Friday, March 14, 2008

It’s Just a Formality

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I greatly appreciate the comments sent in by Sam Simian in response to my last piece, “Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy.” Sam has given me some really meaty food for thought.

He mentioned that Nina Weinstein, who has written extensively in the field of ELT, claims her research shows that when we use reduced forms like gunnuh, it’s not because of how relaxed we feel in informal situations, but because of the speed of our speech. I really don’t agree with that. Yes, of course we tend to use reductions like wanna, hafta, and wudduyuh when speaking quickly, but I don’t think that’s the only condition under which we’ll hear native speakers use such reductions:

(mother tenderly talking to her agitated eight-year-old son)
A: Don’tcha think it’s time you made up with your brother, Bobby?
B: No way, Mom! I hate ’im! I hate ’im!
A: Oh, c’mon, Bobby. You know you don’ hate ’im.
B: Yeah, I do! I do! He’s mean!
A: Look. You’re older than him. Shouldn’tcha show ’im it’s not right for brothers to fight?
B: But Mom, he lost my favorite ball. And I never told ’im he could play with it!
A: Tell ya what. If you shake hands with Jimmy and make up, I’ll buy you a new ball ― an’ that bat you wanted, the one you saw at Z-Mart. An’ you don’ hafta take out the garbage for a whole week. So? C’mon, wudduyuh say?
B: Awright, Mom. But he better not take my stuff anymore!

Now that conversation just wouldn’t be rushed through. I hope you’ll agree that Bobby’s mom probably spoke quietly and gently to her son to calm him down and persuade him to do the right thing, not that her bribes didn’t help! This is why I don’t think reduced pronunciations are necessarily a result of speaking quickly. I think such reductions can say something about a relationship or the mood set between two or more people in a conversation. The “relaxed” sound of these reductions reflects the relaxed mood Bobby’s mother wanted to create. That’s my take on this. What’s yours?

I found it very interesting that Sam says, “If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka came into my class and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Simian. Wussup?’ I don’t think that the problem would be the reduced form; I think that the problem would be the expression that’s being reduced: What’s up? What’s up? is an informal greeting. I’m a fairly informal person, so I wouldn’t take offense at that being directed at me. However, I would probably explain that Wussup? is a very informal greeting. I would also take that opportunity to explain that most people see the classroom as a formal environment, so Wussup? would usually be considered inappropriate — especially when a student is addressing a teacher.”

I couldn’t agree with Sam more. That choice of greeting does seem inappropriate . . . or does it? I keep wondering what’s happening to how we deal with formality in American culture and how our language reflects this. I think there’s a definite shift going on in formality or in a lack of it, and I think the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred. I’m a child of the 1950s when I do believe there were quite clear lines separating formal from informal situations and the appropriate use of formal language from its informal counterpart. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.

As I said, I’m a product of the decade I grew up in ― I can’t escape it. That’s why it bothers me every time a salesperson or other such person decides on his or her own to call me by my first name without asking for my permission first. (I think they’re told when they receive training for their jobs that if they start calling the customer by his or her first name, they’ll create a more friendly atmosphere and relationship, which will make a sale go more easily.) But being the kind of outspoken person I am, I’ll pipe up right away and say, “Excuse me. My name is Mr. Firsten, thank you.” The perpetrator of the infraction always looks quite shocked at being rebuked, but I guess that’s because most people just let things like that go by without saying a word. Not this customer!

Something similar which happens quite often in my part of the US (South Florida) is that a salesperson or repairperson will address me as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that there are certain relatively small areas of the US where the culture allows this to happen, that is, to use a title like Mr. along with a first name, but that’s really not the case where I live. I think people do it here because they don’t want to bother asking you how you pronounce your last name if they feel it’s too hard to pronounce. Well, I honestly don’t think that Firsten is that hard to pronounce, and it would behoove those people to learn how to pronounce other people’s last names as a sign of courtesy, if nothing else.

Sam says it doesn’t bother him that Michael Mukasey said gunnuh instead of going to during those formal Senate hearings he had to attend, but it bothers me. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur; that’s possible. Yes, I know that Americans prefer informality over formality in many kinds of situations, which means their language will reflect how formal or informal they elect to be, but I do think we should still have sociolinguistic lines that are clearly defined. I’m interested to know how you feel about such things, so don’t hesitate to post your comments. They’ll be well received.


Comment from Anonymous
March 15, 2008 at 11:01 pm

Language-sensitive people like us will certainly have reactions to overly informal greetings from others: from students, from salespeople, from the public.

I have not found these greetings and other utterances from students offensive. In fact, I have been charmed by such utterances as “How ya doin’, Teacher?” and “Happy weekend, Honeys.” As a teacher, I feel it is correct for me to inform the speaker privately that his/her words are too informal, and therefore inappropriate, but I must say that their off-register utterances don’t put me off.

Years ago, near the beginning of the feminist movement, I felt offended when the produce manager in the supermarket addressed me as “dear.” But, older now, I just smile. In my supermarket, which is in the heavily Cuban area of Miami, the check-out people and the bag people sometimes call me “Mama,” or “Mamacita,” and I kind of like it, not caring to know whether or not it is properly respectful. I like the warmth conveyed by the address.

There is a group that bothers me when they address me by my first name: it’s doctors. In some doctors’ offices, those in a university teaching hospital, for example, I think the doctors are trained to use the honorifics and the last name. But many others don’t; they start calling me by my first name right away. Now, maybe with some people that is a fast way to make a connection, but I wish doctors wouldn’t do that. With my life in their hands, and not knowing how a particular doctor may respond to my suggestion that I’d prefer more formality, I don’t feel the freedom to make a correction on this point, or even a request.

Now I feel that I’ve spoken as I would in a group therapy session, and that maybe our facilitator, Mr. Firsten, will guide me in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing.


Comment from Betty Azar
March 17, 2008 at 11:09 am


I couldn’t agree more when you say you think “the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred.” And that complicates our teaching task.

Part of grammar-based teaching is raising our students’ awareness of register — but with changing standards of acceptability, it’s sometimes hard to know what to say to our students. Do we tell them it’s okay now, even in formal situations, to say “Everyone has their own opinion”?

I have a question for you. People talk about there being a “spoken grammar” and a “written grammar.” When they say that, aren’t they really talking about register and style being different? Isn’t the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?


Comment from Nina Weinstein
June 21, 2008 at 5:24 pm

Hello, Richard,

I was delighted to come across your comment about speed of speech and reduced forms. I think we, as language teachers, should be talking about this aspect of spoken language, and I thank you for bringing it up.

The reason I’ve said in my articles that speed of speech caused reduced forms is because of the research I did on this area of discourse. I’d done a lot of work in this area, but in the mid 80’s, I went back to UCLA to actually test the causes of reduced forms. Dr. J. Donald Bowen was my thesis chair.

When I say that speed of speech is a statistically significant cause of reduction, I need to clarify that I mean the speed of only those words being reduced — not the speed of the entire utterance.

If we look at your conversation with the mother comforting her son, we know that it isn’t said at a uniform speed. The mother can and very naturally, does, vary her speed at certain points, but when it speeds up enough, words like, “tell him” will reduce to “tell *’im”. If she were to slow down at the moment she said those two words, they could be pronounced “tell him”.

According to my research, reduced forms are said at approximately twice the speed of non-reduced speech. Reduced forms dominate spoken language.

Comment from Nina Weinstein
June 21, 2008 at 5:42 pm

Hello, Richard,

I was delighted to read your comments about reduced forms and speed of speech.

I did a study on reduced forms, and my comment about speed of speech comes from that study, which was done at UCLA in the mid 80’s.

I’d like to first emphasize that I agree that in your example, the mother would vary her speed of speech and say some parts of her speech slower than others. However, at the moment the speed increases enough, if words are present that can reduce,they will. I want to emphasize that the whole utterance doesn’t need to be fast; only the word(s) that can reduce. For example, if she says “Give him . . .” quickly enough, it will reduce to “Give *’im”.

Reductions dominate natural spoken English because much of the time, at the moment those words are said, the speed of speech is fast enough to spontaneously cause reduction. We don’t ponder the pronunciations (Should I say, “going to go” or *gonna go”). Our speed of speech at the moment those words are said decides naturally.

Comment from Grammar Guy
June 22, 2008 at 9:05 am

Hello, Nina!

It’s a real pleasure to hear from you and I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to explain your research findings to help clear things up.

Of course I can see how your findings make perfect sense and help us understand the phenomenon of reduced pronunciations. My point was simply that I think there’s more to it than just the speeding up or slowing down of any given utterance that accounts for this kind of reduction. That’s obviously a big factor, but I do think the level of formality is another.

I was just wondering … How else can we account for the super-informal greeting, “Wussup?” It’s said in isolation and is often uttered at an exaggeratedly slow speed by some speakers.

I remember visiting relatives in Texas. A neighbor came by to join us for a barbecue. When he arrived, the first words out of his mouth were “Hi, y’all!” which he said very slowly, reflecting his relaxed state. Once again, speed played no part in the reduced form of “you all” that he used.

I think it’s safe to say that your research sheds very important light on this phenomenon, but I also think it’s safe to say that the phenomenon is brought about by more than one factor.

Thank you very much for your comments, Nina. I greatly appreciate them!

Comment from Nina Weinstein
June 25, 2008 at 11:36 am


You’ve raised a very interesting point. There are some reductions that are so common, they function almost as vocabulary items. Examples in my research include what I found to be the three most common reduced forms — *gonna, *wanna and *hafta. According to my research, a reduced form was said in my seven hours of unscripted discourse about once a minute. However, one of the above three (*gonna, *wanna, *hafta) was said about every two minutes.

Many students want to use reduced forms in their own speech to sound more like native English speakers. When they do, they often can’t approximate the natural speed of speech that causes the reduction naturally, and thus, they sound unnatural– the opposite of what they want. The fix I give them has to do with the fact that *wanna, *gonna, etc. are so common, they’re said as vocabulary words. This makes them different from other reduced forms. You can say the following response very slowly and it will still sound natural: “I’m *gonna go (emphasizing “gonna” — a possible response to an argument).”

I feel that “Wassup” and “y’all” may also be so common, they’re said as vocabulary words rather than natural pronunciation changes caused by speed of speech. They may have begun as reduced forms, but as they became salient slang, they were accepted as part of the vocabulary. This is conjecture, but it makes sense with what we know so far about reduced forms.

As I mentioned in my last comments, I’ve studied reduced forms for almost thirty years. I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that there are other issues at play, but regarding causes, I studied informality as a possible cause of reductions in my research. While informal speech tended to have more reductions, it didn’t cause them. Unscripted informal speech was spoken faster than formal speech. Thus, it wasn’t the informality that caused the reductions, but the fact that informal speech was spoken faster.

Comment from Grammar Guy
June 25, 2008 at 2:07 pm

You’ve obviously done splendid, very detailed research on this subject, Nina, and are to be highly commended for your efforts. Thank you for all the great insights you’ve given us about the nature of this area of discourse.

You’ve also given me and the readers lots of food for thought. The issues you’ve raised make perfect sense and have definitely been enlightening.

Thank you very much for your participation on my blog, Nina!

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