Grammar Rules I’ve Given Up

For my entire life, I’ve been known as a Grammar Nazi. The Punctuation Czar. Now, not so much. I’ve written about that before: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6z

In that post I said:

I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused “hopefully” or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter.

Gradually, I changed. Here are some of the rules I am no longer an enforcement officer for.

Split infinitives

I admit that my desire to throw this rule overboard was influenced by my hope that I might find a way to approve of the phrase “to boldly go.” (Okay. I was a grammar geek, but the other kind as well.) Then, one day, I found my “out.” The rule was not only wrong; it was stupid.

The old bugaboo about not splitting an infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English.

I breathed much easier the next time I watched Star Trek.

Impact 

I hate the use of “impact” except as a way of referring to one thing crashing into another thing – an asteroid into a planet, for example. I still much prefer that to its metaphorical usage, in which it means “has an effect on.” There’s already a perfectly good word for that – “affect.”

My co-workers, however, ridiculed me mercilessly on this one. They showed me examples of “impact” used to mean “affect” in other pieces of writing. They counted the number of times I made the change. They never let up.

And eventually I caved. It still sounds awful to me, but I have given up defending the usage. I have not, however, given up the rule that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun 99% of the time, with the one percent being so seldom used as to be negligible.

Not starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Or “so.” Or “or,” for that matter. I know that conjunctions don’t belong at the beginning of sentences in Standard (Formal) Written English. But what I write is usually informal, colloquial English. If I followed the aforementioned rule, that last sentence would have had to have been, “What I write, however, is usually informal.” I use “however” enough as it is. And phrases like “would have had to have been.” (I suppose since I am writing informally here, I should have written “would have had to be,” but there you are, it’s hard to break these habits after so many years.)

There are some grammar and punctuation rules that I have not given up, however.

The semicolon

Noted author David Gerrold recently declared the semicolon obsolete and ugly. I disagree, and not just because I have one tattooed on my left wrist (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). To me, the semicolon is both elegant and useful; it implies a connection between two independent clauses. In that sentence, the semicolon means that the semicolon, by implying a connection between the two halves of the sentence, is therefore both elegant and useful. If I had said, “The semicolon is both elegant and useful. It implies a connection between two independent clauses,” those would have been true, simple statements. But they would not have emphasized the connection between the function of the semicolon and its beauty and elegance.

Okay. I’ll shut up about the semicolon now. David Gerrold and I will just have to agree to disagree.

The Oxford comma

First, let me say that one of my main clients does not use the Oxford (or “serial”) comma in the pieces I must edit, and it chips away at my soul each time I have to remove one. The lack of an Oxford comma can make a sentence both confusing and laughable. You’d get book dedications like this: To my parents, my English teacher and Barack Obama. Without the Oxford comma (the one that should go after “teacher”), everything after “parents,” becomes an appositive – equivalent to what came before. In other words, sans Oxford comma, the author is saying that her English teacher and Barack Obama are her parents. All that hilarity and confusion can be avoided with a simple comma.

The subjunctive mood

Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. No, I mean really don’t. We’ll be here all day.

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.

BOLO: The Word Crimes Just Keep Coming!

“Word Crimes” was a big hit for Weird Al Yankovic, ttto “Blurred Lines,” a song that needed the Weird Al treatment if one ever did. But there are lots more word crimes that never made it into the song, likely because to get radio play, a song has to be under four minutes long. In my life as an editor, I see word crimes that are 182 pages long.

Now back to that “ttto.” It may be fairly easy to decode that as “to the tune of,” just from context. IMHO, AFAIK, BTW, and IIRC are becoming common enough online acronyms, but what are we to do with TH:TBotFA? Or THGttG (sometimes written as THHGttG). I know we all could sit here for hours and make up things that they could stand for, but there are better things to do, like petting the cat or helping the needy.

If you are at all familiar with geek culture, you may know that these acronyms are movie and book titles – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, respectively. It’s bad enough that you sound like a noob (newbie) (neophyte) if you ask what ST:TOS means (Star Trek: The Original Series – you know, the one with Captain Kirk). But we fancy literary types don’t inflict acronyms on others. We don’t say FftMC when we mean Far from the Madding Crowd or TCoL49 for The Crying of Lot 49.

Perhaps the most annoying acronym of all is STFUATMM (or more politely, SUATMM. STFU is familiar to all but the most genteel, who abbreviate it as SU, but ATMM is more problematic, since this time no one bothers with lowercase letters to help you guess articles, conjunctions, and the like. No, this phrase is “Shut (the fuck) Up And Take My Money,” which means, “You don’t have to say another word; you had me at ‘buy.'”

Full disclosure: I must admit that in my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com), I do use the acronym YMMV, or “Your Mileage May Vary,” to indicate that my experiences should not be generalized to everyone.

Another language trend which has gotten out of hand is “portmanteau words” –two words squashed together to make a new word with a meaning that combines them both.  (A portmanteau is a cross between a trunk and a suitcase.) Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was, if not the inventor, surely a most prolific coiner of portmanteaus. The appear everywhere in his classic poem “Jabberwocky” – “slithy,” meaning “lithe” and “slimy,” for instance, or one that the English language has retained: “chortle,” from “chuckle” and “snort.” It’s just so damn useful.

“Brunch” and “motel” are useful portmanteaus too, but advertising has taken such words too far. I suppose it’s too late to kill off “sale-a-bration,” but can we call a moratorium on “transfarency” (airline usage) and “unjection” (prescription medicine)? Bon appe-cheese? Trucksicle?  And anything that ends in “-licious” or “-tastic”?

And while we’re on the subject of advertising, can we please stop having Washington and Lincoln dancing around for Presidents Day sales? It’s undignified, first of all, and there is no known connection between the leaders of our country and linens, unless you credit the rumors that Washington slept virtually everywhere.

You could, I suppose, make a connection between Washington and nurseries that sell cherry trees, but even that would be bogus and nurseries’ advertising budgets are not huge. (They spend it all on catalogues.)

Not to worry, though. Even if we manage to eliminate these heinous crimes, there are plenty of others in existence and soon to be created. Among the ones that make me shudder are weather-related portmanteaus like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”; “gifted” to mean “gave someone a present”; and most words that end in “ize.” And don’t even get me started on the way my husband pronounces “foliage” when he reads those nursery catalogues. Or how “catalogue,” “dialogue,” and “doughnut” are spelled these days. Or…or…or…

 

My (Lame) Attempts at Babytalk

First, let it be noted that I have no idea how to talk to babies. They stare at me like I’m from Mars and I stare back or read them the newspaper or something. Once in a restaurant a woman handed me her baby while she went to the restroom. Said baby and I had a staring contest, as there was not a newspaper handy. I jiggled it a little, which the baby didn’t object to, though I felt ridiculous. My husband took a picture, which I made sure no longer exists.

But with cats, it’s a different story. One conducted almost exclusively in babytalk. (I say “almost” because I do not use babytalk for communications like, “Get down off that shelf before you break the vase we bought in Italy!”)

toby2
Toby (aka Baby Boo)

The rest of the time, I sound like a blithering idiot. The blithering starts with their names. “Dushenka” becomes “Shenka-doodle” and “Toby” becomes “Toto-Booboo” or even “Toto-Booboo Baby.” (And we can’t overlook the geek-inspired “Toby-Wan Kenobi.” Sometimes Dushenka is even “Shenka-doodle-doo.” I knew you were wondering about that.)

I know there are those who feel these are not dignified things to call a cat, but the fact is that cats have no use for dignity. Despite their reputation, cats do the most un-dignified things, from licking their nethers to sneezing in my face. (One cat did this while I was blithering, “Sugar for mama?”)

Then comes feeding. “Does kitty want some noms? Nice noms for the kitty! Om-nom-nom!” And to think I used to make fun of my mother-in-law, who used to call her cat to the food bowl by yelling, “Pussy-Woo! Chickie!” (At least it’s not just me.)

For some reason, babytalk must be delivered in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. Of course, people talk that way to babies, too, but with cats it just adds to the absurdity. Maybe babies process language better at higher pitches, but I’m not really sure cats process language at all. Although I did once know one that would respond appropriately to a cry of, “Hey, you! You with the fur! Get down from there!” That was delivered in a regular, rather than squeaky, tone of voice, which is probably why it was effective.

Maybe the reason that I can babytalk cats but not babies is the fact that I have been around cats for years and years, while that encounter in the restaurant constituted most of the sum of my experience with tiny humans. It can’t be that only babies look at me like I’m from Mars, because the cats do too, when they aren’t just ignoring me.

Somehow, though, I feel that babies judge me and cats don’t. When your sole comment on anything is “mmma-weep!” (that’s a direct quote from Toby), you can’t afford to cop an attitude. (Dushenka has a wider vocabulary, including an assortment of purrs, trills, sighs, and snores. Dainty snores, but definitely different from the purrs.)

It’s ludicrous, I know, and one more sign that I may be turning into an official Crazy Cat Lady. Sometimes it’s even so bad that I make myself want to retch. (Does ittle Toto want snuggles from mama? Can I get the floofy white belly, Shenka-Doo? Does oo want to play with the nice mousie?) I mean, gag me. In either sense of the word.

Of course, it’s my belief that talking babytalk to babies sounds like blithering too. It’s just more socially acceptable. But since I’m seldom out in public with my cats, only my husband and closest friends know my little secret. And another little secret – I sometimes catch my husband cooing at the kitties as well.

The Weather Is Not Bipolar. I Am.

Yeah, I get what you’re saying. The weather changes a lot, and sometimes drastically, so you say it has mood swings. And what’s more associated with mood swings than bipolar disorder?

I know, it’s a metaphor – a shorthand way of comparing things to each other, like comparing a choice to two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

The problem is, there are people on one side of this comparison, and they have a mental disorder. Bipolar literally means a neurochemical disorder of the brain that a person cannot control.It isn’t warmth in December and snow in April. It’s not just a matter of feeling happy one day and sad another. Everyone gets that.

Not everyone has bipolar disorder.

I do.

I have no control over whether I will wake up in the morning eager to get out of bed and start my day, or unable to get out of bed at all. No, you can’t control the weather either, but that’s nothing compared to being able to control your own moods, thoughts, and even actions.

Bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental disorders are conditions that affect, inhibit, and even ruin people’s lives and relationships. They are not conditions to be made light of, any more than developmental disabilities are. Bipolar is a disorder – a disease, if you will – that can confuse, terrify, and impair you; unsettle, disrupt, and destroy your relationships; shred your memory; take you to the brink of suicide and beyond, if you’re unlucky or untreated.

So, no. Your picky friend probably does not have OCD. OCD is a psychological condition that inhibits a person’s actions based on a complex series of numbers, behaviors, and rituals. It’s lots worse than simply straightening picture frames. Narcissism is not just being vain. Just like high blood pressure is not just someone who avoids salt or diabetic is someone who just avoids sugar. They are medical conditions. We may joke about needing insulin when a new couple overdoes the endearments, but that’s a far cry from really needing insulin. 

Many mental disorders involve neurons and synapses and neurotransmitter chemicals in your brain, and maybe genes. Can you control those by yourself? I thought not. Neither can I.

What I can do is go to a psychiatrist who gives me medications that help control those pesky neurotransmitters. And a psychologist who shares with me ways to cope with the messiness of the life I have to deal with.

And, make no mistake, those professionals and those chemicals do help. They give me more control over my emotions than you have over the weather.

So if you shouldn’t call the weather bipolar or your picky relative OCD, what about public figures? Aren’t they fair game? Can we say, for instance, that Donald Trump is a narcissist? Most likely, yes. Can we say that he has a psychological condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Or Borderline Personality Disorder? Or Sociopathy?

No. The most we might say is that he displays some narcissistic traits, or that he is, in colloquial terms only, narcissistic. But can we diagnose him, say that he has one or another of these psychological conditions? It’s tempting to diagnose from a distance. That’s dangerous. Actual psychological disorders can be diagnosed only by a professional who has actually spoken to the person in question. Anything else is pop psychology and a disservice to the mental health profession. Not to mention a disrespect to people who actually live with those conditions.

I know that psychological terms get tossed around loosely, especially in everyday, colloquial English. I get that they’re shorthand for more complex ideas. Still, it bugs me when someone says weather is bipolar or Trump is a sociopath. I like precision in language. I like it especially when it hits close to home.

What I have is not like the weather. Oh, it comes and goes. But I can’t get away from it just by going indoors. I can’t lessen its effects by putting on or taking off layers of clothing. I can’t turn on the Weather Channel for a prediction of how I will feel later in the week. I can’t move to a place where bipolar is more pleasant.

That would be crazy.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk: Policing My Own Voice

I recently posted a piece on how women’s voices are being criticized and discounted via both voice policing and tone policing. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-sx)

Now I want to talk about another kind of voice policing – the kind I am learning to apply to myself.Woman covering closed mouth. Speak no evil concept

Over the years, my voice has done things that I didn’t intend for it to do, principally driving away acquaintances, potential friends, and even established friends. I believe that part of this phenomenon has to do with my tone and how I express myself.

Expert linguist (and noted science fiction author) Suzette Haden Elgin described it this way: “For English, more than half of the information is not in the words but in the body language, including the intonation of the voice – the melody of the voice – that goes with the words.” (https://www.scribd.com/doc/78998622/Suzette-Elgin-The-Gentle-Art-of-Verbal-Self-Defense-Overview)

Most people know intuitively what certain vocal intonations mean and how they can be used to alter the meaning of a sentence. In the movie My Cousin Vinny, a character responds to an accusation of murder by saying in a tone of disbelief and horror, “I shot the clerk!!!??” When this part of the interrogation is read aloud in court, in a level tone, “I shot the clerk” sounds like a confession.

The difference is in the “melody” of the two utterances.

The effects of tone or melody can even be recognized in two- or three-word sentences. Here’s an example:

“Don’t do that” simply means not to do something – give the cat a treat between meals, for example.

“DONT do that” means “I know you think that’s what I told you to do, but you’re mistaken.”

“Don’t DO that” means “You’re annoying me.”

“Don’t do THAT” means “That idea is ridiculous, idiotic, or harmful,” and possibly “You’re an idiot.”

Or think about the shades of meaning you can convey with one syllable: “No.” “Yeah.” “Right.” They can mean exactly the opposite of their definition, along with dozens of other shades of meaning: disbelief, denial, offense, uncertainty, questioning, agreement, scorn, and “You’re an idiot.”

Vocal intonation is very difficult to convey in writing without extra punctuation or modifiers like “in a level tone.” My unfortunate inability to understand vocal melody – or to produce the correct one – is likely the reason that my statements are misunderstood. They come out sounding like sarcasm, snark, or know-it-all superiority, none of which is likely to be appreciated by the hearer.

And that’s been my problem. Unintentionally, I have been making verbal attacks on people. To quote Elgin again: “Any time you hear a lot of extra stresses and emphasis on words or parts of words, you should be on the alert.” The hearer may not be able to identify what makes the sentence an attack rather than just rude (which I am also quite capable of accidentally producing), but she or he can tell it’s not pleasant.

Every time I have said, “Don’t do THAT” instead of “Don’t do that,” I have made an impression that I am a snotty, overbearing, judgmental person.

I have a particular memory of doing just that. A person mentioned casually that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she had heard they contained the flu virus. “But that’s how vaccines WORK!” I replied. My tone conveyed “Everyone should know that” and “You’re an idiot.”

I shudder to think how many people I have called idiots without meaning to.

And that’s just in regular conversations. When I attempt to be amusing or humorous, I probably get the “music” wrong a lot of the time and offend. Of course, some of my friends like sarcasm and snark, but I forget that not everyone does.

Talking on the phone and in email or chat is particularly fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and offense. On the phone, vocal melody is all. The other person can’t see your facial expression – raised eyebrows, frown or smile, puzzlement, a nod of approval. Some people suggest smiling even though it can’t be seen – that it makes a difference in your voice. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that, though.

In email and chat, you don’t even have vocal melody to help. Emojis and <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> can convey expression, but they’re clumsy and easy to forget. The internet is a place where misunderstanding and giving offense are easy to do.

There is one way I have improved my voice. I have trained myself to listen for and use strangers’ names in phone conversations with company representatives: “Here’s my problem, Jackie.” “I appreciate your help, Keanna.” (This works in person, too. Who wouldn’t rather hear, “Kevin, I have a question” than “Waiter, I have a question”? It’s right there on the name tag. I can remember that for half an hour, especially if I reinforce myself by using it.)

Does it actually matter whether servers and customer service people are offended or encouraged by my tone? I like to think that it does, and that vocal melody makes a difference to the service I get and the next person’s too. And it’s a way of practicing controlling my vocal tone.

I may never have a toned body, but I’m doing my best to have a properly toned voice!

Let’s Talk: Policing Women’s Voices

Women’s voices are important. Anymore, few people deny that women have something to say.

Why, then, are so many people distracted from what women say by how they say it?

voice2There are two kinds of criticism of women’s voice: voice policing and tone policing. Note that both imply that someone is monitoring women’s speech and “policing” it – telling them what is permissible, or at least what standards they must adhere to if they want to be heard, listened to, and taken seriously.


Voice Policing.
Do you find women’s voices shrill, hesitant, un-confident, not authoritative, or childish? Then you might be one of the voice police.

The voice police pay attention to the vocal characteristics of women’s speech and judge them on supposedly unattractive or ineffective qualities. Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with finding an individual woman’s speech unappealing – too nasal, too soft, too pretentious. It’s when a trait is ascribed to all women – or to a broad subgroup, such as young women – that is problematic. And judging women as a group negatively based on the sounds of their voices is a form of discrimination, especially  it leads to fewer job opportunities.

Two examples of vocal characteristics that raise the hackles on many are “upspeak” or “uptalk” and “vocal fry.”

“Uptalk” is the tendency for vocal pitch to go up at the end of sentences making everything sound like a question. Many people find that this makes the speaker sound insecure. Some even find that it hurts women in their careers, since they read it as lack of confidence. It is also associated with the much-deplored “Valley Girl” speech patterns of the early 2000s. (I must confess that I personally find uptalk annoying, but not enough to “correct” someone who does it.)

“Vocal fry” is the voice pattern that has replaced uptalk as the annoyance of the moment. In some ways the opposite of uptalk, vocal fry involves lowering the voice and speaking with a creaky or gravelly sound. I am told that the Kardashian family do this, but I hear it in Mila Kunis’s whiskey commercials.

The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/vocal-fry-jobs-women_n_5417810.html) discussed the findings of a study that supports the idea that vocal fry harms a woman’s career (other than Mila Kunis’s, I mean).

When evaluating job candidates, participants preferred normal-voiced women 86 percent of the time, and normal-voiced men 83 percent of the time. Vocal fry also appeared to most negatively affect the trustworthiness score.

I have to wonder how many men find that vocal fry suggests untrustworthiness because they hear it as a sexual come-on inappropriate in a business setting. (Let’s also note that the authors of the study contrasted vocal friers with “normal-voiced” women, which implies that vocal fry is abnormal.)

But did you notice that the study refers to men’s vocal fry as well?

In an NPR interview (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices) Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert points out:

The complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. “People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger men’s language. The biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is; men in the U.K, for instance. And it’s considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity,” Eckert notes.

She argues that “women shouldn’t have to change their voices to suit society.”

Tone Policing. Tone policing is another matter, and the more troubling of the two. The Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tone%20police) defines “tone police” as

…people who focus on (and critique) how something is said, ignoring whether or not it is true. They will discard a true statement simply because they don’t like how it was presented.

This is particularly noticeable regarding women in the public eye (or ear). During the recent election season, you often heard Hillary Clinton’s voice described as “shrill” or “nagging.” Her messages often took second place to how her voice was perceived. And protestors or those who are angry about a situation are told to “calm down,” “stop being so angry,” or “not make such a big deal of it.”

Feminists, women (and men) of color, and young people are often the objects of tone policing. In its definition of tone police, the Urban Dictionary gives this example of the underlying sentiment: “You might be right, but since I don’t like how you said it, I demand you apologize!”

An opinion piece in a tumblr blog (http://tooyoungforthelivingdead.tumblr.com/tone-policing) explains:

Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction. … It dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational.

In cases of oppression, aggression, and discounting, being calm is not the automatic response, or even the appropriate one. The post goes on to explain:

When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face…And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression.

In fact, invalidating a person’s experience by telling her or him to “calm down” or not to “get so worked up” or even “where’s your sense of humor?” will not – and should not – have the desired effect, though it may end the interaction. (As I once heard it expressed, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down when told to calm down.”)

Voice policing and tone policing are difficult to notice until someone points them out. Let’s try to remember that the message – the content – is the most important piece of the act of speech. Let’s try not to let the sound of speech overwhelm the substance.

Make America Great Again: What Does It Mean?

If you’ve been conscious for the last few months, you’ve heard this slogan from the Trump/Pence political campaign.

But what does it mean?

I’m not a political junkie; I’m a word nerd, so I thought I’d approach the phrase from the perspective of language. I’ll leave the verb out of this discussion (if anyone wants to make a run at it, go ahead). I’ll concern myself with the terms “America,” “Great,” and “Again.”smiling woman with text bubble of american flag

America. What do we mean when we say “America”?

First, and perhaps obviously, we don’t all mean the same thing. Some people define America as “the greatest nation that God ever put on the planet.” But we’ll get to great later. Let’s stick to America for now.

The geography of America really is great. We’ve got those amber waves of grain, mighty redwoods, rocky shores, gorgeous beaches, and a really grand canyon. But that’s just real estate. Without people, all you’ve got is empty space.

So. People. Americans. Now comes some of the language theory. Whatever comes without a hyphen or adjective is considered the norm – standard, real, if you will. Anything with a hyphen or adjective is considered outside the norm and must be defined by that – African- American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American. The language involved implies that true Americans need no hyphen or adjective, and that’s apparently what many people believe –that if you’ve got a hyphen or an adjective, then you’re not really an American, or at least not as American as someone without an adjective or hyphen. Ironically, this means that the original Americans, the people who lived here before the rest of us immigrated, are no longer what is considered standard American. They need an adjective – Native American.

But America is all its people. not just those without hyphens. Immigrants too, which except for the Natives we all are. If the immigrants are illegal, they may not be considered real Americans, but they are part of the American workforce, doing the jobs that other Americans don’t really want because of low pay and unpleasant working conditions – gardening, child care, domestic servants, agricultural workers, and so on. Without their work and their contribution to the American economy, America would be a very different place. Many of them desperately want to become citizens, but even if they do, they’re still hyphenated Americans.

Should they be considered Americans? Right now any of them born in the United States are simply and legally U.S. citizens. The Constitution says so. If that needs to change, so does the Constitution, and that’s no simple matter. What the Constitution really says is to me something that ought to be taught in every American school, in every grade, until the people understand such apparently perplexing concepts as what freedom of religion really means and how difficult it is to change or amend the Constitution. Maybe this was supposed to have been taught, but evidently it didn’t stick with many former students.

For example, the President cannot by himself (or herself) change the Constitution. If anyone wants an amendment that would not grant citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil if they were born to illegal immigrant parents, or to cancel the Second Amendment (to choose two not entirely random examples), there is a long, difficult process involving not just Congress, but the states. A certain number of states must approve – ratify – the new Amendment and have only a limited time to do so. It’s harder than you think. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught in school. No one just waves a hand and takes away birthright citizenship or guns.

Great. All of that leads us to the question of what great means, in the context of America. I think it’s great that America can add new amendments to the Constitution when they think of a great new idea (like Prohibition) and repeal amendments that turn out to be really bad ideas (like Prohibition).

Other things that are great become not-so-great when you take them too far. Strength is great; being a bully isn’t. Free speech is great; terrorist or assassination threats, not so much. (Free speech is another idea that ought to be taught in school. It doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The thing is, you don’t get to be great simply by saying that you’re great. That’s like calling yourself a karate black belt or a tenured professor or a Senator or even a McDonald’s manager. Those are things you have to earn. You have to do great things, like joining other nations in defeating Hitler, or having ideas like “no taxation without representation,” or saying things like “all men are created equal” – and putting them into practice. That’s the tricky part.

Let’s face it, we’re never going to all agree on what “great” means. I may be a great poker player, but to someone else that’s not great, it’s being good at a silly, materialistic game. Another person may scoff at a parent who’s great at planning birthday parties – but that parent is showing love of family and creating something great for others. Is a chef great? Is a food bank volunteer? Is a pro athlete great? Is a high school coach? Many times it’s in the eye of the beholder.

So, is America’s greatness in the eye of beholders? Are we saying great things but not putting them into action? Do the opinions of the rest of the world count? Because a lot of other people and other countries – and some Americans – seem to think that America falls short in some aspects of greatness. Refusing to abide by treaties we have signed. Quibbling over the meaning of “torture” instead of just not doing it. Not doing right by our veterans in terms of housing, health care, and jobs.

Some other countries are greater than we are in certain areas – mathematically, provably so. Many other countries’ education systems produce students who outscore ours in math and reading. Some unexpected countries such as Estonia and Singapore have lower maternal death rates than America does. Are not educational achievement and maternal health great things, and do we not fall short in them? Or is America always great in all things?

Again. The word “again” implies that there was once a time when America was great, but that we no longer are. It used to be that saying America isn’t great was a serious political mistake, but apparently now it’s okay.

To say “make America great again,” (once we’ve figured out “America” and “great”) we must define a time in the past when America was great, that we now need to return to.

So when was that time?

As a character in Seanan Maguire’s novel Once Broken Faith says, “Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there.”

What about at the founding of the country? Wasn’t America great then? Yes, it was a great time of great ideas to build the foundation of a great nation. But it wasn’t so great for anyone who wasn’t a white, male adult landowner. Those were the only people who had much say in what America would be and what would make it great. Imagine if today no one who rented a house or apartment were allowed to vote; if women were the property of their husbands; if there were no laws against child labor and child abuse; if an entire segment of society suffered the cruelties of enslavement. Not so great, eh?

What about the Fifties? Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best? (Never mind that those were Hollywood fictions, not documentaries, and no more real than The Walking Dead or Modern Family.) Again, not great for everyone – domestic abuse victims, children targeted by sexual predators, drug addicts, the mentally ill (which at the time included homosexuals, according to the DSM, the psychiatric “Bible”, and too many others to name. These are not recent phenomena. We just didn’t have names for some of them then, or kept them behind closed doors, unspoken and ignored.

The Sixties? The Eighties? Any decade – any year – you look at, is a mixture of great things and not-so-great things. Can we really go back to the great ideas, accomplishments, institutions, without going back to the wars, injustices, and problems that co-existed with them? Even if we have learned from our errors so we wouldn’t repeat them (a dubious concept at best), can we really believe that the world – that America – would exist in a stasis of greatness with no new difficulties and horrors to face?

Make America Great Again. It’s a great slogan, until you look at it more closely. As always with slippery language, there’s a lot lying hidden under the surface. Let’s drag it out and talk about what it means, and how we really can improve America.

Wouldn’t that be great?

 

TV Would Be Great, Except for the Ads

Have you noticed that no one has teeth anymore? Or money, for that matter.

AdvertisementNo, in ads for toothpastes, dentistry, and even breath-fresheners, teeth are seldom mentioned. Only “smiles.” Maybe I’m nit-picking, but those of us who are gloomy, depressed, or upset want nice teeth too.

The same with money. We used to manage our money. Then there was “financial” management. Now there is “wealth management.” I know this is supposed to make us all feel that we are rich and need such services, but even money management is out of reach for me. When your savings have lint from living in your pocket, you don’t need someone else to manage it, and it’s definitely not wealth.

I used to work in advertising, so I feel entitled to criticize. Of course, we handled mostly small, local accounts. And even the political ones were pretty dreary. We did have to come up with some promos for a candidate named Hickey once, but all the joy was sucked out of that when he vetoed the slogan “Give Ohio a Hickey!” Spoilsport.

I was fairly low on the organizational chart in that office. (Who am I kidding? There were four people and I was number four.) So most of my assignments were, shall we say, low-budget. I was allowed to write blurbs for a client, describing their tables for ads that would appear in trade magazines (Tables Today!, Popular Living Room Furniture, or Things to Put Other Things On, if I remember correctly).

The challenge there was to come up with adjectives. I would stare at photos of each new model and make notes. Distinctive. Intriguing. Innovative. Any euphemisms for ugly, weird, and useless.

But that job was small potatoes as advertising goes. National advertising agencies get the big bucks for ruining the music that Baby Boomers loved (see http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7I) and inventing ridiculous portmanteau words.

What are those? (I hear you cry). Why, portmanteaus are when someone slams two words together that have no business touching each other: your inner “kidult,” “funtastic,” “sale-a-bration,” anything ending with “-thon” or “-licious.” They’re everywhere nowadays, like bedbugs, which are apparently now a Thing more to be feared than standard termites and roaches.

And, speaking of things “funtastic,” since when does everything have to be fun? And not just for kids, who might actually be sucked into the idea of brushing your teeth being fun. (It isn’t.) Now adults are supposed to find everything fun, including taking a dump. “Enjoy the go,” my ass! (Literally.)

My husband objects to cannibalism in commercials. No, not ads for Soylent Green, though those can’t be too far away. Pigs that advertise products that are made from others of their species. Pieces of cereal that eat other pieces of cereal. Toaster pastries that lure other pastries into toasters. He feels it’s just wrong, somehow, though the animal world is full of examples of creatures eating creatures of their own species. Probably not pigs, though, and they don’t advertise it if they do.

We both hate ads that claim to be scientifically accurate by inventing an imaginary research lab. The Ponds Institute, for example. If there is such a thing, it’s one room in a windowless corner of the building where one guy in a lab coat smears cold cream on armadillo skin and accidentally softens himself to death. (Except that “cold cream” hasn’t existed since my maiden aunt used it in the 50s.)

And I know that the drum for patriotism has been thumping loudly for the last 15 years, but the relentless brandishing of flags has now crossed over the line when a car advertisement features a song that touts “a full tank of freedom.” It’s even more gag-inducing than “Love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Steel. Fiberglass. Rubber, Chrome. A little metal symbol on the hood. That’s what makes a Subaru.

Are there any ads that I do like? A few. There’s the one for paint that uses paint chips to make a stunning animation of underwater, hang-gliding, and other scenes. And Patrick Stewart’s ads for hard cider. And of course the one where the cat jumps up to the balcony for treats.

Anything but Flo. Those insurance commercials are like “You Light Up My Life” – okay the first time, but after the thousandth, they start to wear on you. After the millionth, you just want her to retire, already. I’m sure she’s got the money by now. After all, she can save big money on her insurance.

And the same goes for that damn gecko.