A Final Insight: Topiary, or not Topiary?

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English

I stopped in at my hometown of Dalby recently and I found myself fascinated anew—we had studied it briefly in Year 8 History—by the story of how the Darling Downs enlisted the help of the introduced Cactoblastis Moth to defeat the also-introduced Prickly Pear that had rendered vast tracts of farmland unusable. If you don’t know about this rare instance of a successfully introduced exotic species, I encourage you to look it up, and next time you’re in Dalby, visit our monument (I kid you not) to the moth.

In my role as overseer of the English ecosystem at BGGS for the last dozen years, and in the spirit of my plague-fighting Dalby forebears, I have seen language pests mainly come and occasionally go. ‘Like’ is, of course, now endemic. A new sentence parasite in the form of ‘Wait’ has emerged lately, and many of our girls now struggle to begin a sentence without it. The rich diversity of English prepositions has been all but wiped out by the rarely accurate ‘towards’. The greatest blight on the languagescape—to my pedantic-curmudgeonly mind anyway—has been the inexorable rise of ‘impact’ as a verb, and of its misshapen adjectival progeny, ‘impactful’. In the English classrooms, we do our best to resist these noxious trends. In the grander scheme though, these are trifles, and because they affect (see how easy it is not to resort to ‘impact’?) everyone equally, they do our girls no real disservice.

I want to look at something more insidious, something that has exercised my mind since I arrived at the School. I checked with a very newly arrived teacher this week to make sure it isn’t just me, and she assured me that it was something that had stood out to her almost from her first class. My focus, then, is the phenomenon I call the Girls Grammar Answer. The Girls Grammar Answer goes like this:

‘This is probably wrong, but [insert answer here].’

Linguistically, this belongs to a category of terms called hedges. Hedges can convey doubt, soften statements and make them less definitive. We use them quite a lot; words and phrases like sort of, like, a bit, kinda, perhaps. But the sheer hedging power of the Girls Grammar Answer elevates it to another plane. The whole utterance serves to diminish whatever follows, but not only that, the diminution itself is diminished by the inclusion of ‘probably’, rendering even the doubtfulness of the answer doubtful. Then there’s a ‘but’ which undermines the whole thing! It is the alpha and the omega of hedging.

Hedges are not inherently a bad thing: they soften our statements; they add politeness; and they do the very great service of adding nuance and subtlety to what we say. If we didn’t use any, we would end up sounding like we thought we knew everything, categorically and irrefutably, and we might come off as a little tactless in the way we spoke.

The world has the prime example of what an absence of hedging reads and sounds like in the completely unhedged Donald Trump. Can you imagine the POTUS ever beginning one of his late-night Tweets with ’This is probably WRONG, but . . .’? Mr Trump, and many others in the political classes are fonder of boosters, which are also useful, but which perform the opposite function to hedges. They add certainty, occlude nuance, and assert truthfulness; I am thinking here of the likes of ‘essentially’ and ‘the reality is’, as well as old-time classics like ‘as sure as night follows day’.

I hope my issue with the Girls Grammar Answer is self-evident. If our girls are going to do the best and go the farthest they can at school, at university, and in the higher stakes worlds of work they will enter, it would be helpful if they didn’t add a self-imposed linguistic handicap to the myriad difficulties and obstacles they will already face. Our girls have insightful and sophisticated ideas that deserve to be heard. If these thoughts are preceded by a self-denigrating disclaimer, however, they may not get that hearing.

Whether or not hedging is more prominent and boosting less so in girls and women’s speech than in boys and men’s is beyond my remit and expertise. Interestingly though, when I ask the girls if their fathers, brothers and male friends would start a sentence with ‘this is probably wrong’, they respond unhesitatingly in the negative. I will simply say that—like all the language we use—hedges are something we learn to use, and the Girls Grammar Answer is something some of our girls have picked up along their language way. That, paradoxically, is good news, because it is therefore something that can be unlearnt. We in English have been trying, and I think results have been encouraging. I sat in on several junior classes recently and was thrilled that the many answers and contributions I heard were hedge-free. I impose a blanket ban on the Girls Grammar Answer in my own classrooms, as do other teachers, with an explanation of course.

I have opined more than once in these essays that it takes a village to raise a Grammar girl, and that this raising will be more effective if all the villagers are on the same page. I think it’s important to be watchful for trends in the way our young charges use language, because introduced pests can very quickly become problematic. An excess of hedging is going to place a girl at a self-imposed disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas she will enter post-school by replacing a deserved verbal assertiveness with unwarranted and unhelpful self-deprecation.

I trust that you have worked out why I gave this piece its oddly horticultural title. These hedges—and I beg your forgiveness for the abject pun-crime I am about to commit—need to be trimmed, and I would ask you to take up your secateurs and trimmers in the world outside the English classroom.