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Speech Styles and Their Pathological Misuse

Every language has speech styles, some typical labels for which are ‘neutral, ‘formal’, ‘colloquial’, etc. Part of one’s ability to speak (and write) correctly is the knowledge of what speech style is appropriate in what context in a given language. While norms of linguistic appropriateness may vary considerably across languages, there is no language in which a knowledge of these norms is absent in a non-pathological speaker’s command of the language.

The pathological misuse of stylistic norms in speech was demonstrated yesterday in Donald Trump’s widely broadcast comments on the suicide bombing in Manchester (England). Trump called the bomber an “evil loser.” In the sense meant by Trump,  Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines ‘loser’ as “one who is incompetent or unable to succeed.” Stylistically, especially in American English, this word has a colloquial or informal connotation, which makes it fundamentally incompatible with the adjective ‘evil’ used and meant in its strict (non-figurative) sense.

To call a suicide bomber, who killed and maimed innocent children (among his victims in Manchester yesterday), a “loser” is a pathological use of the colloquial style in American English because it makes what can only be considered a terrible murderer into someone who is merely a misfit or (incorrectly, given the attack’s success) a failure. Trump’s linguistic choice of words in this instance is––tragically––of a piece with his other pathologies.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

3 Responses to “Speech Styles and Their Pathological Misuse”

  • Gary Richmond says:

    This post concludes: “To call a suicide bomber, who killed and maimed innocent children (among his victims in Manchester yesterday), a “loser” is a pathological use of the colloquial style in American English because it makes what can only be considered a terrible murderer into someone who is merely a misfit or (incorrectly, given the attack’s success) a failure. Trump’s linguistic choice of words in this instance is––tragically–– of a piece with his other pathologies.”

    In the context of the post I am wondering about the use of “tragically” in the final sentence. One can’t legitimately refer to a person’s “linguistic choice of words” as ‘tragic’, can one? I assume the use of it here was to make reference to the recent tragedy in Manchester. As such, in the context of the sentence in which it appears, is it some identifiable figure of speech?

    • Gary, I hesitated before inserting “tragically” in that sentence because of the possible interference with the common use nowadays of this word for every kind of mishap (often instead of “atrocity”) but ended up doing it because I consider Trump’s presidency a tragedy for America and the world.

      • Gary Richmond says:

        “I consider Trump’s presidency a tragedy for America and the world.” I do as well.

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