January 16, 2013

Read a book -- you'll be a better speaker

Have you ever heard the expression, "It's a doggy dog world?"

Have you ever heard someone say, "For all intensive purposes?"

How about "Nip it in the butt" or "A mute point" or "Take it for granite?"

There are plenty of egregiously misquoted expressions in writing, but I'm specifically referring to spoken words here, the kinds of things you hear people say out loud and that cause you to cringe at their ignorance.

I'm not being a language snob here. There's a correct way to say all of those phrases, and if you're misquoting them onstage, your audience will cringe as well.

I understand the reason these expressions are misquoted is that the person saying them has never seen them written out. "Dog-eat-dog" world sounds like "Doggy dog world" (although it makes no sense in context) if you've never seen it in writing.

These kooky sayings have been passed on through word of mouth and, more recently, through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other editor-free Wild West frontiers of the Web.

How do you remedy this? How do you ensure that your grammar, pronunciation, and expression of the English language don't end up causing you embarrassment? (Nonnative English speakers: I don't expect this from you. Only from people who have been born and raised in the United States and should know better.)


I don't care what you read. Read cookbooks. Read novels. Read magazines. Read newspapers.

Click photo to expand. Thanks for this pic, rocket ship!
The Internet doesn't count, by the way. The Web is full of poorly edited content that perpetuates the unfortunate repetition of expressions like "Wah-lah!" instead of "Voila!"

Preferably read something in print, published by a legitimate publisher who pays copy editors to make sure the English language is not butchered.

When you read, you will see these words and expressions spelled out instead of guessing at what the words might be when you hear them.

Okay, I am a language snob. I admit it. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong, or that if enough people say "doggy dog world" it's miraculously going to become correct.

Do you want your audience to find you credible, knowledgeable and authoritative? Then you better make sure your spoken grammar, pronunciation and understanding of the English language are up to par.

Are there some misquoted sayings that drive you crazy? Feel free to share in the comments!

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7 comments. Please add yours! :

Marcus said...

As a non-native English speaker I'd be interested in this topic. What do you think the necessary language skill should be for e.g. a larger audience presentation? Is a strange pronunciation (see Schwarzenegger and a lot more European officials), a not so good gramar style, an alien syntax ... acceptable or at which point do the lack of Englisch as a mother tongue damage a presenter?

Laura Manning said...

My top two language snob peeves: "Wild horses couldn't keep me here." and "Each one was better than the next." Thanks, Lisa! :)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Good ones, Laura!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Marcus, I think the biggest problem for a non-native speaker would be a strong accent. Your audience will forgive your grammar and syntax errors, because it's obvious English is not your first language, but if they can't understand what you're saying, then you won't be able to get your message across at all. However, for a lot of people, just slowing down can go a long way toward making yourself understood, even with an accent. And of course, there are good coaches who work with clients on accent reduction, which is also helpful.

Ron Hudson said...

Marcus, I was born in the USA, but spent my teen years in Japan. I can relate to your question. In a context where your native heritage brings a unique perspective on the topic you are presenting you will be given much grace and understanding. However in a context where you're cultural heritage does not give you a unique perspective an accent is OK, but you need to be clear enough for people to understand. If you struggle with speaking clearly and have very poor syntax people will tune you out. You will have to work twice as hard to be heard. The problem is that when I speak broken Japanese I appear uneducated to the Japanese audience. If they perceive me as uneducated then why care about what I have to say? I'd recommend a coach and lots of practice, or just an interpreter. If you use an interpreter then you can show that you are confident in what you are saying, and the interpreter will speak it clearly for you.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing, Ron!

Richard I. Garber said...

How about "right out of the shoot?" See:http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/04/right-out-of-shoot-another-type-of.html

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