Kicking the habit: analysing a writer’s use of language rather than just explaining what it means!

shutterstock_227120761If you were offered a fifty-fifty chance of winning everything you’ve ever dreamed of with just the turn of a card, the throw of a dice, or the spin of a wheel, what would you wager? How about your life!? 

An antique clock discreetly strikes midnight as you walk through the majestic hallway of the exclusive private members’ club and into an opulent salon lavishly decked out with Swarovski crystal chandeliers, Italian hand-crafted leather sofas and authentic Persian rugs. A stunning array of ornamental mirrors with gilded frames tastefully adorns the oak-panelled walls. Before you, impassive concierges deferentially cater to the whims of feverish gamers who nervously perspire in Armani, Gucci and Christian Dior.  After all, this is make or break, the opportunity of a lifetime, a date with destiny … a deal with the Devil. Your pulse races as you inhale the intoxicating atmosphere of alcohol and adrenaline, the gambler’s drug of choice, compliments of the house.

Tables are laid out in unerringly symmetrical lines whilst roulette wheels hypnotically spin and whir as ivory balls career like helpless satellites before an irresistible force that propels them to their final resting place of rouge or noir.  The edgy, uneasy ambient hum is periodically punctured by excited exclamations of triumph, or despair. Burly doormen in tuxedos menacingly lurk in shadows, partially illuminated by the garish glare emanating from the crimson neon ‘Exit’ sign which unrelentingly flickers overhead. In stony silence, they wait to escort the unfortunate to a permanent resolution of their dues.
The croupier’s gaze is unwavering and intense and his smile is unnervingly cool as he deftly shuffles cards whilst surveying the room. Casually, he glances your way.

‘Good evening, sir. Care to place a bet?’

As with our imperilled protagonist, examinations can be a lottery, and they can also have an enormous impact on your future, though probably not to the extent that we see here! But, of course, it’s not just down to chance as you can significantly improve your performance if you arrive equipped with the requisite bank of knowledge and skills. When faced with that generic English examination question which requires an analysis of an author’s use of language to create effects for the reader, many candidates select an appropriately interesting or powerful word or phrase from the passage … but then crash big time when they erroneously proceed to explain what it means, and not what it suggests. Taking the above extract, for example, a weak response would most likely fall into the trap of reiterating such self-evident statements as ‘By using the word “antique”, the writer is suggesting that the clock is old’.

Despite the use of the word ‘suggesting’, this candidate is self-deluding because he / she has really only demonstrated an understanding of what the selected word means (denotes) and has utterly failed to analyse what it suggests, i.e. those much subtler connotations which are additional to the literal, denotative level.

A strong candidate, on the other hand, will not only exhibit a clear awareness of the explicit meaning of a word or phrase but will also be adept at exploring the often subliminal impact of this subterranean connotative realm of inference. Such a candidate might venture that the clock being antique suggests that the club embodies both wealth and a deep sense of tradition. Furthermore, given the ominous context established in the opening paragraph, the fact that the clock is chiming midnight is patently an allusion to the chilling gothic genre so adroitly exploited by such renowned authors as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe . It is a portentous detail deliberately designed to signify impending doom.shutterstock_252140233

So, what would a top-level response look like? The exemplar which follows is in answer to an examination-style question which requires the candidate to analyse the ways in which the writer’s use of language creates effects for the reader in the extract which introduces this blog.

* Note the candidate’s sustained usage of ‘suggests’ and other exploratory verbs such as: implies, infers, conveys, enhances, appeals to, generates, deepens, encourages, reinforces, amplifies, accentuates, signifies, symbolises, etc.

One of the most striking aspects of this piece is the use of the second person narrator which is established through the pronoun ‘you’ and the possessive determiner ‘your’. The ensuing series of directions which guides the protagonist’s progress through this mysterious private club infers this character’s lack of control over his circumstances, a susceptibility with which the reader is encouraged to identify through the repeated use of these second person terms. This both enhances the reader’s engagement and adds to the excitement.

The employment of the present tense also deepens this sense of involvement because of the illusion of immediacy that it creates. Not only is the author compellingly suggesting that the reader is the protagonist but also that the disturbing event being described is happening NOW, i.e. at precisely the same time as the piece is being read!

The reader is further pulled into this bizarre situation by the frequent use of multi-sensory description. There is a powerful visual flow being created in the reader’s imagination by the frequent references to such precise details as the ivory-coloured roulette balls, the oak-panelled walls, the gold-framed mirrors and the slightly incongruous flickering crimson exit sign. The author also deliberately appeals to the reader’s other senses through such details as the aroma of alcohol and the distinctive sound of the roulette wheels as they revolve, i.e. their ‘whir’.

The occasional use of dialogue additionally heightens the reader’s impression of the soundscape in the piece and simultaneously helps to bring the characters to life by giving them a voice. The reported shouts of triumph and despair, and the steely-eyed croupier’s sinisterly existential question at the extract’s climax, generate enormous suspense.

Questions are an important aspect of this author’s use of language because not only does the account conclude with a highly emotive demand directly targeted at the reader, but it also begins with two equally charged queries. All three questions reinforce the reader’s impression that that he / she is the main character in the story and this empathy further intensifies the reader’s emotional response to the writing. As one would expect in such a dramatic piece, the author magnifies the vividness of the experience through the use of imagery, e.g. the metaphor in which the nervous background murmuring of the gamers is described as being “punctured”, a powerfully physical verb which not only makes the sound of the murmuring more tangible but also implies violence. The reference to muscular doormen silently “lurking” like predators in the shadows amplifies the sense of threat and the “exit sign” overhead almost certainly represents death. The fact that it is “flickering” rather than steady may well symbolise the continuous extinguishing of the lives of the unfortunate and the colour crimson most likely signifies blood.

The author also makes great use of semantic fields in order to convey an aura of opulence, power and decadence. The description of the salon includes such ostentatious emblems of wealth as Swarovski crystal chandeliers, custom-made Italian leather sofas, and genuine Persian rugs. The cosmopolitan nature of these items suggests that this casino is a global brand.

The gamers are likewise incorporated into a similarly luxurious and international semantic field through the reference to their haute couture designer clothing but the author makes clear via the allusion to perspiration that, in reality, they are vulnerable and manifestly out of their depth. It is notable that the author uses the power of three for both the descriptions of the club and the gamers’ apparel and this creates a subtly understated impression of opposition. Consequently, it accentuates the pervasive and dynamic sense of conflict which runs throughout the extract …

There is still much within the passage that could have been commented upon, e.g. the use of vivid adverbs and adjectives in order to convey the stark contrast in demeanour between the nonchalant staff and the agitated clientele which serves to magnify the air of menace, but patently the candidate has done more than enough! So, what is the fundamental point that a conscientious student should take from all this? Well, simply stated, with this sort of examination question, persistently explaining what a word or phrase means, rather than what it suggests, is a grievous habit which needs to be well and truly kicked …

Don’t gamble with your future!

Collins Secondary

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