Sunday, December 09, 2012


If I spoke the phrase, lifting magnets, to you, what would your first reaction be?  What would the phrase make you think of?

If you work in certain industries, you'd have no trouble identifying the true meaning of the expression, but if, like me, you don't work in such industries, then lifting magnets might easily make you think of going around lifting magnets, literally - say off the fridge, or from a school science lab, or from anywhere else you might find magnets just lying around.  Or it might mean, pinching them from a shop that sold them.

This is one of the joys of language, that what you hear or read isn't always what was meant by the writer.  It can be confusing, but usually the context will help to clarify.  However, when you get a phrase thrown at you out of nowhere, the lack of context allows your imagination to think of something that isn't the true meaning at all.

On the other hand, sometimes even the context doesn't help.  I've never forgotten how, when I was still a child (perhaps at Intermediate level, but a good reader) I came across a particular expression which was unknown to me in the opening chapter of a book. The author told us that the it had been snowing heavily outside, and his hero had decided to go out in the snow for some reason which I've now forgotten, but he wanted to do it secretively.  So he looked in on his parents, who were dead to the world, and then snuck out.  I was appalled.  He saw that his parents were dead, and yet he still went off as though nothing had happened!  I refused to read any more of the book.  If the author was so callous as to let his hero wander around in the snow on some adventure without being concerned that his parents were dead, then I didn't want to read the rest of the story.  I still have something of a recollection of the emotion I felt about this particular phrase that day. I can even visualise where I was in my house.

Most authors strive for clarity; some of them are better at it than others.  But no author can be expected to deal with every way in which his readers will misread his or her story

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