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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it

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Klaus Bung:
Accounts were
"less transparent than they should be"

A company went bust because of fraudulant accounting. The radio news stated that their accounts were "less transparent that they should be". This is a form of understatement. Understatement is something that is second nature to English (but not American) people and that is often misunderstood by foreigners. English people know that much more is meant than is said. If the foreigner expresses himself without understatement, i.e. if he is as frank as he can be in his own language, i.e. if he says all that he means, this can sound brutal to sensitive English ears. Ear drums are a very delicate part of the body. Do not pierce them. Do not shout too loudly, at least not in England. Read more below.

2010-08-27: Accounts were "less transparent than they should be"

A large company was in the news. It went bust (= bankrupt) about 17 years ago. The reporter who described the history of the company stated that their accounts were "less transparent than they should have been". If he had wanted to be brutal, he might have said that the accounts were false ("false accounting" is a crime), not truthful, fraudulent, deliberately misleading, intentionally made so complicated that people could not easily understand them, confusing and designed to be confusing, and that they were definitely NOT TRANSPARENT, not clear.

The reporter put all this more mildly. After all, the court case against the owner of the company has not even started yet. All these are merely allegations, not yet proved in court. The reporter saved himself personal trouble in the future. Nobody could accuse him of calling the accounts fraudulent and take him to court for defamation of character. He never called the accounts "fraudulent".

In fact he almost praised the accounts by saying, implicitly, that they were transparent - except that they were "not transparent enough", they were "less transparent than they should have been." Any English person who understands understatement knows that the reporter means much more, but he isn't saying it and therefore he can't get into trouble for saying something negative or blantantly false.

That is the beauty of understatement, apart from also being funny because of the discrepancy (difference) between what a person says and what a person means.

Foreigners, even if they know English (vocabulary and grammar) well, often do not understand this at all. Sometimes they mistake English praise for criticism, and vice versa. Sometimes they are unnecessarily offensive by formulating their criticism of an English person in the blunt and direct terms used in their home country; for the English person such criticism can then sound outright rude, insulting, offensive.

If you do not agree with what a person has said, the brutal (foreign) response would be: "Rubbish", "Nonsense". The English response might be to ask: "Are you serious?", or more strongly: "You must be joking".

If you do not like what someone has written, the English person might write back: "Would you like to think about that again?"

The foreigner sometimes may not understand criticism when it is made in this way. Let him be at a dinner party and then tell a story with which he entirely discredits himself (exposes himself as a bad, or dishonest person). The host might look at the foreign guest, and say, with a specific intonation (and perhaps accent!): "How very interesting!" The foreigner may feel flattered to hear that the English host has found his story interesting. But the host has in fact been telling him that he, the guest, is a scoundrel, that the host does not respect him any more, does not trust him any more, would never invite him any more.

The plays by Oscar Wilde are a good source for such expressions, and if you can find DVDs or radio recordings of them, you will also be able to study the intonation. Plays by Oscar Wilde can be downloaded:

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it