You see, I told you it was ugly. My excuse is that it’s a way (stylistically) of conveying the mayhem of my days. It also serves another sly purpose because this blog’s about how important it is, especially in rhetoric or humour, to put the elements of a sentence in the right order. I’ve always known that, and I’ve even examined it in some detail in Just Write, but it was a news item in yesterday’s Guardian that reminded me of it.
It concerned a 15-year-old schoolboy, Joe Cotton, who’s the first ‘child’ (as the Guardian called him) ever to address the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers. He was speaking about some of the cynical, sinister ideas of our Education Secretary, Michael Gove, one of which is to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to help with his budget cuts. This is what young Joe was quoted as saying: ‘Well, I don’t know how nifty Michael Gove thinks he can be with a loaf and some fishes, or even a bus pass and some textbooks, but he’d need nothing short of a miracle to replicate the benefits of EMA with that budget’.
First, I admire enormously a 15-year-old with the confidence to stand up in front of a hall full of teachers and articulate the feelings and ideas of his generation, and I’ve no doubt his words – and that sentence – were well received. But let’s be picky with its structure. The word ‘nifty’ is good. It implies sleight of hand, ducking and diving, smoke and mirrors. Applying it to one of Jesus’ miracles puts both it and the ‘miracle’ in a different light. There’s no longer the po-faced, respectful kow-towing to the specialness of divine intervention; instead it conjures up (see how subtle I was there?) a seedy bloke on a music hall stage with a wand, hat and rabbit – or, if you like, ‘a loaf and some fishes’.
So it’s good, and it’s worth a laugh. BUT …
The laugh has to be delayed while he finishes the rest of the sentence, and that ‘rest’ consists of a much weaker joke, then a serious political point and finally an ‘explanation’ of the loaf and fishes reference (in the word ‘miracle’). So, if we get rid of the weaker – and rather confusing – joke, the sentence has 4 elements it needs to juggle:
1. the benefits of EMA (agreed fact)
2. the budget (boring economics)
3. the fact that 2 and 1 can’t coincide (self-evident truth)
4. the gag of Michael Gove, using Joe’s idea (and words), ‘being nifty with a loaf and some fishes’.
By rewriting the sentence and putting the elements in that order, the good gag is made even better and more effective because it’s now the punchline and also offers light relief after the seriousness of 1, 2 and 3.You can then, of course, refine it even further by moving around the words inside each element. The punchline, for example, works better if you make it ‘being nifty with some loaves (pause) and a fish’. It’s not rocket science but it is the difference between writing and editing.
Whenever I had one to one tutorials with students about their writing, I frequently got them to isolate the different elements in a sentence, swap them around and see the difference it made to its meaning, impact, power. If you haven’t tried it, have a look at some of your own writing now and see whether it could work for you.