Is This the Right Moment?

speak-no-evil-monkeyLast month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + -al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head before I could get it right on the videotape. (I now know that those of you in medicine have a leg up on me here, because you talk about the extrapyramidal system.)

Pronunciation is not the point here, though. What has stuck with me is how silly and disconcerted I felt when I got corrected. The insecure part of me felt as if I had just been outed. What kind of academic — let alone a linguist — doesn’t know how to pronounce pyramidal? Even though the rational part of me knew that there was no reason I should know about the stress shift in that uncommon word, another part of me felt that the producers of the lecture were now wondering what else I wouldn’t know.

These moments are important reminders of the power of correcting others’ language. In this case, of course, the producers had good reason to correct me: The lecture now has the standard pronunciation of the word, and audience members will not be distracted or annoyed by a nonstandard pronunciation. Yet clearly the correction still rattled me — and I have as many defenses as one could have in terms of language education to be able to take correction and maintain my linguistic confidence.

In an earlier version of the previous sentence, I wrote “be able to take criticism” rather than “be able to take correction,” and I think that slipperiness is at the heart of the issue: “Correcting” someone’s language can feel like criticism even when it is not meant that way, and even when you think someone shouldn’t take it that way. It doesn’t mean we never should alert someone to the standard form, but we should realize that doing so can be loaded.

Next time you’re about to blurt out a correction of someone else’s language (their pronunciation or grammar or punctuation or something else), pause for a moment and consider what your goal is. Will this person really benefit from having you call out this bit of language, as I did when the producers corrected my pronunciation? And is this a good moment? If so, then go ahead — and do it kindly. If not, if the speech act will make you feel smart but not really help the other person, then consider keeping that correction in your head. Remember how stressful, if not downright silencing, it can be for someone to realize that you are listening to how they talk as much as to what they are saying.

Perhaps you’re a teacher and thinking, “But it’s my job to correct my students’ language.” I would still advise you to use the power of correction sparingly and wisely. Let the student finish what they’re saying and respond to the content. Then, if appropriate to the context, gently note that a word is typically pronounced in a different way, or that in a formal context, another grammatical construction might work better. We want the student to have the information so that they become ever more expert with different registers of language, not so that they feel stupid for not having known the information. (And, of course, be careful, because sometimes when we think we know what is right, we’re not as right as we think we are.)

Calling out someone on their language can be disconcerting even when you’re just noticing something in an interested way rather than trying to “correct” anything. I remember a conversation in graduate school when a triathlon friend of mine said, “They sell energy drinks there anymore.” I was so excited to have heard an instance of “positive anymore” (which means something like “nowadays”) that I blurted out, “You’re a positive-anymore speaker!” He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights and quickly wrapped up the conversation. I should have known better.

Sometimes pointing out an interesting linguistic feature can be fun conversational fodder. Sometimes it can be a conversation stopper.

So the other day, when a friend was catching me up on her vacation and said, “The great part of it was is that we didn’t have a schedule,” I kept my mouth shut. I really wanted to say, “Did you just hear yourself use that double ‘is’?” I think she thinks she doesn’t use this construction. But I decided that it was much more important to ask questions about the trip, the way a good friend does, and hear about her adventures, rather than derail the conversation with my linguistic observations.

I’ll bring up “was is” later, when I’m not interrupting. Or I won’t bring it up at all.


Return to Top