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Form and uses of language
Form and uses of language

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2.2 Conveying meaning through prose

But prose, too, can convey much more than the sum of the meanings of individual words. The poet Rudyard Kipling lost his only son in the trenches in 1915. (John Kipling, despite poor eyesight, had joined the Irish Guards.) Kipling's response to his son's death may or may not have been a verse memorial; if so, it was not published. But he left a memory of his son in the form of a letter to his friend L.C. Dunsterville. It demonstrates how a simple, mundane and factual piece of writing can effectively fulfil the function of a memorial too:

He led the platoon over a mile of open ground in the face of shell and machine-gun fire, and was dropped at the further limit of the advance, after having emptied his pistol into a house full of German MGs … He was senior ensign though only 18 years and 6 weeks … it was a short life. I'm sorry that all the year's work ended in that one afternoon but – lots of people are in our position – and it is something to have bred a man

(Kipling, letter to L.C. Dunsterville, 1915; in Simkin (ed.), 1981)

Kipling himself was too old to be wanted in the army. His terse, understated emphasis on bald fact in this letter conveys loss, horror at the waste of a life, a sense of history, and pride in his son, without any poetic trappings at all. In his history of the Irish Guards, which he started to write two years later, his son appears only as a name on a casualty list. Although poetry seems special for us if we are not poets, it may have been too much Kipling's stock-in-trade for him to use it publicly to convey private emotion. Use of language can depend on who we are, as well as what we want to say, when we want to say it, and whom we want to listen.

The exercises you have completed in this section were designed to make you more aware of the choices that all writers have when they set out to express something in words. By working through them, you may have learned something of how – when you are reading – you can spot the choices that authors have made. You may also have acquired more insight into how you make choices when you yourself are the writer. The next exercise aims to give you some experience of making these choices.