Geeking Out Over Your Badge

Everyone has something they geek out over. Maybe something you don’t think other people care much about so you try to keep it under wraps most times. And then you unexpectedly encounter a kindred spirit, causing you to burst free from your constraints and revel in the moment of solidarity.

That happens to you, right?

Right?

Well, it happened to me recently. A co-worker stopped by my office and asked, “Do you ever get bothered by all the signs around here that say ‘Everyone must scan your badge‘?”

He didn’t get much further than “Everyone must” before I was jumping up and down, pointing at him, and saying “Yes! Yes! Oh, my goodness, yes! Those signs drive me crazy!”

“I mean,” he said, “I’m looking around thinking, ‘how many times do I have to hand out my badge so that everyone else can scan it?'”

“I thought the same thing! And I always wanted to say something to someone but I thought most people wouldn’t get it so I never have.”

“Well… that’s why I came to you. I knew you’d understand.”

“You definitely made the right call,” I said, still on a bit of an adrenaline rush that someone else had been bothered by the signs and said something to me. “If you had said something to Tony, he would have just given you a blank look or rolled his eyes and made a disparaging remark.”

“I mean,” I continued, “it’s a tricky problem, right? Because ‘Everyone’ means…”

“That it should be ‘his or her badge’ – I know,” he jumped in. “And that’s awkward on a sign but it’s still what’s right.”

“I’ve often thought about how they could reword it. I’d prefer ‘You must always scan your badge’.”

“Me too. Just say ‘Scan your badge! Every time!”

I don’t know how it is with other flavors of geeks, but having a moment with a fellow grammar geek can make a person’s day. And really, the world would be a better place if every establishment identified a grammar-geek-on-call that would be contacted before any text was committed to a sign or any other official or permanent communication.

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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?

ask_axe

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.

If You Can Read This…

There’s a truck that I come across in our parking lot at work regularly. It has a bumper sticker on it that says:

If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read it in English, thank a soldier.

I just want to start out by saying I don’t have a problem with the sentiment – in particular. I might argue that being over here on our own continent with Canada and Mexico as our neighbors, we’ve been pretty safe from any sort of invasion that might result in us speaking another language, but that’s just conjecture and ignores the point the person is trying to express.

No, I want to strut with my computer programmer and grammar nerd feathers spread in full display for just a bit. Some of you may remember me shining a light on my analytical neurosis when I blogged first about the fascinating designs of gum wrappers and then about the proper use and restocking of public restroom toilet paper dispensers. The fact that you are still here means that you are ok with my quirks, so I think maybe I won’t run you off with this one. We shall see. If you have joined me since those posts, consider this one your test of loyalty.

The word ‘if’ conveys the notion that there is a condition here. A condition that could or could not be true. If the statement is always true (or always false), then there is no value in first stating the condition. You are just stating what is already known.

In the programming world, there are tools that help find inefficiencies in your code. This is one of the things it looks for. If you set a variable to zero and then immediately say “if the variable is not zero, do blah blah blah”, it’ll declare the “blah blah blah” to be dead code because the condition is always false. Similarly, if you checked “if the variable is zero”, the condition is always true so why have the condition? Just do “blah blah blah” and call it good.

So back to the bumper sticker. The bumper sticker was written in English. That means that anyone who reads it is reading it in English. There is no possibility of them reading it in any other language because it was written in English.

“If you can read this, thank a Teacher” is good, because the possibility exists that a person can’t read it. And, obviously, since they can’t read it, they won’t be thanking a teacher.

But the second sentence? The word they wanted wasn’t “if”. It was “since”. It is strongly implied that the second condition is dependent on the first; that is, the reader’s ability to, well, read. And we already know they are reading it in English since it was written in English. So what they meant to say was “Since you can read it in English, thank a soldier.”

Yes, yes, I know I overanalyzed the dang bumper sticker. That’s what I do. From an English standpoint, there’s probably nothing actually wrong with it. They used the repetitive words to emphasize their point. But something has to keep this high-powered brain (hah!) working during that walk into work. And the bumper sticker just didn’t hold up under close scrutiny. I submit that most probably don’t.

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!

Grammar Geek Leisure Time

I recently wrote about my communication habits and in that post, I told you about a friend that always emails me about any mistakes he sees in my blog posts. Well, not three days later, after posting this book review, I received an email:

One that morphs into a bid of an author review.

Is that what you meant to say? Or bit?

What amused me that night was that his email was not the first communication I had received about that post. I had not reviewed it as thoroughly as I normally do, in part because it was insanely long and in part because we were very busy that night and spending 20 minutes reading it over carefully would have resulted in some sharp words from my spouse.

The true amusement came in the late night text message conversation with my sister-in-law that began with her pointing out a different mistake.

grammar_text

When I read the conversation to my husband this morning, giggling uncontrollably when I got to the part where I corrected her “parentheses” to “parenthesis”, my husband snuggled in closer and said dryly, “Oh, Grammar Geeks’ leisure time is just so fun to witness.”

He may not understand, but being able to tease another smart person (and superb writer) about her grammar or spelling, that’s just fun any way you slice it. And when we can both laugh and tease each other, all the better.

Communication

I am a perfectionist when it comes to language. I speak very precisely and write even more so (since I have a chance to review before anyone sees it). I correct my children’s grammar constantly. Someday, my daughter will remember that it’s not “Me and Jennifer were talking.” There is constant grammar commentary running in my head. I mentally cringe at every mispoken word I hear or read. I have learned that people do not appreciate being corrected, however, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue.

An online friend who is aware of this aspect of my personality once sent me a T-shirt that said “I am silently correcting your grammar”. It’s true. I am. He also does me the tremendous service of sending me an email whenever he notices a mistake in my blog. Not because he cares – because he knows I’d die if it stayed there very long. In fact, I have actually received his email on my phone after retiring to bed and then jumped out of bed to go fix it. When I find myself needing to use lay or lie, I consult my favorite grammar resource just to make sure I have it right. Every time.

My children have become accustomed to me stopping in front of signs in public places and asking them to point out what is wrong. After they find the mistakes, they listen patiently as I rant about the state of American grammar and carelessness. Then they ask if we can move along.

Way back in the day, I had a Palm Pilot, as did several of my coworkers. It had a strange “writing” method – the precursor to today’s swiping, I suppose – that took some getting used to. A coworker came to the conclusion that as long as he could tell what he meant to write, there was no need to correct any of it. It made sense. It was logical. Practical. Time saving. And I couldn’t do it. I would fix every single mistake.

Today, I was adding some debug to my software. It initially looked something like this:

debug(“Collecting %d parts to path name\n”, argc-i);

As I verified that the math was right, it dawned on me that argc-i could possibly equal one, resulting in a print saying “Collecting 1 parts to path name”. And even though no one was likely to ever see this print besides me, I added parentheses around the ‘s’ in ‘parts’ so it would be correct even if the number of parts should happen to be one.

This brings me to my performance review this year – my first with this particular supervisor. At the conclusion of the review, as we signed the form acknowledging that we had discussed the review, he made a strange remark.

“Now,” he said, “I want you to understand that this is really the only formal interaction that you and I have with each other. Everything else can be laid back and relaxed, ok? I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to approach me in any sort of formal manner, ok? Sometimes when you communicate with me, it feels like you are having to present yourself very carefully. You don’t need to do that. No one else does.”

“Ok,” I said, slightly bewildered.

After deciding that night that I wasn’t sure what he meant, I returned to his office the next day for clarification. As he explained, I began to smile.

“I’m not crafting my emails to you that way because you are my supervisor,” I finally said. “That’s how all of my communication is. Even my text messages are complete sentences with proper grammar. I will always make sure I explain myself explicitly and I will always read over my email several times before sending it. It’s just who I am.”

He reiterated that it was fine but wasn’t necessary. I hope he can accept that it is necessary – to me. I’m honestly not sure how to communicate more casually and don’t think I’d want to even if I could.