The Way We Speak

A friend of mine shared this article on Facebook recently. It lamented women’s patterns of speech being constantly policed and pathologized (as she put it). It mostly focused on a recent researcher’s assertion that women use ‘just’ too much and sound like they are apologizing. It mentioned other (stereotypical) women’s habits too, like our voices rising at the ends of statements, sounding hesitant, and “vocal fry” (creaky voice).

I thought about how I’ve dismissed women speakers for sounding too young or hesitant for some of the reasons stated. And I’ve acknowledged that perhaps it isn’t fair. But I couldn’t help but feel there’s a balance to be struck here. Are those (negative) judgments about women based on their speech unfair? Yes! Are they because our male-dominated culture makes male speech patterns ‘the’ way? Yes!

Is it going to change overnight? No!

So what is an individual woman supposed to do about it? Is it easier to stop uptalk (voice rising at the end of a phrase) or is it easier to change the entire culture? Does an individual woman make the deliberate decision to possibly negatively impact her career in order to “fight the good fight” and hope to change society? I don’t know. I suppose each woman has to decide for herself.

The other thing that struck me about the article was that women aren’t the only people with this problem. People with stereotypical ‘black’ patterns of speech have it too. And people with strong Southern accents (‘rednecks’). It’s not just men that define “proper speech”. It’s also white people and Northerners.

Don’t believe me? How many versions of this have you seen?


Funny thing about these things is that it’s always a white person ‘asking’ for the clarification. Now, don’t get me wrong. There aren’t too many people that are more committed grammar freaks than me, but this isn’t so much about grammar as it is dialect.

When I speak, you can’t tell the difference between when I say ‘pen’ and when I say ‘pin’ unless I’m concentrating very hard to make the ‘e’ sound in pen. If I drop into my usual patterns of speech, they will both sound like ‘pin’. I also had a British person tell me that ‘Jenny’ and ‘Ginny’ are pronounced differently – I didn’t believe her. I seriously did not know until I was in my thirties that those sounds were supposed to be pronounced differently.

Back to ‘axe’. I once had a black co-worker who said ‘axe’ instead of ‘ask’. It drove me crazy. But he was a bright, masters-level educated engineer who did his job extremely well. So why knock that verbal tic of his? More importantly, as this article asks, why expect him to identify with the dominant white “proper English” culture? Axe was, once upon a time, as proper as ask – even Chaucer used it. But now we associate it with the uneducated.

Shame on us. Associate it with the speaker being black if you want to, but don’t assume that it means they are uneducated. (Take the time to read the article too – it’s worth it and not particularly long).

Same goes for Southern accents. My daughter picked up one in preschool from her wonderfully sweet two-year-old class teacher. I fretted about it because I knew people would assume she was uneducated if she kept it through adulthood – which she hasn’t.

Don’t believe me? Just watch the news channels when they interview some small town denizen of Oklahoma after a tornado rips through. “We was just sitting there on the porch when – BAM! it just tore right through my neighbor’s barn!” You are probably already laughing at what an idiot they are.

Now, granted, certain phrases like “we was” typically show a lack of education or at least a lack of dedication to said education. But take away the grammar mistakes, and the accent alone probably makes you mark them lower down the IQ scale. But grammar (and pronunciation) are not the only marks of intelligence. Just take a look at my engineer co-workers.

I’ve got one brilliant former co-worker who writes ‘should of’ when he means ‘should have’.  Several can’t keep track of when to use (or not use) apostrophes or commas. Most use ‘I’ when they should use ‘me’ as part of a compound object of a sentence (an ironic over-correction to the use of ‘me’ for ‘I’ in the subject). Another one pronounces ‘similar’ as sim-YOU-ler. All could likely out-think me on a number of topics in a heartbeat. Their grammar is not a reflection of their education or intelligence.

Most of us wouldn’t judge their intelligence based on those habits though. Because, for whatever reason, those technically inaccurate speech patterns haven’t been tagged as flawed by the mainstream.

So here’s the point I want to get to. Stop judging people by their verbal habits. Those habits are ingrained in them from childhood. It won’t be easy to stop. Because your reactions are also ingrained. But try.

And if you’ve got a unique or stereotyped verbal habit, like pen/pin, axe, sim-you-ler, or saying ‘just’ too much, don’t worry about it. Unless you think it’s affecting what you want to accomplish in life. Then try to change it. And don’t worry about people who tell you you shouldn’t have to change. We’ve all got to make our own way.

An Unfinished Treatise on… Something…

NPR reported a story recently on the evolution of the English language. I didn’t catch the story but it apparently focused on whether we should resist changes that come about from wrong usage. I suspect this has been an argument since the first person said “Hello” in response to the grunt of another. And the argument shall surely never cease.

While I failed to catch the original story, I heard the follow-up where they read listeners’ responses on the misuse that bothers them the most. Judging by the responses, the focus was on word misuse more than grammar mistakes (its/it’s, there/their/they’re, etc.). I agreed with some and rolled my eyes at others and was dismayed that no one mentioned the literally wrong use of “literally” by nearly everyone. As in, “I literally threw UP when I saw what dress she was wearing!” The speaker almost certainly meant that she figuratively threw up. She merely wanted to express what great distress the dress gave her. But if someone did actually throw up in response to something for which vomiting is not an expected response, how can they convey that? Saying they “literally threw up” will no longer work.

C.S. Lewis made a similar argument in his book The Four Loves with regard, first, to the word gentleman, and later, to Christian. The word gentleman originally referred to someone who owned land. Gentlemen tended to be refined, honorable, and polite, so over time, people began to use the word to refer to people who exhibited those traits instead of for those who own land. Before long, it no longer meant a land owner and we were left without a tidy word for that status.

He then went on to discuss the problem with calling a good person a Christian, as in, “That was very Christian of him”. Christian specifically doesn’t mean “good person”. It means “person who believes in Jesus Christ”. That person may very well be a good person and most Christians indeed strive to be good people (hence, likely, the use of the word as a synonym of sorts), but the two are not equivalent. And if we get in the habit of using Christian to mean good person, then we’ve lost the most natural word to use in describing a believer in Christ.

The guiding principle to many people with relaxed attitudes toward the English language is this: As long as the people you are addressing can understand what you are saying, it is fine.

While I will loosely agree with that, I have two objections and a comment. The comment is that it’s a shame when we lose some of the richness of our language out of linguistic laziness. We don’t need a bunch of words that all mean the same thing. It’s better if words keep their nuanced distinctions.

The first objection is that if you do not have a solid grasp on proper usage, then how can you judge whether or not what you are saying is clear? How do you know that you have been understood? The second is that whether you are understood or not, the listeners/readers are drawing conclusions about you based, in part, on how you communicated your information. If you spoke or wrote with many mistakes, the conclusion is likely not positive.

In the NPR story, they quoted a teacher who tells his class something along these lines: “You do not have to speak properly. You only have to speak in a way that allows others to understand what you say. That is communication. However, people from high socioeconomic backgrounds tend to speak more precisely and if you want to fit in with them, you will need to be able to do so as well.”

And now that I’ve spent over 600 words rambling about English, we get to the point I wanted to ponder. That teacher was right. If you want to fit in with any group, you need to be able to speak as they speak. In a foreign country, that means speaking their language. If you can’t do that, you may be treated politely but you won’t be fully embraced.

If you want to fit in with educated, moneyed people, you need to be able to use proper English. Otherwise, you’ll likely be dismissed as lower class, possibly of reduced intellect.

I wonder sometimes if this is part of why poor people have trouble climbing the ladder to success and why minorities, who may have telltale accents or idioms, have the same struggle.

I heard yet another NPR story about…

So… this draft was written on June 5, 2014.  I have no idea what the other NPR story was.  I was just looking through my untitled drafts to see if there was something I could polish up for this week.  I was impressed with how seemingly finished this “draft” was.  Until I got to that last line.

I’m not even sure whether I had gotten to the “point” yet.  Be that as it may, I like the earlier arguments for preciseness in speech, so we’ll just run with it.  If you’ve got any ideas what you think that other story might have been about, please share.  Maybe you’ll trigger my memory.  🙂

A Grammar Nerd’s Defense

I’m raising Grammar Nerds.  I refuse to call them Grammar Nazis and I truly do wish we could retire that term.

I recently commented on Facebook about the poor grammar in a letter sent out by our school.  I said something about expecting better from the school I send my children to.  What I forgot to consider was that I live in a small town.  And so I probably know the person who wrote the letter.

Well, I do.  And she’s one of the sweetest, nicest people you could ever meet.  And she was embarrassed and hurt by my remark.  I felt terrible.  On the one hand, I don’t think I was (strictly speaking) wrong to expect more from my school.  On the other hand, I had caused harm by bringing it up in a public manner.  Normally, I would do it privately, and only if I felt the person would want to fix it.

At any rate, I was telling some friends about how terrible I felt.  One of them very sternly told me, “That was bad.  Really bad.  People don’t like it when people do that.  That’s where the term Grammar Nazi comes from.  Because it’s bad.  People don’t like it.”

Let’s just rein it back in for a minute, shall we?  I publicly remarked that a letter that did contain grammar mistakes… contained grammar mistakes.  This wasn’t a random post on Facebook.  It wasn’t an email or text message or some other throwaway communication.  It was official correspondence from my child’s school.  And it was not well edited before it was released.

Was my complaint really comparable to the starvation, torture, rape, and execution of tens of thousands of people?  I mean, really?  Let’s try to keep it in perspective, please.

Needless to say, when I saw a sign on the door at the school saying “Our student’s safety is our top priority”, I kept my mouth shut.  Well, not completely.  I told Jane about the sign, without telling her the mistake, and asked her how it should be spelled.  She said, “S-T-U-D-E-N-T-S apostrophe.  What, did they put the apostrophe before the S?”

She smiled as I commented that I didn’t realize the school was only worried about one student and wondered which one it was.

It was less than a week later when the boys brought home a T-shirt order form from their school.  The logo said “To Our School We Proudly Hale”.  Jane was the first to point out that they meant Hail.

We contacted some folks who were very appreciative that we brought it to their attention before the shirts went to print.  It’s nice, as a grammar nerd, to be granted appreciation instead of scorn.  It’s much nicer than being scowled at.  Then again, I suppose how we approach the correction makes all the difference.

But you see, it’s not easy to turn it off.  We notice.  And we actually don’t find grammar all that hard.  We get that it’s easy to type something wrong.  But if it’s something that you’ve read over, there probably shouldn’t be many mistakes.  At least, not the really big ones.  We try to consider people’s feelings, but sometimes the timing is just too perfect or the temptation too great or the frustration too much to bear in silence.

Take a conversation Jane was having with some friends.  She remarked that she was not going to be an orchestra teacher when she grew up and then pointed to one of the girls and indicated that she probably would.

The girl responded, “I’m not going to be no orchestra teacher.”

Jane immediately fired back with, “You aren’t going to be an English teacher either!”

Ok, so out of line?  Yeah.  Probably.  Funny?  Hell, yeah!  I couldn’t believe she had said it, but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud of her either.

One final proud Grammar Mom moment?  I’ve had multiple adults tell me that they ask Daryl for any spelling help they need.  One of them had barely met him two years ago when he was in the third grade.  One of the other students had made a sign that said “Flower Shop”.  Only, she had spelled it “Flower Shope”.  All the other kids told the girl that the E shouldn’t be there.  Daryl walked by, glanced at the sign, and said, “If you want to spell it with an E, you need two P’s.”

We can’t help it, my children and I.  We live in words.  We immerse ourselves in books.  We love to write.  We love the language.  And it actually hurts to see it butchered, even accidentally.  So we try to be compassionate and consider people’s feelings, we really do.  But sometimes, our instincts get the best of us and we just have to let it out.  At least I haven’t taken to carrying around a bottle of white-out and a Sharpie to fix all the misplaced commas and apostrophes that I come across!

Mediocre Mommy

Hal brought home a sheet of paper from school recently with a series of boxes that had an English word, its Spanish equivalent, and then his artistic representation of the idea behind the words.

I was impressed with a number of the pictures – the school house had no fewer than 20 windows on it, for example. But the best, by far, was his picture of family.

We all had necks and five fingers, an improvement over older drawings, although we appeared to have no arms, our hands sprouting directly out of our sleeveless shirts. We were also bald, and the family was comprised of three members instead of five. But one of us had some wicked heels on our shoes.


I asked him who was whom while his siblings began to argue over who was left out. He explained that he didn’t have time to draw his Bubba and apparently had no intention of drawing Sissy. The one in heels turned out to be me, despite the fact that I very rarely wear them. The small guy with no feet at all was Hal, the other person was Daddy.

Daryl, who was standing too far away to see the assignments announced his assessment on who was whom. “Daddy is the big one and Mommy is the mediocre one…”

He cut off as Daddy and Jane burst out laughing and I expressed feigned indignation.

“I think you meant the medium one, Buddy,” my husband said as he got his laughter under control.

“No, I mean mediocre.”

More laughter.

“Doesn’t it mean average? Like, the middle one?”

“No, not quite, honey,” I said. “It’s got a more negative connotation than ‘average’. Here, let’s look it up in the dictionary.”

My Brothers and I… or Me?

Jane came home today with a tale from her English class. They are writing autobiographies and typing them using Microsoft Word. She had just typed this sentence before the teacher walked up: My dad takes my brothers and me to our sporting events.

We’ll ignore that I take them to as many or more of their sporting events as dad does, since it’s not important to this story. Although I did interrupt her to point out her weak facts. That just seemed to irritate her.

Continuing her story after waving me off, she said that the teacher had corrected her, “It should be ‘my dad takes my brothers and I.'”

My skin began to crawl. I’ve been working so hard to get Jane to get her me’s and I’s correct in these more complex sentences and I was envisioning it all undone by the English teacher, of all people.

“Actually,” Jane explained, “this is the way I was thinking about it. If you take ‘my brothers’ out of the sentence, you have ‘my dad takes I’ and that wouldn’t be right but ‘my dad takes me’ is so it should be ‘my dad takes my brothers and me’.”

Good girl. That’s exactly how you are supposed to verify if you are correct. Excellent!

“I have a degree,” her teacher responded. “I think I know what I’m talking about. Change it to ‘my brothers and I’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Jane dutifully changed it and then raised her hand. When the teacher returned, she pointed out the green squiggle under ‘I’ and then right-clicked to show that Word said it should be ‘me’.

“Well go ahead and change it back if you want to but Microsoft Word is not always right, you know.”

Jane quietly changed it back and wondered to herself why some people have so much trouble admitting when they are wrong.

A few minutes later, a boy across the room had a grammar question. Apparently this time, whatever Word was suggesting actually was wrong. The teacher called Jane out of her chair to come over and look at the boy’s paper.

“See?” she said, “Word is not always right.”

Again, Jane said, “Yes, ma’am” and returned to her seat.

At this point, I asked Jane if she’d like me to print off some resources from the internet to back her up. She got an increasingly horrified look on her face as I made my suggestion.

“I can print proof from several reliable sites,” I said. “And send them along with a note… from your mommy… explaining why you were right… No? You don’t want me to do that? Well… okay.”

I just completed my research on the Oxford Dictionary page. I think I might just print it out and stuff it in her folder anyway. Just in case the subject comes up again.

Addendum: I was proud of the way Jane handled herself today and I think she learned a valuable lesson. She stated her case yet did not argue with the teacher, which is exactly how we want her to behave. She also didn’t let the authority figure intimidate her into believing she was wrong. Learning that the teacher (or boss or coach) can be wrong is important. Understanding that you still need to treat them with respect and some deference is also important. We explained to her that if situations like this become a problem, we will fight the battle for her – as long as she remains respectful to her teachers.