Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: [Pause] I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: Whoa! I thought maybe you didn’t know who you were for a second.
Carrie Gillon: That was a pause for dramatic effect.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. [Laughter] It was very dramatic because I wondered, “Does she know where we are, who we are, what we’re doing?”
Carrie Gillon: I mean, honestly, it is the pandemic. I don’t know what’s going on.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Me neither. We’re celebrating our third anniversary a little late cause pandemic. Sometimes, I feel like, okay, I’m really getting into the grove of podcasting, but then the pandemic happened, and now I don’t remember anything or feel like I know what I’m doing ever.
Carrie Gillon: Ah, man. Yeah. It’s totally thrown us off our grove, but we’re still trying.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. We’re still releasing episodes. I mean that’s –
Carrie Gillon: Just a little late but that’s okay.
Megan Figueroa: Small miracles. I’m really proud of us doing what we can with what we can when we can with who we can.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. Oh boy.
Megan Figueroa: In the meantime, we’re celebrating our third anniversary a little bit late and the field of linguistics is imploding still. [Laughter] Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Yep.
Megan Figueroa: If someone would’ve said the year 2020 is also when linguistics is going to have a reckoning in the field, you know, I guess I would’ve been like, “Sure, yeah, okay.”
Carrie Gillon: If you had said that to me in March, I might’ve been like, “Yeah, I guess so.” But if you said it to me like a year or two earlier, I might’ve been like, “Why that year?” You know what I mean? Like, “Sure, whatever.”
Megan Figueroa: I mean, do we all just have so much time on our hands that we just – [laughs]
Carrie Gillon: Well, I mean, no, because I think the impetus was the statement that – the LSA statement – about racial justice. Then once that statement was out, it became glaringly clear that that statement was in conflict with certain people speaking for our entire field – in particular, Steven Pinker, our fave. I mean, I guess, obviously, the pandemic is part of the story, but the big story is really more the protests and Floyd’s death.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it absolutely had to happen. This is long overdue. It’s funny. I think it was our one-year anniversary we did a retrospective and we answered questions and you were calling out Steven Pinker then too.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, we were. We’ve basically been doing it since Day 1. I mean, not really because we didn’t talk about him until probably that anniversary. But yeah, we’ve been talking about him for a long time. Now, McWhorter is writing for Quillette, so that’s nice.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, John McWhorter, also someone that I – did we talk about him too in that retrospective?
Carrie Gillon: It’s possible. I think we did.
Megan Figueroa: We wrote a piece that we put on Medium about one of his Atlantic articles. We were just like, “Naw, McWhorter. You’re wrong.”
Carrie Gillon: Which was terrible but not alt right.
Megan Figueroa: No, it was bad linguistics. But now –
Carrie Gillon: It was bad linguistics, and this is just a whole other level to me.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Our public linguists, a few of them who some of us have been saying to not listen to them, are just showing why we shouldn’t be listening to them.
Carrie Gillon: They’ve only gotten worse in the meantime, particularly McWhorter has gotten worse, at least in terms of what he’s willing to do publicly. I mean, I don’t know. This might be just who he’s always been, obviously, but I can’t know that. I can only know what he’s done in public.
Megan Figueroa: I dunno. There’re so many good public-facing linguists to listen to, to interview, to do all that stuff. Pinker and McWhorter are not them. Let’s move on from them.
Carrie Gillon: It’s really time to find new faces. People are starting to engage more with the public. Nicole Holliday in particular, I think, is getting a lot more press, and that’s great because she’s obviously a much better face for our field.
Megan Figueroa: And Kelly Wright. I’ve seen a lot –
Carrie Gillon: And Kelly Wright, too, that’s right! Especially more recently, the last couple weeks, she’s definitely – yeah. That’s great.
Megan Figueroa: Both previously on the podcast. They’re both great. There’re a lot of people that we should be listening too, and I’m glad that it’s finally happening.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, because I’m getting tired of older white people telling me that X is not racist because blah blah blah, and I’m sure it’s even more exhausting for people of color.
Megan Figueroa: I saw something – well, I dunno, I was just thinking about it this morning. Someone was saying that we need to stop saying things like “covert racism” because for people that are experiencing racism, it’s not covert. It’s so true.
Carrie Gillon: I know, but we do need a word for, “Hey, there’s a reason why white people don’t notice it.”
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. “Willful ignorance” – I dunno. Ignorance.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, it’s not always willful. Yeah, it’s a type of ignorance and, sometimes, it’s willful. Sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, it’s just complete cluelessness. I dunno. There’s racism that almost every white person is like, “Oh, that’s obvious.” Then, there’s stuff that’s like harder for certain white people to see. What do we do with that? We wanna tell them, “Hey, no, it is racist,” but in the meantime, there does seem to be a difference in terms of what certain white people notice.
Megan Figueroa: It’s also important to think about intent. It may not be your intent to be racist, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist. It’s just really complicated, I think, because people get – good white people may feel shamed and then become defensive and shut down. We don’t want that. We just need to get to the point where like, “Okay, that wasn’t my intent, but it was racist. I see that. I need to move forward with it.”
Carrie Gillon: Right. Intent only matters so much, right? If you’re doing harm, you’re still doing harm. You should admit that. But it is really hard for, particularly, white people – though not only white people – to see, “Oh, what I intended was not what happened.”
Megan Figueroa: It’s perfect because we’re discussing that very thing today because we asked for people to call in to talk to us about times when they were linguistically discriminated against. I mean, three years of the show, I think it’s obvious that a lot of times people don’t, again, realize that they are discriminating linguistically.
Carrie Gillon: I think when it comes to linguistic discrimination, a lot of it is quote-unquote “covert.” A lot of people really don’t know what they’re doing. We’re trying to make it overt. That’s what we are trying to do. So, if you’re still participating in it, then we know what you’re all about.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Once you know better, and you don’t do better, then fuck you. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Then it’s no longer covert.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: Okay. Here’s our first voicemail from Joel.
[Message from Joel]
Joel: Hi, Vocal Fries Podcast. I love the work you do and please keep safe during Coronavirus. The situation I wanted to talk about is not an isolated incident but a perpetual concern I have related to linguistic discrimination – the job interview. I’m openly gay and it often comes across in my speech. I don’t attempt to modify this. However, for people-facing roles, mainly customer service, I worry the hiring manager would be concerned because there are plenty of people who could sell more items or give more relatable managerial instructions without this extra linguistically transmitted divide. Perhaps this is partly my own paranoia, but workplace discrimination is real, and you have to be aware of it. Thanks!
[End message from Joel]
Carrie Gillon: Thanks! Yes. 100%.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. 100%. 100%. We talked about this before – brought up how there’s so many articles that are like, “You’re gonna do a job interview, so don’t use vocal fry” or all of these things. Or it’s like, “Change the way that you speak so that you’re taken seriously” or whatever. I’ll just say it every time that I’m like, we really need to hear people differently. Why is the burden always on the speaker or the signer? It’s really frustrating and, yeah, the workplace discrimination is a – and you’re not protected in the same way when it comes to speech in the workplace.
Carrie Gillon: We’ve talked about this before, and it’s only this year that being gay is no longer a fireable offense. That’s very new – in the United States. Obviously, different countries have different laws. But in the United States that just changed this year. Then, on top of that, yeah, the fact that language is not really protected in any way. I mean, there’re are certain types of laws, like you have to have interpretation or translation services in certain environments. But that’s about it.
Megan Figueroa: And, I mean, it’s so hard because – it’s funny. I’m doing research for the book and looking at the law stuff and workplace discrimination when it comes to this kind of stuff. It’s so hard to prove. So many people won’t even take it to court because who has the money, the time, to do this kind of stuff. I think, well, I know a lot of employers are banking on that – that people are just not going to pursue it. It’s so frustrating.
I dunno. I think that linguistic discrimination – it’ll be the final frontier when it comes to workplace discrimination, I think. It’s just people are gonna think it’s okay for a lot longer than they think it’s okay to fire someone for being black or for being gay or for whatever.
Carrie Gillon: I think you’re right. This is where the covert versus overt thing comes into it, I think. Because if you’re firing someone because of the color of their skin, that’s so obviously in your face. But if you’re firing someone for the way that they sound, that doesn’t feel as obviously bad. It is as bad, but it feels more indirect I guess is the word.
Megan Figueroa: Because people have this expectation that you could change it if you want to. Exactly like all those articles say, “Don’t use your vocal fry when you’re being interviewed for a job,” that kind of thing.
Carrie Gillon: Or “accent” quote-unquote “reduction.”
Megan Figueroa: Yes, exactly.
Carrie Gillon: You’re absolutely right. In some ways, we have more control over the way that we sound than we do of our skin color for sure, right? But it’s still gross to force only certain people to change the way that they talk. We hardly ever ask a cis white straight man to change anything about the way that they speak. There are some counterexamples, I’m sure, but it’s much rarer.
Well, thank you, Joel. You are absolutely right. I’m with you. It’s rough. I have no advice. I don’t think you asked us for advice anyway, so.
Megan Figueroa; No.
[Message from Andrea]
Andrea: Hey, I’m a non-native French speaker. I have a very native-like accent. But I make several mistakes in terms of pronouns and expressions. A huge part of French and francophone culture is to constantly correct people mid-sentence for the linguistic mistakes that they made, which they do amongst native French speakers. But since I am a non-native speaker, I often end up getting made fun of for my mistakes and, especially, I start feeling and being very demeaned and condescended to.
Specifically, when I make a mistake, someone corrects me, and I kinda just go, “Oh, I don’t really care” or “Why are you correcting me in the middle of a sentence?” People always go, “Oh, but it’s just so cute.” It’s super demeaning and I hate it. So, I guess that would be my example of linguistic discrimination.
[End message from Andrea]
Carrie Gillon: Yikes! Yikes, yikes, yikes.
Megan Figueroa: Ugh. I don’t think this is even just francophile culture at all.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, no. It’s not.
Megan Figueroa: I’m like really relating to this when I try to speak Spanish. I wonder – so this person is a non-native French speaker – I wonder about the cultural background. Because people don’t think that my Spanish attempts are cute because they expect me to speak it.
Carrie Gillon: Right.
Megan Figueroa: You know? So, it’s an interesting dynamic there.
Carrie Gillon: If it was me, let’s say, they might think that my mistakes were cute – maybe, maybe not. I think that’s definitely playing a role for sure – expectations.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Expectations of – whoever you are, the expectations then change. We talk about it all the time. This just reminds me of – I can’t help it – Mayor Pete. There is no expectation for him to have good accent in whatever language, it’s just impressive to people that he speaks it anyway. Although, I don’t think anyone would say it’s cute when he makes a mistake. There’s also this dynamic there too.
Carrie Gillon: The gender thing is probably part of it, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: That feels super gendered to me.
Carrie Gillon: For sure. I’m guessing – well, yeah, I’m gonna guess that age might also play a role, like if you’re a younger woman then it’s cuter than if you’re a middle-aged woman. Maybe when you’re an older woman, it’s cute again.
Megan Figueroa: There’s this gap where it’s not cute anymore. It’s not cute and then it becomes cute again, absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I’m just guessing but. [Laughter] I always had a fear of talking French in front of native French speakers because, yeah, I mean, obviously I was gonna make mistakes. Of course I was gonna make mistakes. My favorite thing was when they would ask if they could switch to English. I was always like, “Oh, no.” [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: That’s funny.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, it was probably a wise decision. Probably they spoke English better than I spoke French, but you know.
Megan Figueroa: That’s really funny.
Carrie Gillon: Ah, language. It’s so emotional.
Megan Figueroa: So fraught.
Carrie Gillon: So, fraught. Oh my god. Thanks, Andrea, for that. That was really great.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you.
[Message from Ártemis]
Ártemis: Hi, Fries. I’m Ártemis Lopez. I’m Spanish and I’m non-binary. I use the gender-neutral morpheme /e/, usually expressed as “elle.” I use it every day, both to speak about myself and other non-binary people and in mixed or generic contexts like you discussed with Dr. Kalinowski in Episode 30.
People frequently interrupt me not to engage in conversation but to mock how I speak. One outrageous example happened in a Twitter thread where I was speaking about past abuse by a partner. One of the words I used was “birthday” or “cumpleaños.” A stranger commented only “cumpleañes” using a common trolling strategy of making inanimate entities gender neutral. Just with one word, she not only ridiculed my speech and my gender, but also the real trauma I was sharing with my followers in the thread.
This happens so often, and it’s so frustrating that I took the plunge and I’m now a PhD candidate in linguistics. I’m writing my thesis on non-binary Spanish specifically. The hope is to document it, normalize it, and help people not be assholes.
[End message from Ártemis]
Carrie Gillon: Oh, I love it!
Megan Figueroa: Oh my god, I got chills. I literally – my hair is standing on its end.
Carrie Gillon: That’s great. What better reason to go into linguistics than to fuck the trolls?
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Exactly. I know exactly what they’re talking about, that whole assholes and the internet. They’ll take something like “la mesa,” which is “the table” in Spanish, and they’ll put an X at the end of “mesa.” It’s like, fuck you. There is just no excuse for it. You’re absolutely being an asshole. We all know what you’re doing. It’s so blatant. It’s disgusting. It’s so disgusting.
Carrie Gillon: Obviously, there’s so much of everything on Twitter, but it feels like recently there’s just been so much anti-trans shit, partially because of J. K. Rowling. I fucking hate that. I am so sorry, Ártemis.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, me too. I just – ugh. Then, the added, just, fuckery of Ártemis was sharing something traumatic and then to – ugh!
Carrie Gillon: It feels like it’s almost always the way, too. If it’s just a regular thread, the trolls don’t care as much, but as soon as you start saying something meaningful, they see blood.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Well, fuck them. You’re amazing. What a great end to that story though.
Carrie Gillon: Yes! Yes, yes.
Megan Figueroa: I just – [sighs].
Carrie Gillon: Way to turn that shit sandwich into a tasty, amazing grilled cheese sandwich? I dunno.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say into a burrito. I’m just really hungry.
Carrie Gillon: I’m very hungry as well.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, it’s almost lunchtime. Well, not really.
Carrie Gillon: Well, I didn’t really eat breakfast because I’m not really a breakfast person, but it’s getting to the point where I’m like, should’ve eaten something.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I know. I’m getting crankier, but it’s good since we’re listening to things about linguistic discrimination. It’s okay that I’m feeling salty.
Carrie Gillon: Exactly. We need to be salty for sure.
Megan Figueroa: I’m just so grateful that they shared that with us. Our listeners are fantastic. People share a lot of things with us that I know are hard. Really appreciate it.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. And fuck those trolls. We also have a long message from Aven and Mark from The Endless Knot podcast. We’re gonna split it into two parts. We’re gonna discuss Aven’s and then we’ll discuss Mark’s.
[Message from Aven]
Aven: Hi, I’m Aven!
Mark: And I’m Mark!
Aven: We’re from The Endless Knot podcast. Congratulations, Carrie and Megan, on your three-year anniversary!
Mark: Woo hoo!
Aven: You’ve asked us to share some examples of linguistic discrimination in our lives. Here it goes. Now, at the top, I have to say, I’m a white woman from an educated background – middle class. My examples that have to do with me are gonna be trivial and minor, but I think they maybe illustrate some of the points that you’ve been making again and again on your excellent podcast over the years.
The first thing I wanna mention is something that happened when I was a teenager. My father used to point out, again and again, that I said “like” and “you know” too much. He specifically said – he didn’t mock me, he wasn’t mean about it, but he did it again and again – he specifically and explicitly said it was because he wanted me to be taken seriously. No one would take me seriously if I used these vocal tricks. He also admitted that they just irritated him.
I understand his intention, but what it was really saying was, “Stop sounding like a young woman. Stop sounding like a girl. No one’s gonna take you seriously if you don’t sound like me – an adult white man.”
The other example I wanna bring up is very similar, really, but in a very different context. When I was writing my PhD dissertation in classics, I wrote it, and I gave it to my supervisor, who was very kind and very considerate and thoughtful, and was from a very standard Oxford background though.
He went through my dissertation and, along with all the other things he corrected that were substantive, he correct every single split infinitive. He tried to say, “Don’t split your infinitives.” You can’t say “to boldly go,” you must say, “to go boldly.” You can’t say “to happily accept,” you have to say, “to accept happily.”
When I challenged him on that – because by that point, I’d been living with Mark long enough to have been inculcated – because growing up, to be honest, I probably would’ve agreed with him. My mother was an editor and my – we were a household who cared a lot about language and grammar. I probably would’ve agreed with him. But I’d lived with Mark long enough and he’d been working on Old English long enough to have Views – with a capital V – about silly grammar rules that were zombie rules.
When I challenged him and said, “Listen, this is ridiculous. This isn’t actually a real English rule,” he said, “I know. You’re right. But I don’t wanna give any reason to somebody reading your dissertation that they can criticize it. You need to make sure that they have to engage with your ideas and can’t critique your presentation of them.”
Again, he meant nothing but the best for me. It was completely kindly meant, but what he was basically saying was, “Listen. You’re a woman in Classics. People are gonna look for things to pick on you. You need to defend yourself – you need to follow these old white rules – because, otherwise, people will tell you you’re stupid and they won’t engage with your ideas.” On that particular one, in my dissertation, I changed them, as he told me to. Then, in the articles I’ve published since, I’ve changed them back. It seemed like that was the reasonable way to go.
Now, again, not trying to say in any way these were major flaws in my life, but they’ve both stuck with me. 30 years since my dad criticized my “you knows” and 15 years – 10 years – since my supervisor told me not to write split infinitives. And I haven’t forgotten them. So, those are my really minor instances of linguistic discrimination where I do think that the group that I was part of was an element in the critique of my language.
[End message from Aven]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, I mean, those aren’t totally minor. I mean, I realize that there are worse things, but it’s still very demeaning to young girls. We do a lot of damage to young girls, white or not white, with these kinds of comments.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. So, her dad admitted that he just didn’t like it. It’s okay not to like things. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: I have opinions about things.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You keep them to yourself.
Carrie Gillon: Yep! Sure do.
Megan Figueroa: It’s just this whole thing where it’s like, you don’t have to like something just – I dunno – be okay with how people speak because that’s how they speak. I dunno. No one has to make excuses for how they speak.
Carrie Gillon: Right. You can find some particular verbal tick annoying or a particular thing that people say commonly annoying, but you should just keep it to yourself because what does it matter that you find it annoying? What good are you doing in the world by telling people that you find something annoying?
Megan Figueroa: Young women aren’t the only ones who use “like.”
Carrie Gillon: Nope. Not at all.
Megan Figueroa: But guess who we notice when they do, it’s always young women. We gotta be mindful of that as well when we think about these kind of things. Again, with the whole job interview articles that are like, “How you should speak if you wanna be taken seriously,” or whatever, a lot of times it’ll mention things like “like” or “um,” and to avoid these things. It’s like – I just said “like” now – how the hell are you supposed to avoid “like”? I mean, think about the episode we did with Alex D’Arcy. It’s everywhere.
Carrie Gillon: It’s everywhere. I had the exact same thing. My parents tried to convince me to not use like as much as I was using it. I tried to stop. I think I successfully cut down on my use of “like,” but that’s not good. That’s lowering my expressive capabilities. And it’s –
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Sorry, that’s a good point. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: That’s okay. Also, I think it really did impact my self-esteem. Like, “Oh, I come across as not smart and silly” or whatever. That’s not –
Megan Figueroa: That doesn’t feel good.
Carrie Gillon: That’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel good. I think that that does damage even the most privileged people. I don’t think it’s an acceptable thing to do. Stop shaming young people, young women in particular, or anybody, really, for using “like.”
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Similarly with the dissertation advisor and not splitting infinitives and the whole, I guess, benevolence of trying to say, “You’re a woman in Classics, and I want them to take you seriously,” it’s again with this whole thing where it’s like – I mean, I get it. But why is the burden always on the person that’s speaking or signing or writing instead of the person who is receiving the message?
Carrie Gillon: I know. It’s really hard to change old, white academics – old white male academics – on this score. I mean, what we need to do is continually hammer this message home that it’s okay. I mean, it is actually okay now in most style manuals. I think the APA, for example, is okay with splitting infinitives. It’s easier to say, “Look! It’s okay according to the powers that be.” But I’m sure there’re still some old white male academics who are like, nope. The way I learned is the right way. You have to learn the exact same way. Nothing can ever change – even though that rule was made up completely whole cloth. It’s not a real thing.
I didn’t really experience it myself, but I experienced it second hand. I was at a friend’s dissertation defense. He’s from India originally. That might play a role in this. He had at least one split infinitive in his dissertation which was on something in engineering. Whatever, who cares – [laughter]. Not that it matters ever, but in what sense is it relevant in the defense to bring up split infinitives? And yet, someone on his committee, in the defense, pointed out that there was a split infinitive.
My head almost exploded. I was so angry. This was before I had finished my PhD. I felt way too junior to speak up. It was clearly the wrong time. Even if you were gonna complain about it, the defense was the wrong time to complain about it.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say, having gone through a defense myself, that’s not where you talk about that. Who does that?
Carrie Gillon: Right. That’s why I think maybe race played a role, potentially.
Megan Figueroa: Ugh.
Carrie Gillon: Just to say – neither of these examples are actually all that small. When you start pulling them apart, you think, “Oh, no, we’re doing real damage.” Even if it was only for white girls, it’s still doing real damage. Not all white girls are all that privileged.
Megan Figueroa: This exact thing is happening to non-white girls.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, it is. Absolutely it is. Then, the second example, yes, that had a gendered component, but it doesn’t always have a gendered component. It’s bigger. It’s a bigger problem. They’re not small.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
[Message from Mark]
Mark: Surprisingly, for a person of color, I have been fortunate enough and privileged enough to have, to my memory, never received any kind of correction or dismissive attitude or any kind of racial comment about my use of language. I haven’t even, to my memory, experienced someone saying to me, “Your English is so good.” It probably comes from the fact that I grew up with a lot of privilege. I really tried to remember any event in my life where someone said something about my use of language.
The only two types of instances where I can think of someone commenting specifically on my use of language had been people who have made note of my Canadian accent. I have had a number of people say, “Oh, you sound so Canadian. That’s so cute,” which, as reactions to one’s speech go, that’s pretty minor and harmless, I suppose. The only other person I can ever – and I hesitate to say this – but the only other person that I can mention that has commented negatively on my use of language is my wife Aven.
I suppose this, following up from her experiences – her formative experiences – with being corrected in language is a reflection of that. But I do specifically remember her, on many occasions, commenting on specific linguistic features in my normal usage like my failing to differentiate between “fewer” or “less.” She used to correct that all the time. It was like a reflex. As soon as I said it, she couldn’t stop herself from saying it. She would correct it and sometimes get a little bit irritated with it that I kept doing it. That was the one that seemed to really grate on her for some reason. I don’t quite know why that one in particular.
So, in terms of my personal experience of being on the receiving end of linguistic discrimination, that’s the only example I can come up with. But I’m certainly witness to others being corrected or commented upon for their supposed linguistic failings as a university instructor, particularly in my interactions with other instructors. I would notice many people griping about, “Oh, my students are so illiterate. They can’t write. They keep making these,” you know, and they would list the various errors that they would see repeatedly again and again in their submitted work.
I have to admit that in my early days as an instructor, around grading season, I would engage with these language peeves and would say, “Oh, yeah. My students do that all the time too.” I would get irritated with my students making me have to correct the same error over and over in everyone’s paper. I too had that reaction to at least to certain errors. I’m sort of a reformed pedant, a reformed prescriptivist, I guess, in a way.
One day, I realized, why am I being bothered by this? I don’t really care. Most of these things that I’m correcting in the papers I actually use anyways in my normal speech. I’m just reacting to it in the written work because I guess I’m looking for something to correct. I think I was almost more bothered by the fact that I had to write the correction every time than I actually was reacting to whatever linguistic construction or feature that the student was using. I actually wasn’t, on a base level, really bothered by it, but I felt I had to correct it because that’s what a good instructor does. I got irritated that I had to do it so many times and it made me write so much. I got angry about it. That’s a really, kinda, stupid reaction.
I re-evaluated that and realized, “Why am I doing that? This is negative. It’s bad for the student. It’s bad for me.” I stopped. Now, I don’t even notice these things anymore. Now that I stopped feeling like I have to notice them, I just read it as communication. Most of the time, it doesn’t even consciously register for me anymore. Maybe there’s hope for language pedants, for prescriptivists, out there. You can change.
Aven: Congrats on three years of reminding us not to be an asshole! Clearly, both of us can keep learning these lessons. Thanks Megan. Thanks Carrie.
Mark: Thanks, guys!
[End message from Mark]
Carrie Gillon: Wow! Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Let me start off by saying that I will fucking die on the hill of “fewer” and “less” don’t matter. I will keep saying “less” until I die. I have to be corrected on it all the time when I’m doing scientific writing for academic journals and stuff. It does not register for me as a thing.
Carrie Gillon: Just let the editors change it. Don’t even worry about it. I’ve told you this before, but I was in my mid-twenties before I finally learned the distinction. It’s not an important distinction because, if it was, we would learn it when we were kids.
Megan Figueroa: Good point.
Carrie Gillon: It was free.
Megan Figueroa: We’d learn it as kids because it’s important to be understood. It’s a really good point. Just like the whole “who” and “whom” thing – just these little things that we don’t automatically learn because they don’t matter for being understood.
Carrie Gillon: Right. I mean, there are some things that are still kinda fiddly that we learn – like gender systems are pretty well learned by kids growing up and speaking whatever language. But there are just some fiddly things that really, really don’t matter. Like, really. “Whom”? I need “whom” to die. I need it to die now.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Especially since it’s one of those things, again, where it’s like – going back to Ártemis saying trolls will pick up on things and stuff – I feel like there’s a lot of pedantic trolls or grammar trolls that will always do the “who” or “whom” to completely ignore the message or the content of something. The “who” and “whom” seems to be one of those big ones. Or like “to,” “too,” and – or yeah, “to,” and “too,” and “two,” or whatever.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. “To,” “too,” “two,” and “there,” “their,” “they’re.”
Megan Figueroa: These little things that trolls point out to just completely undermine your message as if your message doesn’t matter because you made this quote-unquote “mistake.”
Carrie Gillon: I just block those people immediately. I’m like, nope, I’m not interested in this. Ugh. I don’t see it as much anymore, I think, because I blocked so many of them.
Megan Figueroa: Similarly, what Mark was saying about being a professor or instructor or someone who has to grade papers, I see this all the time around grading season on Twitter where people are complaining about like, “My students don’t know how to write,” or “Won’t they stop using the passive voice?” or all these things.
Carrie Gillon: The passive voice thing drives me crazy. Because sometimes the passive is actually the best option. Back when I was a professor, definitely there was a lot of this going on. One of my friends pointed out how toxic it was. I was like, you know what, he’s right that we shouldn’t be shaming students at all for any of their writing, even if it’s really hard to understand and they really do need a lot of help. It’s precisely why we shouldn’t be shaming them.
Megan Figueroa: When I was interviewed for the community college job that I had where I taught, basically, grammar and comp, the person that was interviewing me gave me a piece of paper. It was a paragraph – it was an actual student paragraph – and there was no punctuation until the very end of the paragraph. I think it was supposed to be jarring. And it was, you know, at that point in my life, kind of jarring to see that. But she wanted me to be empathetic or not just be like, “Wow. This is horrible.”
I saw a lot of papers where students would write one sentence for a paragraph and it would be very, very long. I got to the point where it’s like, “Maybe this is actually more normal than we are giving credit for.” We expect people to be excellent writers but what are we teaching them? How are we teaching that to them? What are the expectations? Where’s the shame along the way that makes them not even wanna write and not even wanna ingest these rules that we’re trying to make them learn? At a certain point, what is normal at that level?
Carrie Gillon: Research shows that there’s the right – well, “right” ways to teach how to write and “wrong” ways to teach how to write. Focusing on grammar from Day 1 is wrong. It doesn’t work. Because people tie themselves into knots and get really worried about the way that they’re writing as opposed to the content. Especially at the beginning, when you’re a new writer, you should be focusing on the content and worrying about all that other stuff later. Most people do it backwards.
I mean, thank you, Mark, for sharing that story because I probably wasn’t as upset, but I definitely still had to go through a bit of a, “Oh, yeah, no, this is fine. This is the way people write.” I can help them become better writers or not but definitely correcting their grammar is doing nothing. Well, thank you so much to all of our contributors. I feel like I learned a lot.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, that was a lot of fun. I mean, not to say your trauma is fun, but it’s so lovely to hear from our listeners. That’s the fun part.
Carrie Gillon: And the way that, especially, Ártemis in particular responded was actually great.
Megan Figueroa: So beautiful. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: Well, thank you so much and –
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.