Say What? Edition 8: When Native Speakers Sound Like They Aren’t

My roommate my first year in Russia told me that English was an easy language to start speaking and make yourself decently understood but near impossible to master because of all the idioms, nuance, unexpected pronunciations, and multiple ways of saying everything. No matter how long you speak it, you’re always going to encounter something a native speaker says or writes that baffles you. Russian is the opposite. It has a dense grammar with lots of irregularities that tongue ties you for a long, long time after beginning, but once you’ve got it, you just fly into proficiency. Today, I thought I’d focus on a few of the intricacies of English grammar that I’ve come across recently that I think wouldn’t be so obvious to fluent, non-native speakers or to native speakers, for that matter.

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Say What? Edition 7: More Than Words

No, this post is not an ode to that old Extreme song, although it’s still a great one! The post is a little bit about “code switching,” I started hearing about everywhere a few years ago. Code switching refers to the verbal portion of the many personas we all have. The words we choose, the way we say them, the tone of voice, affected accents, and sometimes even the language itself. It was weird to me that suddenly code switching was a phenomena because it’s something I’ve recognized myself doing, often consciously, forever. More on that later in a minute. But this post is also about much more than code switching. It’s about all sorts of language choices and language differences that help us relate in specific ways to the world around us and reveal a lot about us.

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Haven’t we all been adapting our speech since we were children? I know I have. I spoke one way at home with my family and one way at home with my friends. I spoke another way with my teachers and even another with people at church. Later, I had various sets of speaking mannerisms for work relationships: waitress talk, teacher talk, tour guide talk, boss talk. In my “performance” jobs (teacher, tour guide) my code switch was so strong that I felt quite self-conscious of people who knew other the other versions of myself hearing me in that role. While the degree to which I code switch now is less—for example, I’m now an adult who lives on her own, so I don’t feel I need to bend to my parents’ rules of acceptable speech nearly as much any more when I’m around them—I’m more conscious of it when I do engage in it. For example, sometimes I realize my speech is too casual with my manager orI feel like I’m crossing some line, so I’ll stop using certain words and will hold back expressing certain ideas.  Continue reading →

When A Writer Dates

The number one rule of being a writer is that you have to write. This is the same in any pursuit (say, dating). If you want to be good at it, you have to do it regularly. You need to write a lot of crappy words to come up with the good ones and you need to go on dates with a lot of duds to find the right one.

Writing and dating intersect in the online world. A blank profile is useless. You must be able to write one that attracts the type of person you are looking for, and when you match, you must be able to carry on a decent written conversation long enough to get to the in-person date. And if the person you want to date is a writer, well, you had better have some serious writing skills. Because we’re judging. It’s inevitable. In addition to physical attraction, my willingness to meet someone is based largely on how well they abide by the rules of good writing. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 6: Where Are All the Words?

Auxiliary verbs are falling out of favor. Particularly, to be. I’ve seen or heard all of the following lately:

  • My car needs washed.
  • My shoes need repaired.
  • This couch needs gone this weekend.

When did this form of speaking start? Does this sound normal to you? I’m itching to put to be in all of these sentences. Continue reading →

Struggles of the Wannabe Grammar Police

On my neighborhood Nextdoor site, I recently saw a post about a lost dog that was found. In response, one person wrote, “Glad this tale/tail has a happy ending.” I started to roll my eyes at her seemingly unnecessary decision to clarify that she was making a pun, but then I stopped. The truth is, I can easily put myself inside her mind. I’m constantly making calculations in my head about whether I should speak “correctly” or speak like most people around me do.  Continue reading →

But Is That Butts or Butts?

English has no shortage of homonyms that can easily cause confusion for someone trying to learn this language. But they can almost as easily cause confusion among native speakers as well.

On our way into mountains last Sunday to hike Grays and Torreys peaks, my two girlfriends and I saw a sign on I-70 just like this one.

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All three of us had the same thought – we need to bring the car from 75 mph to a complete stop in the middle of the highway and get out of the car right now to see what we are missing! Surely if CDOT felt the need to tell us (in such a cheeky way) that we should remain in the vehicle, something important and exciting must be happening along the roadside. And then 20 seconds later, we non-smokers realized we had all misunderstood which “butt” the sign meant. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 1: Obscure Language Rules, Difficult Pronunciation, and a Collision of Language and Graphic Design

I’m way ahead of the curve in my understanding of some language rules. I took a trip down memory lane last month when this incredibly complex language rule no one knows! became a national obsession for a few days. But I knew it! I was teaching it to my English language learners in Russia 14 years ago thanks to the boring and overly formal Headway textbook series. If only I had thought to write about it on my blog, I could have had my 15 minutes of internet fame.

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But some language rules I’ve gone my whole life without knowing about. And I feel a little embarrassed that I’ve only just figured this one out after 15 plus years of calling myself an English language professional. I’ve never known when to keep the silent e when converting words like knowledge to knowledgeable and when to drop it, as in judge to judgment. It turns out the rule is surprisingly simple. Keep the e when dropping it could cause confusion in pronunciation. If we wrote knowledgable, for someone who didn’t know English well, the a right after the g would make the pronunciation now-led-ga-bul entirely plausible. For the most part, this issue exists in words that end in -ce and -ge. Since judgment lacks a vowel after the g, the idea that we might say jud-guh-ment seems ridiculous.

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Quoi?

Near the end of sixth grade, the school herded everyone in that grade into the auditorium. Someone explained to us that next year we would start learning a foreign language. Yes, that is a pathetically late time to start, but that decision was out of my control. We were given two choices – Spanish or French. We already knew these were going to be the options. Chinese was not in vogue in Western New York in 1991 and my school was not large enough to also offer German or Latin, as many of the surrounding schools did. We also already knew that the French teacher was a b***h and we were all scared of her, though I can’t recall a single event or detail that led to this perception. So the choice of Spanish or French wasn’t really a choice. Everyone wanted to be in tiny, perky, friendly Ms. Periera’s class.

If the administrators thought we were going to evenly divide ourselves, they were in for a big surprise when about 130 people moved to the right of the auditorium and 14 moved to the left. Obviously that wasn’t going to work and some poor souls were unpleasantly surprised to see French on their schedules when they showed up to school the following September. I – whose mother was on the Board of Education – was not one them. I was relieved not only because I was terrified of the teacher but of French itself. Even though I hadn’t started learning French, I knew that it had a lot of letters that weren’t spoken (only English is allowed to do that!) and that the letters that were spoken often sounded slurred together and nasally (only English is allowed to do that!). Who wouldn’t choose the blissfully phonetic and clipped (how naïve!) Spanish instead? Continue reading →