Archive for Tag: vocabulary

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Being Politically Correct Correct?

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

Understand me. I don’t like ruffling people’s feathers. I don’t like being confrontational. I also don’t like being silly. As much as language reflects the most profound thoughts and greatest of achievements in society, it can also reflect the hypersensitivity and silliness of that society. So it is at times with what people refer to as “political correctness.” But when does the language go too far with being “pc,” politically correct?

Let’s start off with the term American. Over the years, I’ve had many students from Latin America object in class to my calling myself an American. They would immediately pipe up and say, “We are Americans, too!” I could always anticipate that response, and then I’d give out a big sigh and proceed to explain why we call ourselves Americans in the US. It’s not to exclude all the other peoples of the Americas; it’s because the official name of the country has been the United States of America since the time of independence from Great Britain. Back then the US was the only country that contained a group of united states; ergo the official name. Now people from the United States of Mexico are called Mexicans, people from the United States of Brazil are called Brazilians, and people from the United States of Colombia are called Colombians. So if people in the United States of America aren’t called Americans, what should they be called? Besides, that’s what people in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world call us. Heck! Even the Canadians call us Americans. I rest my case.

What about the term Native American? I think this is another case of political correctness gone too far. I, too, am a native American having been born and raised in the US. If the “pc” people insist on using it, why is it that there are indigenous people in the US who still use the word Indian to describe themselves? They don’t seem to have a problem with that term. I love when “pc-ers” tell others what they should or shouldn’t be called. Talk about presumptuous! I like the term indigenous people or the Canadian term First Nations people. Both terms are neutral and appear quite accurate, don’t you think? But ultimately it’s up to the indigenous people to decide what they should be called.

Remember when you started seeing humankind replacing mankind? That was considered “pc” because that new use wouldn’t exclude women. Well, if those who try their best to be “pc” have changed mankind to humankind, what are they going to do with a word like anthropology? After all, anthropos means “man” in Greek, and anthropology means “the study of man.” So should they insist we rename that science anthropinology, which means “the study of humans”? Food for thought, if you ask me.

Now what about the terms used for black Americans? The following terms, which were considered acceptable in their day, were Negro, black, Afro-American, and now African-American, although black is still used. Why was there a need for those changes? None of this would bother me if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still called white, not European-American. Why was it necessary for the “pc-ers” to make the leap from black to African-American? If there’s nothing wrong with being called white, why do they consider it wrong to be called black? I remember the famous slogan “Black is beautiful.” And it is. So why did that change? It mystifies me, but it clearly shows the continuing racial disquiet in this English-speaking society.

We’ve been deluged with “pc” terms for people with physical and mental disabilities. Here are a few you can find on a Web page of the Life Span Institute that’s entitled Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities. I’ve added some thoughts of mine in italics:

“Reflecting input from more than 100 disability organizations, the preferred terms for referring to disabilities are listed and defined below.

Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.Huh? Isn’t autistic simply the adjective for autism? Is there anything pejorative in saying He’s autistic?

Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury.Does anyone find it offensive to say brain damaged? In this case, doesn’t that mean the same thing as injured? I don’t see the difference.

Small/short stature describes people under 4’10” tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term “little people.Okay, I’m a person of short stature, being only 5’6” tall. For a man, that’s short. And ironically, I find the term “little people” demeaning, since I can’t help but compare it to little boy or little girl, which deals with age and level of maturity rather than height. So can’t that imply “a less than full adult status in society”? I’m perplexed!

In addition, I saw a documentary in January 2008 on the Discovery Health Channel called Dwarf: Standing Tall. Neither the producers nor the little people featured in the documentary had any problem using the term dwarf. They also used people of short stature and little people, but the term dwarf was used more often than the other two. So what does that say about instructions given at the Life Span Institute’s Web page?

My point is that English, because of the times we live in and the people wh
o want to do the right thing, has become a testing ground for changes in attitude that good people want to bring about in society, but I think this quest may go too far at times. I remember when it became a standard joke to add challenged to a variety of adverbs in order to sound politically correct:

  • He’s not short, he’s “vertically challenged.”
  • She’s “cosmetically challenged.” She never learned how to put on makeup.
  • I see your little boy needs glasses. How long has he been “visually challenged”?
  • I can’t stand my wife’s cooking. She’s “culinarily challenged”!
  • Half my students are “auditorily challenged.” They never listen to me.

So in teaching and speaking English, should we just toss out all the standard adjectives we’ve used for centuries perhaps to describe people and things? How do we determine what ELL’s should learn? I’d like to hear your opinions on this subject, so please join in the conversation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty!

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

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends in a restaurant. As you read through their conversation, make note of any and all vocabulary that you don’t think you would have heard or used ten or fifteen years ago the way they’re being used in this chat. Then we’ll compare notes.

Ann: Hmm … Everything looks so interesting on the menu.
Kim: I think we should start off with edamame. It’s delicious and so nutritious.
Ann: Yes, they certainly are nutritious.
Kim: What are?
Ann: The edamame. I was agreeing with you that they’re nutritious.
Kim: You mean, it is nutritious, not they are nutritious.
Ann: Huh? No, I think you’re supposed to say they are nutritious.
Kim: Whatever. Edamame is certainly one of today’s iconic foods, don’t you think?
Ann: Absolutely!
Kim: Oh, there’s the server. Excuse me. Could you bring us some plain water, please?
Server: Certainly. I’ll be right back.
Ann: So how is Julie enjoying her summer vacation?
Kim: Oh, she’s having a wonderful time staying with her grand uncle Tim.
Ann: Nice of him to look after her all summer.
Kim: And you know what? She’s joined the girl scouts.
Ann: That’s terrific. That’ll be a good experience for her.
Kim: Absolutely. And she’s getting involved in a girls’ softball team.
Ann: Oh? That must be hard for her since she’s so new at the sport.
Kim: They’re giving her some weightage in each match because of that.
Ann: That’s considerate of them.
Kim: I’m glad we got here early enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Ann: So am I. This way we won’t have to rush to catch that reading of Under Milkwood.
Kim: I’m so glad the theatrette is just a block away. Okay, let’s order.

One way that I know I’m getting older is that I notice more and more how many words or expressions I hear quite often that I probably wouldn’t have heard and definitely wouldn’t have used the way they’re used today when I was younger. In one way, it’s nice to witness how my language keeps evolving, to see how it can generate new vocabulary so handily. In another way, it can be somewhat disconcerting or even disorienting to hear familiar words used unfamiliarly in everyday conversation. After all, it is my language, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I feel comfortable with what’s being said?

Keeping up with new words and expressions can be a daunting task for ESOL teachers, but I suppose it can be a fun activity, too. Here are the items that I know I wouldn’t have heard or used in this way just ten or fifteen years ago: edamame, whatever, server, plain water, grand uncle, girl guides, absolutely, weightage, and theatrette.

Interesting, eh? “Eda-what?” Edamame! It’s the Japanese word for soy beans. They’re served in the pod in a bowl along with drinks.

Did you use the adjective iconic years ago the way Kim used it in the conversation? I didn’t. I understood what it meant the first time I heard it, and that’s one of the wonderful things about language. It can generate words we’ve never heard before or used in ways we’ve never heard, and yet we can understand them. Amazing! But what’s even more amazing is how the noun icon has been turned around from the days when I used it many years ago. Here are the definitions given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. Note especially the order that the definitions are given:

icon [countable]
1. a small sign or picture on a computer screen that is used to start a particular operation:
To open a new file, click on the icon.
2. someone famous who is admired by many people and is thought to represent an important idea:
a 60s cultural icon
3. also ikon: a picture or figure of a holy person that is used in worship in the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church
iconic adjective

Isn’t that fascinating? For me, no. 3 would have been the first meaning, but now it’s been relegated to the last meaning on the list of definitions. Wow! And the adjective would only have referred to a painting or mosaic found in a religious setting like a church. How word usage has changed!

And what about that rejoinder Whatever? Was that usage part of your vocabulary ten or fifteen years ago? It wasn’t part of mine. I understand, of course, that it means I really don’t care too much about what we’ve been discussing or debating or what you’ve just said. It’s a kind of curt way to end that discussion.

As for server, I still have a problem with that one. I have no problem saying “Waiter!” or “Waitress!” or calling the waitress “Miss!” but saying “Server”? Nope, I just can’t get into that.

The first time I heard somebody ask for plain water, I almost laughed out loud. What on earth is that? I had to ask of course, and found out it means the customer doesn’t want bottled water or mineral water. I would have said tap water, but I guess that doesn’t sound nice enough, so now it’s plain water.

Grand uncle. Now that was a new one on me. It means the same thing as great uncle, in other words, the brother of one of your grandparents. And, of course, there’s also grand aunt besides great aunt. I’m sure these two terms have been around for a very long time, but until recently I’d never heard them. I guess the reasoning for saying grand uncle and grand aunt is that if you have a grandparent, you should also have a grand uncle and a grand aunt. We don’t say *greatparent, so why should we say great uncle/aunt? Of course I can see the logic in it.

Was I surprised to learn about grand uncle and grand aunt? Absolutely! Oops! There’s another word used in a relatively new way. Isn’t it amazing how often people use this adverb as a rejoinder nowadays? I try to use it sparingly, because I’ve noticed that one person can use it an outrageous number of times during just one short conversation, which starts to get on my nerves. It seems like every other word out of the person’s mouth is “Absolutely!” That can get absolutely irritating!

Another term that makes me exclaim “Live and learn” is weightage. According to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition, 2003-2008, weightage is defined as “a weighing factor assigned to compensate for a perceived disadvantage.” I suppose it’s starting to take the place of the term handicap, which was the term used in my day. I’m told that it’s still something heard more often in British English than North American English.

And last, but not least, we come to one of my favorites, theatrette, an offering from our cousins “down under” in Australia. We can easily figure out that it means, a relatively small theater, and I think it’s a great term. I first heard it not long ago while talking to a friend of mine from Perth. I’m not sure it’ll catch on throughout the English-speak
ing world, but I, for one, like it. And at least I didn’t have to squirm to figure out what my Australian friend was talking about when she used it! I can’t find this term in dictionaries yet, but I’m sure it’ll make its way into some in the near future.

So there you have it, a sampling of words and expressions that have either changed the way they’re used or have been created to fill a need that some speakers perceived was there. And the beat goes on! If this should teach us anything, it should be to react with interest and curiosity when we hear something new or something old that’s used in a new way. In the long run, that’ll make us better, more “with it” language teachers.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

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

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

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

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

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

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part 2

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

Okay, I know you’re not supposed to do something like this, but let’s eavesdrop on a conversation:

A: I hear your brother’s in a correctional facility. Is that true?
B: Yes, I’m sad to say.
A: What happened?
B: It was all a misunderstanding. He worked for a large clothing retailer. He was let go after he was caught with pilfered goods. My brother didn’t know what they were. The guy who gave them to him said they’d fallen off the back of a truck.
A: Oh, I see. Hmm … And how’s your younger brother doing?
B: He’s between jobs right now. He’s returned to the nest, so that’s good for him financially, but he’s got payments to make on a pre-owned car he bought recently.

Don’t you love the way English can soften reality, or help us avoid directly facing ugly facts, or help us to be more tactful? In an earlier entry also entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name,” we started delving into the wonderful world of euphemisms, and that’s what we’ll continue to do right now.

Speaking of which, how many euphemisms can you find in that conversation? Go ahead, count them. Let’s see what you get. I’ll wait . . .

All done? So how many did you find? I found nine. And here they are:

1. I hear Translation: Somebody – I won’t say who – told me that . . .
2. correctional facility Translation: jail
3. It was all a misunderstanding. Translation: My brother really screwed up.
4. He was let go. Translation: He was fired.
5. pilfered Translation: stolen
6. They’d fallen off the back of a truck. Translation: They’d been stolen.
7. between jobs Translation: unemployed
8. has returned to the nest Translation: living at home with momma and poppa again
9. a pre-owned car Translation: a used car

It says a lot about a culture that uses euphemisms in such a way. Sometimes euphemisms soften a not-so-pleasant truth, as we’ve seen in this conversation; at other times, they can be used to show respect or deference to a group of people. Just look at all the euphemisms English has created ― and I’m sorry to be so blunt ― for old people: the elders, the elderly, the aged, people in their golden years, retired people, mature people, and the ever popular seniors or senior citizens. Why is it, I ask you, that the word old has such a negative connotation? It’s not inherent in the language, is it? It’s a cultural thing, of course. But that’s the whole point: Euphemisms are completely culture-bound.

Sometimes we can see two totally different ways that segments of our population view something by the euphemisms they choose. For example, what about the dead? We can be reverent when talking about somebody who’s dead, or we can be flippant. I wonder which group has the sillier ways of telling you that somebody’s dead.

So let’s be reverent for a moment.

A: Did you hear about poor old Mr. Mertz?
B: No, what?
A: He’s passed/passed away/passed on/passed over/deceased/expired/gone to meet his maker/resting in peace/in a better place/crossed over/defunct/departed
gone/been taken/succumbed/no longer with us/given up the ghost.
B: Oh. Do you mean he’s dead?
A: Yes, poor thing.

And now let’s be a little flippant.

A: Hear about Billy-Bob?
B: No, what?
A: He’s pushing up the daisies/bit the dust/bought the farm/cashed in his chips/

checked out/kicked the bucket.
B: Oh. Ya mean he’s dead?
A: Duh!

I suppose both ways of imparting such news are equally effective in the long run. I just think it’s fascinating that we’d rather opt for one of those euphemisms rather than just come right out and say the poor guy croaked . . . er, died. And then we have this quaint way of letting you know that somebody’s dead by saying the late so-and-so. How bizarre is that? Late? Late for what?? If Mr. Mertz’s time was up, how can we say he’s the late Mr. Mertz? That’s a head scratcher, if you ask me!

Of course my favorite area for euphemisms deals with that always popular sport, sex! In a culture that still has trouble dealing with this topic, euphemisms abound. Just look at some of the ways we can talk about having sex: have carnal knowledge of/have (intimate) relations (with)/make love (with/to)/have an affair (with)/sleep with/sleep together (with)/go to bed with/make whoopee/there was some hanky panky/fooling around/monkey business/playing around. And the beat goes on!

Yes, euphemisms definitely serve a variety of purposes. One thing’s for sure, they certainly enliven the language! But on a more serious note, we also use euphemisms to deal with delicate subjects, especially politically correct ones such as handicaps. People who are sensitive to the handicapped have a lot of credit coming to them, especially those people who insist that proper terminology be used when discussing different kinds of handicaps and the individuals who deal with them. If you’d like to see something very interesting and meaningful, the Life Span Institute of the University of Kansas has set up an online site where you can familiarize yourself with the current terminology that should and should not be used when talking about handicaps. Visit the Life Span Institute and see what I mean. It’s a great way to teach ELL students this very important vocabulary. On that Web site, just click on “Appropriate Terminology.”

And if you’ve got any favorite euphemisms that haven’t been covered here and you’d like to share them with us, please leave a comment for all of us to see. Now that I’m feeling a bit knackered, I think I’ll go to the bedroom to rest ― even though I still think it should be called the restroom! I mean, after all, isn’t that what we do there? Hmm?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

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

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I’d like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

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

Whenever I’ve taught an Intro to Linguistics course, one of the things I’ve discussed with my students is the fact that you can’t separate language from culture, that a language is an integral part of the culture of the people who speak it, and that it reflects that culture. In other words, you can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the topic of euphemisms. Nothing is more telling about a culture than the euphemisms that culture has come up with in its language. Of course, this phenomenon can go a long way to driving ESOL and EFL students nuts. First, they’ve got the arduous task of trying to learn several terms for the same thing, and then they’ve got the daunting problem of learning when some of these terms are appropriate to use and when they aren’t. And, if all of that isn’t tough enough, they’ve got to learn which are considered nice and which are considered nasty. This is some job!

I suppose we all have out favorite euphemisms or favorite categories in which we can find lots of euphemisms to have fun with. I know I certainly do! Two categories that have always been nearest and dearest to my heart are the bathroom (itself a euphemism), including items related to it, and obesity. I like to focus, however, on the nice euphemisms, not the nasty ones.

English speakers have a “thing” about the bathroom. Americans, for example, just love their bathrooms. They beautify them with ceramic tile on the walls as well as on the floors. They install the nicest sinks and faucets and bath tubs or shower stalls. They go all out. And they make these cherished rooms sweet smelling so that they and their guests will walk in, inhale, and sigh with approval as they exhale. But don’t you dare call it what it is, the toilet. No, no! We can’t be so direct and low class about a room where such goings-on occur that we even find this topic difficult to discuss with a doctor, if need be. So English has come up with a bounty of euphemisms for that room which you go to “when nature calls” (also a euphemism): the bathroom, the gents’, the head, the john, the ladies’, the ladies’ room, the lavatory, the little boys’ room, the little girls’ room, the loo, the men’s room, the powder room, the privy, the restroom, the WC (water closet). And, of course, for those in less modern settings, the latrine and the ever-popular outhouse.

And what do we say when someone’s in the middle of doing his business in this famous room? “He’s indisposed.” “She’s on the throne.” Don’t you just love it? I remember the first time I heard my plumber refer to the toilet as “the commode.” How nice! How delicate a term! It’s just as delicate as the term that television advertisers had to come up with when they finally crossed the barrier and were able to hawk bathroom items in their commercials. They couldn’t call it toilet paper. Ugh! How crass! So now we watch commercials for “bathroom tissue.” It just rolls off the tongue (no pun intended): “bathroom tissue.”

Here’s a cute story about the word restroom. One of my students told me this tale about when he first arrived in the US. There he was in his first American airport after a very, very long flight during which he had had trouble relaxing and trying to sleep. He picked up his bags and then noticed a sign that said “Restrooms.” “How wonderful!” he thought to himself. “Americans think of everything! They even have a place where tired passengers can rest before they continue their travels.” So he went over to the one marked “men,” went in, and you can imagine the shock on his face as he realized it wasn’t exactly a place to “rest.” That was his introduction to English euphemisms!

Obesity, as I said, is my other favorite category. I just love the euphemisms we’ve created to protect the feelings of fat people. They’re fat. I’m fat. Lots of Americans are just plain fat. But we’ve got to be psychologically protected from that unpleasant reality, so people who want to be polite and sensitive to our feelings have come up with the following terms, which can even be designated as unisex, male, and female terms. Unisex: big, big boned, corpulent, heavy, heavyset, large, overweight, plump; female: buxom, full figured, Rubenesque, voluptuous, zaftig; male: husky, portly, stout. (I think I’ll be “big boned” today. Yeah, I like that: “big boned.”)

Euphemisms do provide a very important service for a language. They reflect how important speakers of a language consider one topic or another, and show us how those speakers deal with or don’t deal with that topic in their culture. The subject of euphemisms is almost inexhaustible, so I’ll have lots more to say about them at another time.

How about you? Do you have any favorite euphemisms, or are there any that you scoff at? I’d like to know what they are, so drop me a line, okay?

Friday, June 27, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 3

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

For a conversation class for intermediate ELL students, I once had the seemingly innocuous idea for a theme of talking about foods that the students had never had before coming to the US. So I asked them to name some of the foods which seemed “exotic” to them.

“I love french fries,” exclaimed Mahmood from Bahrain. “When did the French invent them, Mr. Firsten?”

“They didn’t, Mahmood. French fries are American.”

“Oh?” interjected Pierre from Quebec. “They’re not French? Very interesting! Well, I love bread, and one of my favorites here in the US is English muffins. I really like them. I suppose they’re not English, eh?” he joked.

“Nope. They’re not, Pierre. They’re American, too.” The confused looks on the students’ faces said it all.

“You know, in my country,” said Clara from Peru, “we eat an animal that you have as a pet. I find that very strange. I don’t know the name in English, but in Peru they are cuy.”

“Cuy? Oh, those are guinea pigs,” I explained, a little proud of myself for knowing such a low-frequency Peruvian-Spanish word. “Yes, you’re right, Clara. Many children have them as pets in the US, but I myself ate one in a restaurant in Peru when I visited your country a few years ago. I must say it was very tasty.”

“What is the name in English?” Clara asked.

“Guinea pigs,” I said.

“Guinea . . . pigs?” she echoed. “Huh? But Guinea is a country in Africa. Do they come from Africa originally? I don’t think so. And what do you mean pigs? They are not pigs!”

“Yes, I know they’re not, Clara. They’re rodents.”


“Animals related to rats and mice.”

“Ugh! You eat rats, Clara?” asked Mahmood, looking totally shocked.

“Not rats! Cuys! They are very good to eat!”

Feeling confident that most of the students wouldn’t know what a guinea pig looked like, I googled it in my computer and found some good pictures to show them all. That turned out to be a mistake.

“My God!” shrieked Nuri from Curaçao. “They’re so cute! You eat them? Oh, my God! How can you eat them?”

Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about student participation in this conversation class. Everybody piped in with an opinion about Peruvian dining customs, and I was even mildly attacked for having participated in such an “uncivilized” act. I was very relieved when that class finally ended, I can tell you!

But it got me to thinking yet again about how nuts English vocabulary can be: french fries aren’t French; English muffins aren’t English; guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea ― and they certainly aren’t pigs. It’s unbelievable that I can stand there in front of my students and feel embarrassed about my own language, the language I’m teaching them! That’s why I’ve done a lot of thinking about English vocabulary and its strange paradoxes, and why I’ve written previously here about this topic, which seems to be a never-ending source of both amusement and angst.

So why shouldn’t I have you join me in pondering these imponderables? Some of the following come from my own musings, and once again, some come from author Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English*. I think I’ll let you share in my consternation over such thoughts as:

  • Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
  • Have you ever figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy?
  • Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
  • Do you realize how crazy it sounds to say something was awfully good?
  • How can quite a few and quite a lot mean basically the same thing?
  • When you garnish food, you add; when you garnish wages, you subtract!
  • Is it reasonable for a language to be able to say that feet smell and noses run?

So ponder, people, ponder! And while you’re pondering and, I hope, joining me in this mild diatribe by sending in your own comments and observations, there’s one more gem I’d like to mention that kind of drives me batty.

To post a letter and to mail a letter are interchangeable, and until the politically-correct police got a hold of the following terms, postman and mailman were also interchangeable. So why isn’t it equally okay to say the post office and the mail office, or How much is the mailage? instead of How much is the postage? And finally, since we’ve got that relatively new expression going postal, can’t we also say going mailish? I ask you!

Well, before I go mailish over pondering too much, I’ll leave you to dwell on these thoughts and wait to hear what you’ve got to say.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998

Friday, June 20, 2008

We’re All Entitled, Part 2

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

I think titles are fascinating. I’ve already shown this in Part 1 (“We’re All Entitled”) in which I discussed Mr., Mrs., Miss, Master, and Ms. But we’ve got lots more titles in English, titles that reflect our cultures and our linguistic histories, things well worth talking about. Some titles are used wherever English is the primary language; some are used exclusively in the UK. And some of the same ones are used differently, depending on the English-speaking country they’re used in.

For starters, there are some titles that are normally used “correctly” if a name goes along with them. Remember, I’m talking about titles, not job descriptions. Here’s a sampling of these
titles, normally used with a name:

  • Mr.
  • Mrs.
  • Ms.
  • Master (old fashioned, for a boy)
  • King
  • Queen
  • Prince
  • Princess
  • Lord
  • Lady
  • Sir (British English; a knighted man)
  • Dame (British English; a knighted woman)
  • President
  • Vice President
  • Attorney General
  • Ambassador
  • Doctor (a dentist or Ph.D., not an M.D.)
  • Uncle
  • Aunt

And we have two British titles that are used differently from all the others:

  • first name, Duke of Duchy/Dukedom (e.g., Prince Andrew, Duke of York)
  • first name, Duchess of Duchy/Dukedom (e.g., Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall)

There are some interesting things I’d like to say about Mr. before we move on. If used alone, it’s considered an unrefined or low-class way to address a man: “Hey, Mr! You can’t park there.” I remember years ago, it was quite common to hear Mr. used with a man’s first name if he happened to be a hairdresser. In fact, it was basically a stereotype.

A current phenomenon I’ve noticed, at least in my part of the US, is to hear Mr. used with a first name, possibly because the speaker is ignorant of how the man’s last name is pronounced and too lazy or embarrassed to ask, or it may be cross-cultural interference. It actually bothers me when somebody calls me Mr. Richard, and I often correct the person and say my name’s Mr. Firsten, not “Mr. Richard.” That may not bother others, but it bothers me.

In a similar vein, I don’t particularly like when a perfect stranger, like a salesperson, decides on his/her own to call me by my first name. Maybe the culture is changing more quickly than I am, but I still adhere to the rule that, when appropriate to do so, I should ask people if I can call them by their first names rather than assume I can. I think salespeople do that as a way of sounding chummy, making you think you’re among friends. Well, it doesn’t work on me.

Then, of course, there’s the opposite situation in which a colleague will continue to call me “Mr. Firsten” even after we’ve worked in the same place for years. I think that’s typical of the public school system. I finally get to a point where I say, “Please call me Richard.” I mean, you can carry formality just so far, don’t you think?

Moving right along, we also have titles that can be used with or without a name, including:

  • Miss
  • Madam
  • Judge
  • Doctor (an M.D.)
  • Nurse
  • Officer (policeman or woman)
  • Father (Roman Catholic priest)
  • Mother (Mother Superior, head of a convent)
  • Grandfather (very formal)
  • Grandmother (very formal)
  • Grandpa
  • Grandma
  • Sister (nun; also a nurse in the UK and Australia)
  • Brother (monk)
  • Cousin (without a name, considered archaic; with a name, considered old fashioned / doesn’t universally work for uncle and aunt, but among some ethnic groups, Uncle and Auntie are used without a name)
  • Reverend
  • Pastor
  • Preacher
  • Rabbi
  • Imam
  • Governor
  • Mayor
  • military titles such as General, Admiral, Sergeant
  • Captain (airline pilot)
  • Professor
  • Maestro
  • Ma (rarely used with a surname, but does occur among people in Appalachia and the Ozarks in the US; used without a name in many areas as a very informal way of addressing one’s mother)
  • Pa (rarely used with a surname, but does occur among people in Appalachia and the Ozarks; used without a name in Appalachia, the Ozarks, and some other areas as a very informal way of addressing one’s father)

And finally, there are titles that are normally used without a name, among which we find:

  • Your Majesty; His/Her Majesty; Their Majesties*
  • Your (Royal) Highness; His/Her (Royal) Highness; Their (Royal) Highnesses*
  • (Your) Excellency; His/Her Excellency; Their Excellencies* (Roman Catholic archbishops and bishops; foreign ambassadors; heads of state in some countries)
  • Your Eminence; His Eminence; Their Eminences* (Roman Catholic cardinals)
  • Your Holiness / His Holiness (the Pope or Dalai Lama)
  • Your Grace; His/Her Grace; Their Graces* (for a duke and duchess; the archbishop of Canterbury; sometimes a Roman Catholic archbishop)
  • Your Lordship / His Lordship; Their Lordships*
  • Your Ladyship / Her Ladyship; Their Ladyships*

    *When addressing this person or these people directly, we say Your ___, but when talking about this person or these people, we say His/Her/Their ___.

  • Mr./Madam Prime Minister
  • Mr./Madam President
  • Mr./Madam Vice President
  • Mr./Madam Attorney General
  • Mr. Speaker (in the US Congress)
  • (Mr./Madam) Ambassador
  • Waiter/Waitress (quickly going out of fashion)
  • Driver (taxi, bus, limousine)
  • Steward (on a ship)
  • Your Honor (judge); His/Her Honor; Their Honors
  • Mother (very formal way of addressing this parent)
  • Mom [AmE] / Mum [BrE] (informal); Mommy [AmE] / Mummy [BrE] (usually what little children say)
  • Father (very formal way of addressing this parent)
  • Dad/Papa/Pop (informal); Daddy (usually what little children say; sometimes daughters of any age)
  • Pops (irreverent way for a younger person to address an older man)
  • Son (parent addressing a male child)
  • Daughter (parent addressing a female child, considered archaic)
  • Sister (for a sibling, considered archaic)
  • Brother (for a sibling, considered archaic)
  • My Son (Catholic priest addressing male parishioner, considered archaic in some places) Notice that My Daughter was never used for female parishioners.
  • My Child (Catholic priest addressing male or female parishioner)

You might not think that there could be so much to look at when it comes to titles, right? Well, I hope you’ve had fun looking over these lists. I know I have in compiling them! If anything’s surprised you, if I’ve left something out, or if you’ve got comments on this topic, I’d really enjoy hearing from you, Mr. Reader / Ms. Reader / Madam Reader – whoever!