Sunday, November 25, 2012

London Calling: A Beginner's Guide

With the 2012 Summer Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, and a burgeoning tourist population, London, England has established itself as one of the most popular cities in the world. Especially in the blogosphere—a virtual universe of interconnecting public opinions—discussion on most any topic is possible, making it simple to access information at a search engine’s notice; with this, blogs on all things British have been created to reach any fans or hopeful travelers to the country. A web developer originally from Belfast and a new London resident, Luke Blaney’s blog: “Living in London: a beginner’s guide” aims to serve as such, sharing tips and advice he believes will be useful to any visitor to London; practically speaking, the blog serves a purpose particularly to new, beginner American travelers, or those specifically searching for a basic guide to London. For the scope of this article, I will be focusing primarily on the blogger’s specific language, and how it functions—or fails to function—within the context of newcomers to London.

With this focus, it is interesting to first note how the author seems to make overall assumptions about the knowledge of the implied readers; that is, the relevant activity systems involved include beginner (or any) travelers visiting London, as well as those interested in moving to London. The blog’s title, for example, claims to be a “beginner’s guide” to London, yet his diction assumes the readers have knowledge of British language and other things that could only function within the context of other British readers and native Londoners. Before I delve into analysis of this “plain style” approach to writing, I will note how the blog’s structure is divided into various sections, each with subtitles for each topic to be discussed; this structure made the blog easier to read and clearer to distinguish one topic from the other, both elements of this “plain style.” Now, let’s analyze this first excerpt, with the subtitle “Dodgy areas”:

“Growing up in Belfast, I learnt the tell-tale signs of a dodgy area: flags, murals, bunting, painted kerbstones, burnt-out cars etc. So far, I’ve only found one area in London with  any such indicators; it’s known to Londoners as “The Mall”. It has a Union Jack on every lamppost, a high army presence, regularly has police road blocks and most of its residents are reliant on state handouts (though some of them are clearly “doing the double” as it’s know in Belfast).”

This excerpt functions as a sort of “warning” to London visitors, sectioning out the seedy areas of the city; note how the overall diction of this excerpt is written with the assumption that the reader knows some elements of British slang. For example, the words “dodgy,” meaning risky or unreliable, and “learnt,” the British spelling of “learned,” may seem foreign to those outside of the United Kingdom. Within the diction, the excerpt “warns” newcomers to London by using sentence combining strategies such as appositives, using a colon to describe the “tell-tale signs of a dodgy area: flags, murals, bunting, painted kerbstones, burnt-out cars etc.” This list fits well within the “plain style” approach to writing, for it is written in an active, linear sentence pattern. Within the context of the article—though the style the excerpt is written in reaches a broad audience in terms of accessibility—it seems to fail to function with beginners to London, those who are foreign to specific British terminology.

Further, though most of this excerpt uses “plain style” elements of active voice, parallelism, and minimal scholarly jargon, the last sentence shifts to a more passive voice, saying how many residents from “The Mall” area “are reliant on state handouts.” This change in tone might reveal the blogger’s personal opinions on those residents or the area, for there are shifts like these throughout the blog. However, since the overarching tone of the blog is rather informal—using “I” to communicate topics and experiences—the tense shifts are understandable. With a reading ease level of 62.1 and a reading grade level of 9.9, this blog excerpt surely indicates a less formal, less scholarly, more accessible approach to writing.

Let’s look at a second excerpt of the blog to explore how Blaney’s language does nearly the same thing in terms of making assumptions to the reader, with the subtitle: “London Underground (aka the Tube)”:

“Getting on the tube is so much fun. You’ve got trains, tunnels, history, strategy and hidden shortcuts. The key to enjoying the tube is simple: don’t use it to commute. Lots of Londoners make this mistake and as a result they hate the tube...[t]alking of last tube trains: these are even more fun than normal because you get to see the men with green torches. Each platform has a person standing on it with a walkie talkie and a green torch. When the last tube arrives, they check with the people upstairs to make sure that noone is running to catch it. When they get the all clear, they shine the green torch at the driver who then knows they’re good to go. Isn't that so cool?”

Though I give Blaney credit for giving the tip that the Underground is called the Tube (helpful for any newcomer to London), the language in this excerpt functions much like the first one—it assumes readers know British terminology, or, at the very least, are interested in knowing it. Still, these assumptions seem risky. Not only does the excerpt seem more of a digression than a guide, but also some of the language might seem unfamiliar. Note how the word “torch” is used a number of times throughout the paragraph—for “beginners” to London, readers (the addressed activity systems of beginner travelers, etc.) may find themselves trying to translate and make sense of the word. While non-native Londoners use the word “torch” as a source of fire, the British form of the word “torch” is what we call a flashlight. Again, Blaney makes some assumptions about his implied readers; the word “noone” is also an unfamiliar spelling of “no one,” which, again, may seem out of place.

Moreover, Blaney discusses how the Tube is “so much fun” particularly because of the last tube trains and the “men with green torches,” but he fails to explain why, or tell the readers (travelers, etc.) how to navigate the Underground if they wish to use it to commute in the city, not just “have fun” in. The blog fails to give specific maps or timetables to guide his readers; it only gives some links to London landmarks’ websites, but nothing “extra.” To its strengths, this excerpt does reach a broad audience and is widely accessible; at a reading ease level of 73.5 and a readability grade level of 7.4, this excerpt accomplishes using “plain style” elements with simpler words and more accessible language. However, because of its muddled messages and unfamiliar language within the context of its readers, Blaney often misses his mark.

Through Luke Blaney’s personal blog, the art of plain language is certainly utilized, though his piece generally fails to function within the context of newcomers to London; still, plain language is still used overwhelmingly in most any blog, and for good reason. This raises the question: was Blaney’s language in his blog wrong? Perhaps not. With any blog, it is a form of communication, a human expression of thoughts and opinions that hope to resonate with readers. Similar blogs like Blaney’s function in the context of their targeted audiences, but Blaney’s piece is still effective, and with this, each individual blog succeeds in creating a virtual blogosphere rich with interconnecting opinions. The overarching idea of self-published blogs, in all their simplicity, are very public and impressionable, read and followed by millions across the world. Plain language, then—in this blog and all others—is very appropriate and successful in this sense, for it is attainable, conversational, and focused.

By: Jessica Haugen

For more information on Luke Blaney’s article, click here.  

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