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Statements end like questions?

28 November 2014

THERE is a Church Times house rule that columnists should avoid question marks. That is going to make this column incredibly difficult to write.

My theme this week is Up-Talk, the almost universal habit among the educated under-35s of ending sentences with an upward inflection(?). So you come to the end of what you are trying to say, and your voice rises in a kind of insecure, questioning way(?). So people know that you are really engaged with them, and hope that the inflection suggests that you are really welcoming their response(?).

To anyone of my generation, Up-Talk is bafflingly unnecessary. It seems to set out to flatter, but in reality it merely annoys. It appears to be a form of self-deprecation, but it ends up coming over as self-referential. The trouble is that it is addictive, and I find myself doing it when I don't want to or need to - especially if I am talking to an Up-Talker.

It seems to be almost a form of politeness, a way of acknowledging "the otherness of the other", which is a generally good thing to do, and is approved by Emmanuel Levinas and others philosophers whom Christian moral theologians take seriously. My secret hope that it reveals no more than that the narcissistic insecurity of an over-pampered generation will not stand up to such considerations.

What I am now wondering is whether using it would improve my sermons. So here I am today, preaching at matins in Christ Church(?). (Am I? Am I really here? Can you just affirm that before I go on?) And we are going to look at some verses from Matthew's Gospel(?). (If you prefer Mark, Luke, or John, that is really fine by me, but unfortunately that is not what I have prepared; so you're going to have to put up with what I am about to say?) Is that all right, then?

And perhaps Up-Talk would improve my prayer life. Dear God. . . (why?)

We could, of course, always invent Down-Talk, with a downward inflection at the end of each sentence. That would, if practised properly, with a heavy and forbidding voice, disinvite response, and bring conversations to an end. Some preachers already know this: they have been doing it for years. What God thinks about it I do not know.

It does not require a punctuation mark to signal the practice of Down-Talk; but one of those really miserable, down-in-the-mouth, unsmiley faces would do the job.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Develop- ment Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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