Yes, 5 Words Can Ruin it for You

After a week of heightened tension with North Korea making all of the headlines, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Many of us forget that it only takes a few incorrect words (5 to be exact) to create epic linguistic disasters of the same importance as a potential nuclear threat. Or so the mavens would have us believe.

One outlet gave us the click bait hyperlink “5 Words You’re Probably Saying Wrong.”

From the Huffington Post. 4/12/2013

From the Huffington Post. 4/12/2013

Fortunately, the author of the piece, William B. Bradshaw, chose the title “How Do I Say It?” to address the five most frequent inquiries about pronunciation: either, neither, tomato, harass, and Caribbean. To be fair, his conclusion was that all of these words have multiple accepted pronunciations. Though I acknowledge that his position on either is more nuanced, I disagree on his assertion that the preferred pronunciation of either is e-ther. This article, at least, is not quite so maven-esque.

Another news site didn’t even bother to provide its own content but chose to hyperlink another article published five months prior, “5 Words That Make You Sound Stupid.” The focus of this piece was five commonly used crutch words. The author, Mariam Jehangir, describes crutch words as follows:

Dictionary.com compiled a short list of these words that we carelessly slip into sentences to give ourselves more time to think and, in doing so, ruin the sentence. These so-called “crutch words” detract from your main message and don’t add useful meaning to your statement. (emphasis added).

Examples include:

Actually

Basically

Honestly

Like

Literally

In linguistics, these so-called crutch words are called fillersThe author is correct in noting that they give us more time to think. But she missed their other, more important role. They signal to others that we have paused to think but are not finished speaking. When speaking, most of us use fillers at some point. There is nothing careless about their use. They don’t ruin our sentences. And they don’t detract from our main message unless we use too many of them. And they certainly don’t make us sound stupid. They are natural parts of our spoken language (shared with many other languages) used by the vast majority of us. If they make us sound stupid to some rare person out there, too bad for them for not understanding how language works.

If someone were to correct your use of honestly:

Um, excuse me, but you just used the word “honestly” like a crutch word. “Honestly” should only be used to add meaningful honesty to your sentence.

then you will know you are speaking to a maven and, as such, have my permission to ignore them. Let their correction become part of the white noise in the background and carry on. The bellicose rhetoric of the grammar mavens is inversely proportional to any semblance of relevance they think they have.

There is a bright side to these nearly worthless salvos in the grammar war. More often than not, in the comments section we will find mavens getting caught and called out in their own errors.  I’ll leave you with one exchange found in the Jehangir article:

obongo replied:

You are wrong, the most over used phrase is “you know”. Just count the number of times some of these slow thinkers use that phrase because they usually cannot think in straight lines to express a cogent thought.

PotKettle replied:

“Overused” is one word, so I guess you won’t be joining the elite caste of fast thinkers any time soon.

Priceless.

© 2013 Jay P Laughlin

And now, there’s an “M-word”

At first I was stunned by the very idea. Another word that is so shocking to our sensibilities that we can only refer to it by its initial letter. One more word that so scrambles our intellects that we cannot comprehend the use-mention distinction and, therefore, are forbidden to mention. But what is it?Untitled

Brace yourselves…

Ma’am.

The stun turned to anger as I thought, “Really? Ma’am?”

As it turned out, the title on the front page of the HuffPo was not the same chosen by the author, Ronna Benjamin, a much more reasonable “Don’t Call Me Ma’am.”

The subject is not just of academic interest to me, it is also personal. As a child growing up in the American Deep South, I was taught that addressing a woman with ma’am was a sign of respect. We said it to our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, women we didn’t know, and even, if you wanted to both show respect and delight her, your much younger sister.

My first experience of culture shock  (though, admittedly, a mild case of it) after moving to the Pacific Northwest was the first time I was rebuked for saying ma’am to someone. She was offended. It was a passing encounter and I had no opportunity to explain myself. At first, the encounter had no effect on my use of the word. But after it happened a few more times I became hesitant to use it. I cannot say that I’ve quit using it (30+ years of usage doesn’t just vanish that easily) but  I can say that the frequency has declined.

I read Ronna Benjamin’s article with a hint of indignation for the first half. “No, that’s just not it,” I kept saying as she expressed her belief that it was never appropriate to address a woman as ma’am because she thought it meant “old.”

Ma’am, to many of us, is similar to sir when addressing a man. It is a manner of showing respect. What are our other choices to show respect if we get rid of it? We could extend the contraction back out and say madame but that has negative connotations of its own (one who operates a brothel). Or, we could replace the French with its English counterpart my lady. As much as I love the expression I think we’d sound rather foolish saying yes/no, m’lady or thank you, m’lady.

I must admit that about halfway through the article, I was getting frustrated.

But that’s just where her piece started to change. After asking her son if he used it, he replied, “All the time. It is polite.” In the end, after listening to her son and examining the words origins, she changed her mind about the use of ma’am.

I was pleased. But part of me still felt annoyance at the HuffPo’s choice of title. The “m-word”? I understand the logic…reel them in by suggesting a new “unsayable,” even worse, an “unprintable.” What a gimmick. [edit: I have since learned the term for this is called click bait].

Ronna Benjamin, thank you. I appreciate your effort to understand and your willingness to change your mind. I’m curious as to how ma’am acquired the connotation of “old.”

HuffPo…keep this stuff up and you might become my own h-word.

© 2013 Jay P Laughlin