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It’s a disgrace! This situation is intolerable, abominable… It’s … it’s… it’s sacrilege, that’s what it is! Can’t you see – it’s just – grrr!

Have you ever felt that way? Perhaps you’re a Scotsman who’s just been given a glass of fine malt whisky, with ice in it. And lemonade. On Burns’ Night. And the person who gave it to you spelt whisky ‘whiskey’, as if that’s the same thing. Or perhaps you’re an aspiring comedian who has just had a very erudite and subtly hilarious offering to cracked.com declined in favour of some rehashed nonsense about Family Guy or Chuck Norris. Perhaps your husband has put you in the back seat of the car and let the flirty babysitter sit with him at the front, and she has the temerity to ask you how your diet is going – and you’re not even on a diet!

You’re simultaneously infuriated and humiliated. You’re indignant.

Perhaps you’re an Englishman abroad and you’ve been paid good money for a substandard cup of tea…

Christopher Hitchens gives us a few lessons in the language of indignation in his articleHow to Make a Decent Cup of Tea’, lessons as useful for angry formal letters as for polemic essays.

Lesson One: Sound like you’re tired of having to keep saying this, but (because you’re dealing with slow learners) you just have to

Even bringing this subject up is just, tiresome for the poor writer – there really are people who still don’t understand and he has to explain it to them again. The chastised tea-maker will feel like a pupil being told a grammatical rule for the third or fourth time by a teacher who is quite obviously tired of having to explain and not trying to hide it – he betrays this tiredness with certain expressions. Again, yet again, for the final time, the heart sinks, words fail me – but here we go – and this time listen! Those wrong-headed tea-makers feel small already, but Hitchens softens the blow with a wee pun – ‘the heart dips’ rather than sinks, like a digestive biscuit in a (hopefully properly made) tea.

Lesson Two: Exasperated Modifiers

Nothing says exasperation like an exasperated adjective or adverb. Hitchens was a professional rhetorician you know, he didn’t throw around words like ‘simply’ and ‘ridiculous’ without design – he just had to use them. Because he wasn’t getting a proper cup of tea. Reread that second paragraph again – he doesn’t just hate the harm that might result from this, he ‘simply’ hates it; it’s not only quite impossible to get hold of tea that tastes as it ought to, it’s ‘virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to’. The whole business is a ‘ridiculous business’ and leaves something rather ‘dispiriting’ in your cup.

Such adverbs and adjectives lend a more urgent tone to a piece of writing, without being rude or aggressive. Hemingway might have written about the superfluity of adverbs in good writing – but he probably never had to write a letter to his council about waste collection.

 Lesson Three: Rhetorical Questions

Christopher has two questions for us in the third paragraph. First he asks us to imagine we bought our tea loose, rather than in a bag:

Would you consider… pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing … the leaves on top?

No, Mr Hitchens. Definitely not, Mr Hitchens. Of course not.

Of course not.

With coffee, he continues:

it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point?

No point at all, Mr Hitchens. Obviously you have to pour the boiling water directly on to your tea or coffee, or it’s going to taste awful.

A rhetorical question can be a good way to highlight a point of logic that your argument rests on. Or, like all polemicists like to do (as indignant as they sound, they’re really quite enjoying this), to rub your opponents nose in the rightness of your argument.

Lesson Four: Italics correct misapprehensions

Hitchens does this twice in the article. First he takes Yoko Ono to task for, he supposes, misquoting John Lennon. He’s probably right, too, ‘that put the tea bags in first’ sounds more natural than ‘first put the teabags in’ in spoken British English. In the final paragraph, he exhorts people not to accept a teabag on the side of a cup of hot water, adding ‘it’s not what you asked for.’ In both cases, the italics emphasise an important word in the sentence, and in both cases here, do so in a way that corrects someone – in the second case, the hapless Starbucks employee who thinks he knows the correct way to serve tea. Two or three emphasis of this sort is quite sufficient for a short article – many more than that could be irritating and diminish the effect. Underlining, by the way, is an acceptable substitute for italics if you are writing by hand, say in an exam or controlled assessment. I would advise against using CAPITALS for this, except perhaps in some humorous writing. The same goes for bold, although that is useful (I Find)for highlighting key words and phrases in blogs, to catch the attention of readers scanning impatiently for the nuggets of wisdom in your post.

 

Challenge

Write a short indignant letter to your council complaining about their failure to regularly collect your rubbish.

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