of Mice and Men lesson. Their mature appreciation of the notion astounded me. But no, let’s wait until we’ve just got our nice small A level class (full of well-behaved hardworking girls no doubt) to go over these things in a nice, cosy environment.  Why shouldn’t Key Stage 3 pupils be able to grasp litotes? Suggesting otherwise is low expectations in my opinion. I’ve taught anagnorosis, dysphemism and portmanteau neologisms to ‘bottom set’ kids before and they’ve risen to the challenge. This may be an unpopular opinion, but part of the problem lies in some teacher’s preconceived notions of what some kids can achieve.

4. We need a hierarchy of terms

Why don’t the exam board tell us what to teach, point us in the right direction, give us a list? Let’s teach to the mark schemes while we’re at it and direct our curriculum rigidly to what will appear in the exam while we’re at it. This sounds arrogant (okay it is arrogant but it’s also true), but I don’t need an exam board to tell me what’s appropriate for my pupils. I’m an expert in my subject. I’m trying to educate comprehensive, state schools pupils to appreciate unrestrained intellectualism in a way that will not disadvantage them when they come to compete with more privileged public school counterparts. Two of my Year 13 pupils recently sat the Cambridge English entrance exam. I’d hate to think that they came unstuck by reference to an ‘esoteric’ term that kids from Eton had learnt in Year 9.

Also, why should one Greek word – ‘metaphor’ – be more seen as more accessible and appropriate for younger pupils than another – such as ‘microcosm’? Yes, there’s the question of frequency of occurrence, but I’ve seen metaphor explained so badly at times by some teachers that it was almost not worth bothering. The concept of microcosm – when applied to Lord of the Flies for example – is arguably easier to get your head around – certainly to define – than trusty old metaphor.

And when it comes to feature spotting, some common language features are just as likely as obscure newbies to lead to empty comments. This happens a lot with our old friends alliteration and rhetorical question. How many times have you seen pupils identify alliteration and fail to clearly explain its purpose, or have read that the rhetorical question ‘makes the reader think’?

5. They’re only being used to try and impress examiners during analysis questions

Not only do these terms help appreciate the writer’s craft, they also help improve pupils’ writing skills.

Look again at the paragraphs where I paraphrase the AQA representative’s case against complex terms:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact. (commoratio)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. 

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. (commoratio)Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks. (anadiplosis)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. (commoratio)We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. (epimone)

I can use these rhetorical features in my writing precisely because I learnt them when analysing texts. For instance, I used epizeuxis when I wrote about ‘effect, effect, effect’. And I’ve used other ‘lesser’ types of repetition as well. Simple, easy-to-spell and easy-to-identify Greek words like err… ‘anaphora’.

So have my pupils. They can take Yoda’s famous anadiplosis and do things like this:

Fear of the headteacher leads to homework being set. Homework being set leads to miserable pupils. Miserable pupils forget to hand in homework. Forgetting to hand in homework leads to suffering in a lunchtime detention.

So, you’ll hopefully forgive me for getting annoyed by the AQA facilitator’s well-intentioned but, I think, potentially damaging remarks. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading,


The Word Spectrum: explaining, exploring and evaluating word choice

With a bit of training, most pupils can explain why a writer uses a certain word. You know the kind of thing I mean:

Dickens uses the word ‘clutching’ to portray Scrooge as a miserly and selfish character. ‘Clutching’ suggests he doesn’t want to let go of the money that he has in his possession, which makes the reader feel as if he lacks generosity and only thinks off his own needs.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. What pupils tend to be less good at, in my experience, is exploring and, especially, evaluating the choices of diction that writer’s make every time they craft a sentence. Put simply, pupils often forget that writers have a wide vocabulary at their disposal and make deliberate decisions about the precise words they select, consciously or otherwise. It’s obvious to us, but pupils sometimes don’t grasp (or clutch? No, that wouldn’t make sense) that characters are therefore constructs, shaped by the writer’s imagination and the words that are used to describe them go on to define them.

Students can be trained to explore choice of diction through alternative interpretations of the same word or phrase. If done well, this can develop their analysis, like this:

The word ‘clutching’ can also mean an action where a person tries to grab something that belongs to someone else. So, in this case, Scrooge can be seen as self-centred but also actively trying to take wealth from others.

Sometimes, however,  this type of exploration can be come mechanical: pupils search for alternative interpretations when the first interpretation is the only plausible line of analysis. A more fruitful form of exploration, I find, is exploring alternative word choices, explaining why the writer didn’t select them, and evaluating the diction that the writer eventually plumped for.

As a class, we often discuss these choice. For that reason, I prefer to do this exploration graphically on the board; I’ve inadvertently ‘invented’ a type of thinking map – a word spectrum line – that I think does the job well.

Let me give you an example. The play DNA by Dennis Kelly includes a juicy little quotation by Cathy, one of the play’s potentially psychopathic characters – ‘I threatened to gouge one of his eyes out’.


Left to  their own devices, most pupils can tell me that ‘gouge’ shows how violent she is and how she wants to intimidate the other character involved. But when we look at where that verb fits on the spectrum of choices for an action that involves removing an eye, things get more interesting:


Every time I’ve used this technique, despite much wincing at the grotesque direction of the discussion, I’ve found my classes really get to grips – if you’ll pardon the pun – with Kelly’s choice of verb. We talk about how ‘gouge’ is really nasty as it is done with the fingers (like ‘yank’ we feel), which implies lasting damage. Unlike the more neutral ‘remove’ or the gentler sound ‘pop’, although one pupil felt that the plosives suggested an unpleasant sense of force. Recently, my Year 11s could only come up with ‘claw’ or the Shakespearean ‘pluck’ as potentially nastier alternatives. Then we wrote a paragraph explaining the writer’s choice, the precise effect, discarded alternative diction and evaluated the overall decision. The standard of analysis was significantly better than the first attempts.

In passing, I shared this technique with my colleagues the other day and they were much taken with it. The next day I popped into a couple of other lessons where it was being used in KS3 classes to explore writer’s choices in other texts.

I’ve got the feeling that this technique could prove useful in the ongoing battle against the GCSE English language evaluation question. Or would ‘war’ work better? Definitely not ‘skirmish’…

Thanks for reading,



Nice or nasty? The case of the ambiguous euphemism

We all know what a euphemism is right? Yes, it’s a mild or polite expression used instead of something harsh or unpleasant sounding. Euphemisms are often used when dealing with taboo topics and are helpful for avoiding embarrassment. For this reason our discourse on subjects like sex and death is usually littered with euphemistic language, such as:

  • ‘John passed away yesterday evening’
  • ‘Grandmother is no longer with us
  • ‘Did you sleep with my boyfriend?’
  • “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.”

Euphemisms are not always used for polite reasons, of course. They can often be employed for evasive reasons, allowing the speaker or writer to attempt to skirt around or deliberately avoid an awkward issue. Militaristic jargon offers plenty of examples of this slippery language use:

  • collateral damage – killed and wounded civilians
  • friendly fire – accidentally shooting soldiers from the same side
  • enhanced interrogation techniques – torture

Typically, George Orwell was one of the first writers to highlight the use of this equivocal and deceitful language. If you haven’t read it, check out his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”.

So far, so straightforward.

Less well known is the opposite of euphemism: dysphemism. Etymologically euphemism comes from the Greek eu (‘well’) and pheme (‘speaking’), whereas its antonym means ‘bad-speaking’. Dysphemism therefore deals with the vulgar and the derogatory, deliberately making things sound worse or at least less dignified than they might otherwise be:

  • kicked the bucket
  • topped himself
  • ‘They have made worms’ meat of me’ (Mercutio)

As this is a respectable and well-mannered blog, I’ll not share any examples of sexual dysphemisms. I’m sure you can come up with some if you think long and hard.

Dysphemism is a term that is well worth teaching your pupils, given that it allows a nice counterbalance to efforts to modify language in a more pleasant direction. Knowledge of both terms offers pupils a greater opportunity to evaluate language choice. Let’s look at the example above and consider why Shakespeare used dysphemism for Mercutio’s death throes dialogue. ‘Worm’s meat’ evokes a gruesome image for Romeo and Tybalt (and the assembled feuding families) to dwell on. It acts as a reminder of the grim consequences of the frivolous violence: Mercutio’s corpse will decompose and he will become food for insects (are worms insects? Probably but I can’t be bothered to look this up). Look at the results of your honour and testosterone-fuelled dispute, his blunt language seems to say.

This is all very interesting, but my favourite part of teaching these two terms is when they intersect, when we are confronted by a word or phrase that blurs the lines between well- and bad-speaking. My Year 13 class came across an example recently when we were looking at the poem ‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe:

If I gave up hope of a cure, I’d bump/myself off…

One pupil nailed this down as a euphemism:

  • It’s avoiding direct reference to a taboo subject (suicide)
  • ‘bump’ is a gentle verb, as opposed to ‘crash’ or ‘hit’ say

Which is difficult to argue with. But another pupil (politely, of course) did, identifying it as a dysphemism:

  • It’s blunt and direct – instead of something like  ‘fall on my sword’ or ‘take my own life’
  • If you consider what would make the ‘bump’ – jumping off a tall building or in front of a vehicle – the verb actually seems a lot harsher and more violent than on first appearances
  • It’s an insensitive phrase. Unless you were callous you wouldn’t use this phrase to discuss someone who had tragically taken their own life

Which is difficult to argue with also.

Since then, we’ve started to notice more of these ambiguous occurrences, these grey areas between propriety and disparagement. And recognition of these nuanced phrases makes for sophisticated grappling with the writer’s use of language.

Right, I better go now. I need to use the bathroom/go for a slash.

Thanks for reading,